Plastic bags, having less mass than paper, produce less solid waste. At current recycling rates two plastic bags produces 14 g of solid waste while one paper creates 50 g. Two plastic bags produce 72% less solid waste than their paper bag equivalent. As the recycling rate increases, postconsumer waste decreases accordingly, so if 25% more bags are recycled, the solid waste decreases by 25%. Every recycled bag avoids contributing to postconsumer solid waste. However when recycling rates increase, pre-consumer solid waste increases for plastic though it decreases for paper. Still because paper creates substantially greater quantities of solid waste, two plastic bags never surpass a third of the solid waste from one paper bag.
For atmospheric waste, again plastic produce substantially less pollutants. In comparing the bags, two plastic bags produce 1.1 kg while one paper bag produces 2.6 kg. As the recycling rate improves, paper bags produce half as much atmospheric waste, but never better than two plastics. At best a paper bag still produces 35% more atmospheric waste. Again, despite the recycling rate, two plastic bags always create less airborne pollution.iii
Waterborne pollutants are high for a paper bag. Waterborne waste consists of pollutants which harm ecosystems.ivTwo plastic bags account for only seven percent of the waterborne waste of one paper sack. Where paper produces 1.5 g, plastic produces 0.1g. Furthermore, as recycling increases, a paper bag's waterborne waste increases. The additional waste is from reprocessing paper product. Because of this, in terms of waterborne waste, plastic will always be preferred regardless of the recycling rate.
Through a lifecycle energy analysis, plastic is the better bag. At current recycling rates two plastic bags use less energy and produce less solid, atmospheric, and waterborne waste than a single paper bag. Moreover future improvements only increase preference in plastic bags. Increasing recycling rates and reducing the 2-to-1 ratio through proper bagging techniques would further the energy preference for plastic bags.
i This review leaves out many details of the summarized work. Opinions expressed by ILEA may not be the same as those of the original author(s). Consult the authors' original work for a full treatment of their analysis and perspective. Franklin and Associates Inc., Resource and Environmental Profile Analysis of Polyethylene and Unbleached Paper Grocery Sacks, 1990.
ii Recycling rates are from U.S. EPA, Municipal Solid Waste in The United States: 2000 Facts and Figures. June 2002
iii In the Franklin analysis, atmospheric waste primarily consists particulates, hydrocarbons, sulfur oxides, nitrogen oxides and carbon monoxide
iv In the Franklin analysis, waterborne waste primarily consists of suspended solids, dissolved solids, biological oxygen demand, and acids
Last Modified on October 28, 2004.