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What is the Real Cost of Paper vs. Plastic?

Depending on how you define “cost”, the answer varies.

The History of Paper vs. Plastic

Since 1977, shoppers have carried their groceries home in plastic bags. Paper has started to make a comeback, but today an overwhelming majority of grocery bags are plastic. In addition, this industry group of plastic bag manufacturers estimates that between 100 billion and 1 trillion plastic bags are used each year worldwide.

Proponents of paper bags claim that paper is superior to plastic in terms of the environment. In addition, they claim that it is more environmentally responsible to manufacture paper since the paper used in making the bags comes from a renewable resource.

On the surface, paper seems like an environmentally sound choice, but according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), producing paper bags leads to a significantly higher rate of air and water pollution and the manufacturing and recycling of paper bags requires much more energy than producing plastic bags. Around seven billion paper bags are used in the U.S. each year.

In addition, when paper is thrown into a landfill, more space is taken up. These bags are not quick to degrade and take up much more space in a landfill than their plastic counterparts. However, plastic bags are made of polyethylene, a non-biodegradable substance made from natural gas and crude oil. The nonrenewable resources are recyclable, but sadly most are discarded and end up in a landfill where it takes over 1000 years to decompose. 21 percent of paper bags are recycled compared to only 5.2 percent of plastic bags.

So, if the plastic bags are so environmentally unfriendly, then why are there so many of them still being used? Money.

The Monetary Cost of Paper vs. Plastic

According to the plastics industry, every plastic grocery bag cost about one penny to produce. A paper bag costs 4 or 5 cents per bag to produce. There are plastic bags that are compostable, but the cost rises to between 8 to 10 cents. Spending one penny per bag or one dime per bag is the answer as to why so many stores still use traditional plastic bags.

Some states, such as California and Rhode Island, are trying to help solve the problem by working with supermarkets and grocery stores to collect and recycle plastic bags. Some countries, such as Ireland and Britain, have put a hefty tax on plastic bags and almost eliminated the use of them down to only 5 to 10 percent. Even some stores, such as IKEA, are now charging customers 5 cents per plastic bag, while other stores, such as Target, give customers a discount when they bring in their own reusable cloth bags.

Reusable Bags

There is an answer to the question that solves the consumption, environmental, and cost problem—reusable bags. If consumers bring their own shopping bags, the problems with paper versus plastic can be eliminated.

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