Which is greener, paper or plastic? You might be surprised

The shoppers at Toronto’s Blue Banana Market can choose from the wares of more than a dozen merchants, but when they make a purchase, it will be handed over to them in a paper bag.

“When we first started, we made a conscious effort to use 100-per-cent recycled paper bags,” said owner Michael Horwitz, who rents space to merchants in his gift and card shop in Kensington Market. “We wanted to help the environment in that way. We weren’t interested in using grocery store-style plastic bags.”
Yet over the past few years, various studies have indicated that the carbon footprint of the biodegradable paper bag is no smaller than that of its now criticized cousin, the plastic carrier bag. The question has left many retailers in a quandary: Should they offer one or the other, or both?

Research by bodies as diverse as the National Cooperative Grocers Association and the Progressive Bag Alliance have found that plastic bags use less energy and water to make than new paper bags or those with 30-per-cent recycled content. It costs less to transport them because of the enormous difference in weight, and they create less solid waste. Even recycling a plastic bag uses less energy than recycling a paper bag.

Consumers can make a difference by simply buying and using sturdy bags for as long as possible, says Vince Cobb, chief executive officer of reuseit.com, a Chicago company that markets reusable alternatives to disposable items. People can also recycle plastic grocery bags in dozens of ways, including lining their garbage bins with them.

But when it comes to advice for retailers, he admits to being somewhat stymied. “For shopkeepers, it’s a tough call,” he said.

Littering, for example, “is a factor that might give a slight nod to paper,” he said. “It’s in the very nature of plastic bags – they’re so strong and lightweight, they go airborne very easily – to be seen littering our landscape. And they’re used in such massive quantities that we’re seeing billions of these things entering the environment every year. That doesn’t really happen with paper.”

Mr. Horwitz pointed out that his company, which is a member of the Recycling Council of Ontario, uses only bags made wholly from recycled paper, and pays a 30-per-cent premium to do so. “We feel it’s definitely worth paying the extra, because we’re not interested in cutting down trees,” he said.

Other retailers, from Whole Foods Market to the Liquor Control Board of Ontario, are doing the same, offering customers only paper. “It felt like the right decision to offer something that is biodegradable as opposed to something that isn’t,” said Kate Cobb, spokeswoman for Whole Foods, which is based in Austin, Tex. “I always think: What’s going to still be around in a thousand years? And paper may not, but definitely plastic bags will be flying around.”

Municipalities around the world are banning plastic bags, while the city of Toronto passed a bylaw in 2009 stipulating a charge of five cents a plastic bag to help reduce their use.

That has resulted in as much as a 75-per-cent drop in the use of plastic in most major grocery chains, according to figures from the city’s Solid Waste Management Services. An audit of single-family homes also found a 68-per-cent reduction in plastic shopping bags in household garbage going to landfill.

What’s more, many companies are donating the proceeds from the five-cent fee to environmental or other non-profit organizations.

On the other hand, new paper bags raise the spectre of deforestation, effluents from pulp and paper mills and the reliance on fossil fuels to make them, leaving their use much less green than many consumers may think.

And, as Mr. Cobb pointed out, take plastic grocery bags away from people who use them for garbage and they will simply have to buy them.

Meanwhile, Roots Canada has found a way around the dilemma by providing customers with biodegradable or compostable bags. “You want to try to do business in a way that minimizes – we can’t totally eliminate it – our environmental footprint,” says director of communications Robert Sarner. Even the printing on their shopping bags is water-based and lead free.

Rather than throwing up their hands in despair, consumers have options. In Toronto, plastic grocery bags that are not reused can often be recycled as easily as paper ones. Compostable bags can be used for trash going to landfill, since the plastic bags around organic garbage are removed and sent to landfill anyway.

For Bert Archer, a Toronto-based writer who contributed to the book GreenTOpia, the best solution for consumers is no special bags at all. “Just use what you already have,” he said.

Retailers, meanwhile, can share information with their customers.

“I’d say, give out information cards at checkout, saying. ‘This is what the plastic bag does, this is what the paper bag does, this is what the canvas bag does,’” Mr. Archer suggested. “And offer them all, because that’s what stores do. If you want to succeed, you have to give people what they want. But what you can do is inform them.”

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