With plastic bag bans looming in the Washington State legislature, supporters of the bans are touting paper bags as the 'save-all' for the environment.

It is true that plastic bags cause some pollution, and if not recycled, can clog up some waterways and cause issues. However, a closer look at paper bags shows neither option is the 'cure all.'

It was not that long ago that environmental groups were condemning paper as using too many resources, creating pollution (paper mills) and consuming trees. Remember those days? The plastic shopping bag was invented in 1965 in Sweden, and gained widespread use in the U.S. in the early 1980's.  The bags were invented as a direct result of environmental pressure.

Fast forward 30-35 years, and we've come full circle.  However, as far back as 2011 the country of Ireland tackled the same issue, paper vs. plastic.  A study performed for the North Ireland Assembly (the legislature for North Ireland) shows paper will actually end up using more resources, is harder and more expensive to recycle, costs more to make, and cannot be re-used like plastic. Europeans have often been in front of us when it comes to pursuing and adopting environmental policies. Ireland and North Ireland certainly have far more landfill space issues than we do.

The study examined four categories:

  • Decomposition (landfills)
  • Manufacturing Process
  • Reusability
  • Recyclability

It found numerous ways that paper bags actually tax the environment more than plastic. For example, the argument that paper bags break down and decompose in landfills as opposed to plastic is not really true.

Yes, plastic takes much longer to actually break down . But virtually all landfills are airtight, deprived of water, light, and oxygen which are the elements needed for decomposition. Paper bags take up more space than compressed plastic bags, eventually creating space issues and the need for more landfills.

It appears that while plastic bags create their own post-use issues, paper bags outweigh them when it comes to overall pollution and environmental issues. Perhaps the issue is stressing and heavy duty promotion of plastic bag recycling and re use.

To see the fascinating North Ireland study for  yourself, click on the button below.