The Pros and Cons of Paper Bags, Plastic Bags, and Reusable Bags

The Pros and Cons of Paper Bags, Plastic Bags, and Reusable Bags Nov 26, 2019

The Pros and Cons of Paper Bags, Plastic Bags, and Reusable Bags

As a follow-up to our previous work, we are going to delve deeper into the subject of bags. All places of business need to choose the right type of bag to suit their operation, and this is only possible with detailed consideration.

There are many opinions and options, but most commercial/shopping bags come in one of three categories: Paper, plastic, or reusable. We trust that there is no need to explain what paper bags and plastic bags are, but you could be confused about the last one. A reusable bag is usually made of cloth and is meant to be used repeatedly. The idea is to generate less trash.

So, let’s take a look at the pros and cons of each bag type. We will not be choosing one type of bag as “the best” because it all depends on your needs. Using the information provided here, you should be able to see which type is the right one for your business.

Paper Bags

Paper Bags

Paper bags have been around since the 1800s, although they are not as common as they once were. Plastic bags have replaced them as the dominant form of commercial/shopping bag, but they are still very common. They come in many variations, with some of them being reinforced with extra material or equipped with handles.

The Pros:

One great thing about paper bags is the fact that they are easy to store. When they are not in use, they are folded flat and can be stacked easily. This means that you can fit quite a few of them into a single box. Fewer boxes mean less storage space that is required.

Paper bags are also a little more environmentally friendly in some ways. They are completely biodegradable, which is a fancy way of saying that they will break down naturally and return to the earth. The best part is that the process doesn’t even take that long. In 2-6 weeks, the waste paper will decompose completely. At the same time, paper bags are an indirect cause of deforestation, as they can only be made from wood.

Paper bags tend to be a lot stronger than you might think. In most cases, they are just as strong as plastic (if not stronger). They hold up well as long as they are handled correctly, and they are usually meant for short-term use anyway. That being said, it is definitely possible to re-use your paper bags if you don’t tear them or get them wet.

Business owners might attempt to recover paper bags by using some kind of rewards program. For example, you might give them a punch card. Every time they bring you a certain amount of reusable paper bags, you punch their card. After so many punches, they get some kind of a discount, free item, etc. Of course, that’s just one example. There are many ways in which you could act on this concept.

The Cons:

Paper bags tend to be slightly more expensive than plastic bags, but the difference is not a large one. In fact, when you are talking about small paper bags, they can sometimes be cheaper than plastic. We have already mentioned the one environmental downside of this bag type (deforestation), and we might also mention the bleach and other chemicals that are involved in the process of turning trees into paper. Unfortunately, many companies do not ethically dispose of these wastes, and they end up in the environment.

According to the study cited in the link above, paper manufacturers in India will often dump their raw wastewater right into the rivers. This paper does confirm that there is at least one method of ethically disposing of this waste. There is a way to use anaerobic fermentation to make the waste material biodegrade much faster than it naturally would.

Paper bags are also not all that durable when compared to the others. They can easily be torn if they are handled too roughly. The larger problem comes from the fact that they are not waterproof at all. They fall apart when they get wet, although some paper bags have a slick water-resistant coating that allows them to last longer. Even with these bags, however, water will break them down before long.

The one exception to this rule would be wax paper, which is not affected that much by moisture. Unfortunately, wax paper is not particularly cheap. Small amounts of it are not expensive, but bulk amounts can be a problem. Wax paper is only slightly more expensive than normal paper, but that small difference can add up quickly when you are buying hundreds or thousands of bags at a time.

In some states, you don’t have a choice in the matter. Washington, for instance, has a law that says retailers must charge an extra fee for the use of paper or plastic bags. The idea is to push people into using cloth bags and other reusable bags.

Plastic Bags

Plastic bags are by far the most common option, mostly because they are the cheapest way to go. The average person goes through so many plastic bags in a single lifetime that it’s insane even to try and calculate the number. Think about how many plastic bags you throw away in a single year, just as a way to get an idea about the matter. Plastic has both advantages and problems, both of which tend to be extreme. Plastic bags offer huge advantages in some areas while presenting serious problems in some other areas.

The Pros:

Like paper bags, plastic bags are pretty easy to store. They can be packed in any shape because of their flexible nature, and you can definitely cram a lot of plastic bags into a single large box. In the storage department, plastic bags also offer a huge advantage in longevity. Because they are not vulnerable to moisture, they tend to last longer than paper bags.

This durability and longevity come from the fact that plastic sheds water rather than absorbing moisture. Thus, these bags are ideal for those who might have to walk in the rain. Even if you’re only walking a short distance to your car, heavy rain can be enough to make paper bags fall apart.

Believe it or not, plastic bags have been found to be slightly more environmentally friendly than paper bags. Here is one comprehensive study that proved the fact. However, there is one thing that should be noted right away: The difference was only a small one. In fact, the researchers concluded that plastic bags are “little better” than paper bags in terms of their environmental impacts.

So, why did they find that plastic bags were a little better for the environment? Well, most of it comes down to the devastating effects of deforestation. If we all went back to using paper bags as the primary type, the additional strain on our planet’s wood resources would be pretty big.

The Cons:

In terms of durability, we have a mixed bag here(pun intended). These bags are all pretty resistant to water, but their resistance to ripping is mixed. In the end, it all depends on the thickness and quality of the plastic. I think we have all experienced problems with thin plastic grocery bags that are used at many major chains. Once they get a tiny tear in them (which happens pretty easily), you might as well throw them away.

Plastic bags can also present a risk of suffocation to small children and pets. Have you ever noticed that most plastic grocery bags have a small hole in the bottom? The suffocation issue is the reason for this modification. Unfortunately, it doesn’t completely address the issue. To be fair, the addition of that little hole has been proven to help the problem significantly. But if you’re like us, you might be curious: How often does this actually happen? Let’s see if we can find some numbers for that.

This research paper is a good place to start. From the numbers presented here, we can see that they found 2178 cases of infant suffocation in the United States between 1980 and 1997. However, not all of these cases involved plastic bags. According to the introduction, the two most frequent causes of infant suffocation were:

  • Being wedged between a mattres and a wall
  • Suffocating due to a plastic bag

It’s worth taking a second look at the study we presented earlier, which found that plastic bag suffocation accounted for 20% of all non-transport-related child fatalities. This simply means that if you exclude car accidents and other transport-related deaths, this one cause of death accounts for 20% of all the others. Although we were not able to find a specific number of cases per year for this phenomenon, this evidence is enough to show the severity of the problem.

In terms of environmental impact, we also see mixed results. We have already seen that the overall environmental impact for plastic bags is a little lower than that of paper bags. However, we are talking about a pretty small difference here. One problem is the fact that plastic bags are made from petroleum, a nonrenewable resource. Paper is a renewable resource, which means that it can last forever…but only if you produce as many trees as you use.

Petroleum normally exists deep within the earth, and it can cause serious problems for animals, plants, and other life forms when it gets loose on the surface. For examples of this, take a look at the results of any major oil spill. For instance, a lot of people don’t know that a major oil spill occurred during hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Reusable Bags

Reusable bags are normally made of cloth, and their name tells the story. They are meant to be used over and over again. They are slightly less convenient than disposable bags, but they do offer a way for people to help reduce their environmental impact. Although this may not be the most popular thing, it would probably be best for people to switch to the use of reusable bags, simply because it makes no sense to waste resources on disposable items.

The Pros:

Reusable bags do offer several practical advantages to go along with their environmental benefits. For one thing, they tend to be a lot more durable than paper or plastic bags. Thus, there is less chance of your bag breaking. Sometimes, paper and plastic bags can be destroyed by the smallest things, leaving you holding a ripped bag and wondering how you are going to carry all those items that just clattered to the ground.

If you’re going to use a reusable bag, there is no reason that you shouldn’t get a strong one. While thin canvas cloth is the most popular material for a bag like this, you don’t have to limit yourself. If you are going to use this bag very regularly, it might be worth it to invest in something a little more water-resistant.

The Cons:

The reusable bag does offer a slight disadvantage in terms of convenience. You have to take the trouble of bringing it with you and carrying it around. Not everyone wants to carry a bag everywhere they go. You could use a backpack if you plan to do a lot of walking, but that wouldn’t be necessary for most people. Also, many stores will immediately be suspicious of those who walk in with backpacks. This suspicion is based on good reason, as shoplifters will often use backpacks to make their thievery easier.

Conclusion

Overall, we cannot tell you which of these is the best choice for your business. If you are interested in reducing your environmental impact, then we would recommend that you encourage your customers to use reusable bags. Of course, you will need to keep a sharper eye out for thieves! If you want to go with the cheapest and easiest option, plastic bags are your best choice. Paper bags are the middle-ground option. We hope that this article has answered your questions and taught you everything you wanted to know. If so, feel free to fill out the contact form below for more of the same.

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