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  • AntoineR

Are Plastic Bags Really Worse Than Paper Bags?

In a recent LinkedIn poll, 90% of (the 39) participants answered that paper bags were more sustainable than plastic bags when asked "What's more sustainable? A plastic bag or a paper bag?". However, as we will see, the answer isn't as obvious as it seems. In fact, it usually depends.

A plastic bag waste in the ocean

Instinctively, many of us want to look at the material to know if something is sustainable (and many brands play on this...!). Yet, simply calling one material "sustainable" overlooks key considerations. 

⚡ 1. The manufacturing impact

To produce paper, you need trees, water, trucks (+ other machines powered by oil) to cut, transport and transform raw materials into paper. The same applies to plastics (made out of oil that needs to be transformed and transported). TL;DR: “Nothing is lost, nothing is created, everything is transformed" (👋 Lavoisier). Transporting & transforming takes energy.

🔁 2. The usage lifespan & the consumption pace

The context in which the object is used is key to consider. Use a paper bag to carry heavy groceries on a rainy day, and you can be sure to throw it away after one use, which means: waste gets created for each use if you don't use the item in the right context.

That's not good.

The point is, sustainability reflects environmental production costs balanced against usefulness and usage. A cotton tote bag has a large climate footprint to produce but can either have a tiny impact per use if you reuse it for years or it can have a massive footprint per use if, well, you treat it as a single-use bag...!

Each product has a "planetary resource profile" to manufacture (water needed to produce, carbon emitted during the production, etc.).

❗But the profile per use depends on your usage and disposal habits❗


👍 If you buy one plastic bag that you use every day for 5 years to carry your groceries back home, this is better than throwing 365 single-use paper bags in the bin each year.

👎 If you buy one plastic bag that you use only once and throw away, the planetary resource profile per use will be very large and will be worse than that of a paper bag.

So, is a paper or plastic bag more sustainable? It depends!

To decide, consider:

☝️ If it's built for purpose and durability

✌️ Your likelihood of reusing vs. disposing. Make sure to use the item in the right context to expand its lifecycle, e.g., don't use a paper bag to carry heavy items outdoors on a rainy day... Paper doesn't like water. (and don't use a bottle supposed to be reused, as a single-use bottle - as shown by the Stanley Cup craze on Tiktok 😅)

Conclusion: The way and the pace at which we consume an item plays a key role when we determine if it's sustainable.


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