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Plastic vs Paper Bags: Production and Environment Essay

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Updated: Aug 12th, 2020


The problem of choice between plastic and paper bags is old indeed. At shops, people are usually asked “Paper or Plastic?”; at special institutions, researchers spend much time and effort to prove that one type of bag is more environmentally friendly than the other. This necessity of choice is evident indeed; still, there is no certain answer to this dilemma. In fact, both, plastic and paper, bags have a considerable impact on the environment.

The ecologists all over the world share their views on how to save nature, overcome the threats of global warming and ablation, and protect the environment against human activities in general. And governments, in their turn, take numerous legal steps to support the solution of the environmental problem caused by human activities. However, these two sectors do not pay much attention to the fact that even such small things like paper or plastic bags can influence the environment.

Though such countries like Italy, Ireland, China, or South Africa have already approved the legislative acts prohibiting or limiting the use of plastic bags, their activities are not enough for people to realize what type of bags, plastic or paper, are more dangerous for them as well as for the environment they have to live within.

There is a tendency to exaggerate the effects produced by plastic bags on the environment in comparison with paper bags. Among such factors like slow decomposition, energy-consuming production, pollution of the environment, marine life in particular, and not biodegradable nature of plastic bags prove the harmful nature of the product; but the same factors and harmful effects may be applied to paper bags.

The evaluation of all these factors, processes, and even the economic issue should be made to define less harmful material for people to rely on. Though the production of plastic bags is frequently banned nowadays because of considerable harm to the animal world and marine life, the effects of this product on people and the environment seem to be less harmful than those of paper bags; therefore, it is necessary to develop some new approaches to plastic bags’ production and utilization and provide people with clear instructions on how to benefit from plastic bags and make them less harmful to nature.

Background Information

The historical overview of the use of plastic bags shows that people have been utilizing plastic or paper products for a long period regularly. Nowadays, it is hard to imagine everyday life and shopping without plastic or paper bags. People just cannot stop using them or find a better alternative. Though paper bags are currently implemented as a less harmful alternative of plastic bags because paper bags are made from biodegrading and renewable sources, their price and even actual quality are not that appropriate for ordinary people.

Over the last years, a limitation of plastic bags’ usage turns out to be a focus of the ecologists’ efforts in the field of environmental protection. There is a widely spread opinion that plastic bags may be one of the main sources of environmental contamination. During the production process, a huge amount of repugnant substances is evolved. Moreover, plastic bags’ decomposition is very slow, and the utilization process causes certain irreparable environmental damage.

Even though plastic bags may be harmful to human lives and that the governments around the whole globe have already taken some plastic bag bans, people continue using them. “Americans throw away about 100 billion plastic shopping bags each year… only about 13 percent are recycled” (EcoWatch para.6). People have to think where the rest of the bags are and understand that this part of plastic continues making harm to nature.

This is why the attention to such simple facts could prove that the problem does exist, and it is not enough and even impossible just to prohibit the use of plastic bags. People have to realize that certain economic changes can be observed as soon as the problem may be solved. Anyway, the analysis of all plastic bags’ aspects and their possible alternatives (paper bags in particular) should be organized to comprehend the way of how the history of plastic bags and its current environmental impact are connected. Many ecologists state that the ecological impact of plastic bags is much lower than this figure of paper bags on a closer view (Equinox Center 8). This is why the dilemma between plastic and paper bags still exists, and a definite choice is so hard to be made.

Main Claims and Evidence to Each Claim

Because people spend much time and effort on the promotion of plastic production industry, the creation of various types of bags, and elaboration of the most successful approaches of plastic bags’ distribution, it seems that plastic bags are in higher demand than the bags made of paper. Most plastic bags are made from “ethylene, a gas that is produced as a by-product of oil, gas, and coal production” (Gogte 363). In daily use, it is possible to distinguish two major types of bags made of plastic.

These are the over subtle bags that are mainly used in the food industry and supermarkets, and heavier plastic bags that may be found in retails shops. These two types of bags may also vary. It is possible to differentiate between high-density polyethylene (HDPE) that is inflexible and inextensible, and low-density polyethylene that is transparent and sleek (Karli and Grant 3). The typical example of a plastic bag made from high-density polyethylene is a t-shirt bag. Plastic bags made from low-density polyethylene are mainly used as shopping bags. From their ecological impact, the bags made from low-density polyethylene cannot be recycled, unlike those made from HDPE.

The chemical composition of paper bags is usually organic: lignin is taken from woods, cellulose is the main plant constituent, and fiber dimensions as another important plant material (Ververis, Geoghiou, Christodoulakis, Santas, and Santas 246). In other words, to create a paper bag, it is necessary to use natural resources such as trees. The production of these bags leads to a decrease in woods in a region. It does not seem that paper bags create more environmentally friendly relations.

Also, due to such composition of bags, it is stated that the creation of 1000 paper bags requires 1004 water gallons, and the creation of 1500 plastic bags needs only 58 water gallons (“The Plastic Bag – VS – Paper Bag Facts” par.2). This comparison has to make people think whether it is justified to use paper as a more powerful means to protect the nature of this kind of material is produced at the expense of several natural resources.

In my opinion, people, who think that they save the environment in case they use the products made from natural resources, are mistaken. It is so wrong to believe that all-natural resources should be used without any payment. People think that paper bags do not pollute the environment. However, not many of them really know how many naturals losses are necessary to create one paper bag in comparison to the creation of a plastic bag.

Comparing the worth of plastic and paper bags, much attention is also paid to the evaluation of their production processes and the expenses (energy and material) associated with this process to prove that this factor supports plastic bags. It has been also calculated that “it takes 1/8 of the material to make a plastic bag as it does to make a paper bag” (Gogte 370). The production of plastic bags “consumes 40 percent less energy, generates 80 percent less solid waste and produce 70 percent fewer atmospheric emissions” (Gogte 371). Finally, “paper bags generate 70% more air and 50 times more water pollutants than plastic bags” (“Paper or Plastic?” par.4).

In addition to the above-mentioned statistics, it is necessary to admit that more than one trillion plastic bags are used annually all over the world (Green and DeMeo 32). More than half of these bags are made from low-density polyethylene. Having been implemented not so long ago, plastic bags have become ingrained in our everyday life. Due to its flexibility to different demands, plastic may be met practically in every sphere of human activity. More than 80% of all bags are made from this material. Plastic bags are firm, impermeable to water, and light.

The process of the production of plastic bags is not complicated. A special machine heats plastic grains to the needed temperature and impastes them (turn separate plastic grains into an indiscrete mass). This indiscrete mass of plastic moves through a long and thin tube and is cut at regular intervals. This process is rather fast and cheap. Plastic bags are produced from irreplaceable natural recourses such as oil and gas (Edwards and Fry 27).

In such a way, their production leads to the depletion of natural resources and damages the environment due to the processes of these resources extraction. The production of paper bags is rather complex and expensive. First, logs have to be delivered from a forest to a wood-processing factory. Three years are usually necessary for the logs to be dried before they can be used in paper manufacturing. Then the logs are cut into pieces and exposed to a high temperature. This process leads to greenhouse gas emissions. However, the production of both types of bags is very harmful to the atmosphere. “Plastic bags generate 39% less greenhouse gas emissions than uncomposted paper bags and 68% less greenhouse gas emissions than composted paper bags” (“The Plastic Bag – VS – Paper Bag Facts” par.1).

All the processes of the paper manufacturing and the use of toxic chemicals in the production lead to acid rains and water pollution (Bell and Cave 2). After that, the logs are digested with carbonate of lime and sulfurous acid to obtain a paper grade pulp (Dunn par.4). The paper grade pulp has to be washed. This process requires a huge amount of water and bleaching agents. On the final stage, the paper is cut, packaged, and printed. In general, paper production seems to cause much more damages to the environment than the outcomes of plastic bag production.

My point of view is clear indeed: though both production processes are complicated, the expenses and time inherent to paper bag creation are high. This is why it seems to be more reasonable to take the side of plastic bag in this kind of discussion due to the possibility to feel fewer challenges while production and get more time for some other types of activities.

Another important factor that has to be mentioned while comparing plastic and paper bags is the combination of such processes like recycling, decomposition, and reusability: even though the processes connected with plastic are usually longer, in a general evaluation, they turn out to be less harmful to the environment. All these processes are rather complex in both cases. Even though the process of the production of plastic is comparatively cheap, the widespread use of this material comes at a high cost from their utilization. Many waste reduction facilities unwillingly accept plastic bags for recycling because it is not very valuable in the quality of a definable raw material.

The paper recycling process results in many harmful chemicals that are used to dissolve the fibers and obtain paper grade pulp. Even though there are more opportunities for recycling of paper in comparison with plastic, practically every new paper bag is made of virgin raw materials to obtain better strength and resilience. The plastic bags’ recycling process is expensive indeed. The reduction of the generation of solid effluences is necessary.

On the initial stage, a bag should be separated by the material it is made from. Each type of plastic requires special technology of its recycling. Regardless of its type, any plastic bag should be re-melted. In such a way, the majority of plastic bags, even those that are made from high-density polyethylene, are hardly recycled to their full extent. As a rule, they just shipped to the third world countries where the existing environmental laws are not so strict. In the best case, these plastic bags are burned, but in the majority of cases, they are thrown directly to landfill sites.

Contrary to the common belief that the process of decomposition of paper is very fast, several studies claim the opposite. Due to a lack of such important elements like water, light, and oxygen in landfill sites, the process of the dissolving of any material is rather slow (Bell, Kirsty, and Cave 41). A paper bag demands more space in waste landfill as it is larger in volume in comparison with a plastic bag.

At the same time, the period of decomposition of plastic is very long. According to different data, it may take from 400 to 1000 years for complete decomposition of the plastic. As a possible solution to this problem, there have recently been introduced plastic bags, which are made from degradable polyethylene. These plastic bags degrade in a course of time or under specific circumstances. It is possible to distinguish between bio-degradable plastic, which is low in oil-based material and photodegradable plastic, which degrades under the influence of sunlight (Bell, and Cave 2). Finally, the reusability of plastic bags is higher as compared with one of the paper bags.

Plastic bags are thin but strong. They are compact and convenient. In such countries as Denmark or Italy, after the introduction of the tax aiming to reduce the amount of plastic bags, customers begin to reuse them. The durability of plastic permits its usage in different spheres of human activity. The same cannot be said about paper bags. Apart from their expensiveness, paper bags are designed for a single-use.

Taking into consideration the whole situation connected with recycling, decomposition, and reusability, plastic bag processes seem to be more environmentally friendly. In fact, to recycle paper bags, more natural resources and human efforts are necessary. Though plastic bag decomposition is low, its reusability makes this product more helpful and useful for people.

Apart from its obvious ecological dangers, plastic bags have many benefits from the economic point of view in comparison to the expenses associated with paper bags. Plastic is cheap in production and very convenient in use. The production of paper bags demands additional costs connected with the transportation of logs and final products. “It would take approximately seven lorries to transport the same number of paper bags as can be transported by a single lorry full of plastic bags” (Bell, Kirsty, and Cave 2). Despite its dangers for ecology, many economists state that it will be practically impossible to replace plastic bags with any other alternative variant.

The evaluation of the economic factors helps to comprehend better the true worth of plastic bags, their impact on people, and the financial aspect of the problem. Plastic bag bans may touch upon several groups of people: retailers, consumers, manufacturers, and city representatives. Taking into consideration the fact that many merchants offer plastic bags for free along with a purchase, it is possible to think that a plastic bag ban could help to save money. However, it is also necessary to remember that plastic bags have to be replaced with something. Usually, plastic bags are changed for paper bags, as they are compact and not heavy. Still, paper bags are more expensive. This is why a retailer has to spend not 1 cent per bag as it was with a plastic bag but about 25 cents. Anyway, “these costs should be mitigated over time as consumers transition to reusable bags” (Equinox Center 4).

The second group of people is consumers. In case a plastic bag ban comes to force around the globe, customers start using some reusable bags and overcome high fees of paper bags. At the same time, the quality of reusable bags may be decreased with time. This is why it is a questionable issue whether it is safe to reuse containers and bags all the time. In their turn, plastic manufactures may undergo considerable losses due to the necessity to change the nature of the industry. People may lose their jobs, innovations have to be implemented, and new directions need to be offered. On the one hand, it seems to be a too expensive and long process.

On the other hand, it is over one day, and the previous conditions just with some new products would take place. Some cities may save about $160,000 per year (spent on cleaning up plastic garbage), but they have to think about the costs associated with new means of cleaning (Equinox Center 3). Considering all these needs, expenses, and possibilities, the costs spent on plastic bag production and distribution seem to be lower than those of paper bags.

I think that people, who think about the quality and possibilities of the bags they buy and use, should choose plastic bags. Plastic bags are cheaper, and paper bags are not for long. The economic aspect of the dilemma adds one more point to the plastic bag’s side.

Opposite Side of Comparison

Nevertheless, this convenience and cheapness of a plastic bag to which people have become accustomed come at a high cost to nature because many people still consider plastic bags as the reasons of many ecological problems. According to statistic data, the amount of plastic bags increases from year to year (Green & DeMeo 31). The majority of plastic bags are not recycled but thrown directly to landfill sites.

They are strewed in forests, on beaches, along roads, and, practically, everywhere. Because of their lightweight, they easily go aloft, stick in branches of trees, hang on fences, and float in water plugging up discharge channels. The main argument, which is always used against plastic bags and contradicts my claim that plastic bags, not paper bags should be chosen by people for everyday use, is a long half-life period or polyethylene. The fact that this material is practically indecomposable means that those plastic bags that are thrown today will exist for more than one hundred years. Numerous plastic bags may be found in water causing damage to marine flora and fauna.

Many sea animals and birds mistakenly engulf plastic, tangle, and suffocate in swimming bags. For instance, ecologists state that there are many cases when turtles mistakenly put floating plastic garbage for nettle fishes and swallow them. It has been calculated that more than one million oceanic mammals die every year because of the plastic rubbish (Gogte 365). In some places of the Pacific Ocean, plastic garbage is more numerous than plankton (New & Research Communication para.1).

Terrestrial animals also suffer from plastic bags. Plastic bags are the main products of human activity, which may be observed in the ocean. Many wild animals swallow plastic bags confusing them with possible food and die of asphyxia as this material cannot be digested. Due to this property of plastic bags, they are viewed as mass killers of wildlife. After the death of an animal that has mistakenly swallowed a plastic bag the processes of dissolution of this animal are rather fast.

On the contrary, a plastic bag remains practically intact. In such a way, another animal may swallow it and this process may be infinite. “Plastic bags kill about 100,000 whales, seals, turtles, and other marine animals each year worldwide» (Gogte 366). Due to high decomposition levels of paper bags, there are not many cases of animal death after they swallow paper. This is why many people believe that paper bags are better.

However, they should think about the fact that huge amounts of paper may be also dangerous for animals, fishes, and birds. Its danger lies in its invisibility. People do not pay attention to the condition of water or food in case a piece of paper is dissolved there. Then, animals or any other being may have problems with their stomachs and can die because of unclear reasons. Despite all the disadvantages of plastic bags, the use of paper bags, which seems to be the best alternative variant, is also very harmful to the environment. According to the opinions of the majority of researchers, the right choice between paper and plastic bags is plastic (Bell and Cave 7).

The effects of the environmental pollution caused by plastic are obvious and visual. At the same time, the detailed investigation of the processes of the production and utilization of paper bags on the marine life suggests that plastic is less harmful to the environment (Chaffee, Chet and Yaros 55) due to its possible “invisible” effects. To realize the harm made by plastic and paper, it is not enough to consider the evident facts. It is possible to analyze deeper and realize that paper contains many dangers to the world and the marine animals in particular.

Finally, some people may think that plastic bags are more dangerous than paper bags because the governments of many countries try to reduce the amount of plastic bags by prohibiting plastic production and contribution or imposing a special tax to limit their usage. In Bangladesh, the use of plastic bags has been inhibited since 2002. It was discovered that plastic bags had been the main reason for the waterflood, which had taken place in 1998 when two-thirds of the country had been covered with water (Gogte 366).

This water-flood was caused by plastic bags, which plugged up a drain system. In 2001, the authorities of Bombay also have omitted the usage of plastic bags. As a result, all shops in the country have crossed over to paper bags. Due to these measures, the quantity of waste in the city has reduced to a great extent. In Ireland, there has been imposed the tax aiming to reduce the use of plastic bags. As a matter, every plastic bag has increased the cost of a good on 15 cents.

The implementation of the tax on the use of plastic bags in Ireland has greatly reduced their usage. All the money obtained from the implementation of this tax is intended to provide new environmental programs (Gogte 366). Plastic bags are completely prohibited in Italy. At the present moment, customers have to use bags made from other materials. In China, plastic bags are also known as white pollutants due to their lightweight and the ability to blow (Gogte 365). In South Africa, plastic bags lying down the streets are so numerous that they are humorously called “national flowers” (Gogte 365).

Considering all these legislative acts, it is possible to say that people have already investigated the effects of plastic bags on the environment and taken the possible measures to protect themselves. However, not much is said about the harm of paper bags. It proves the necessity to investigate and study the peculiarities of paper as a dangerous material for bag production. It seems that governments need more time to take more precautionary steps and underline the threat of paper bags. The point is that they just cannot find another possible alternative for paper bags that have already become as an alternative to plastic bags.


In general, plastic and paper bags are harmful to the environment in their own ways. Both types of bags are optimized for a single-use. The production of plastic bags, as well as paper bags, contaminates the environment. The main resource needed for the production of plastic bags is an oil that is an irreplaceable natural resource. Paper bags are made from wood. In such a way, the more paper bags are produced, the fewer trees will remain untouched.

The economic benefits and conveniences of plastic bags are too significant to ignore. Apart from the direct economic influence on the environment, such as deforestation and the greenhouse effect, forest clearance has its implicit threats. A process of transportation of woods to factories and shops suggests the use of ships, trucks, and different kinds of vehicles that also pollute the environment. Plastic bags are much more compact in this respect and due to this fact, the process of their transportation is easier and less damaging. The damages to the environment caused by plastic are obvious. Plastic garbage may be found everywhere. Though paper damage is not that obvious, it cannot be neglected. The production of plastic bags as well as its recycling is less expensive and damaging.

However, the dilemma of plastic-paper bag choice is evident and needs to be solved. The level of damage produced by them to nature is approximately equal. Even if paper bags turn out to be less environmentally harmful, it is wrong to believe that paper bags are the only successful substitution of plastic. In addition to the fact that people have to pass through a complicated production process, paper bags need more financial changes and higher costs.

Retailers will hardly enjoy the necessity to buy more expensive bags and not to sell them but give free as an addition to purchase. At the same time, if they set higher prices to hide financial inconvenience, they can lose several regular customers. So, the dilemma between plastic and paper bags as well as the true worth of plastic bags in the environment can hardly be fully solved. Only personal opinions and situations can be offered to explain the necessity of plastic bag bans in society.

Works Cited

Bell, Kirsty and Suzie Cave. “Research and Library Service Briefing Note. 36.11 (2011). Northern Ireland Assembly. Web.

Chaffee, Chet and Bernard Yaros. Life Cycle Assessment for Three Types of Grocery Bags – Recyclable Plastic; Compostable, Biodegradable Plastic; and Recycled, Recyclable Paper. n.d. Web.

Gogte, Mangal. “International Journal for Quality research. 3.4 (2009): 363-375. Economics Department K J Somaiya College of Arts. Web.

Dunn, Collin. Paper Bags or Plastic Bags? Everything You Need to Know. 2008. Web.

EcoWatch. . 2014. Web.

Edwards, Chris and Jonna Fry. . 2011. Web.

Equinox Center 2013, Plastic Bag Bans: Analysis of Economic and Environmental Impacts. Web.

Green, Kenneth and Elizabeth DeMeo. The crusade against plastic bags. 2013. Web.

Karli, James and Tim Grant. . n.d. Web.

New & Research Communication. . Web.

Paper or Plastic? 2007. Web.

The Plastic Bag – VS – Paper Bag Facts. n.d. Web.

Ververis, Cadoc, Kaarina Geoghiou, Nadir Christodoulakis, Paul Santas, and Robert Santas. “Fiber Dimensions, Lignin and Cellulose Content of Various Plant Materials and Their Suitability for Paper Production.” Industrial Crops and Products 19. (2004): 245-254. Print.

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