Are paper bags really better than plastic bags?

Paper bags may seem like a good alternative to plastic for packing fruits and vegetables in stores. They are easy to recycle, can be made from recycled paper and are biodegradable, right?

In fact, experts say their environmental impact is even worse than that of plastic bags.

First, more material is needed to produce a stable paper bag. This includes long and chemically treated fibers, according to sustainability experts.

Plus, the production of cellulose (a cellular substance that helps plants stay stiff and upright) is extremely energy and water intensive!

For these reasons, a common disposable bag made from fresh paper fibers should be used at least three times more often than a petroleum-based plastic bag to balance the climate footprint, environmental experts say.

Unfortunately, paper bags are almost always made from so-called “virgin pulp”, a paper with no recycled content. Very few are made from recycled paper.

Another factor that determines durability is whether the paper bag is truly paper only. Experts say many growers still use packaging that has plastic or aluminum foil taped inside to keep the paper from tearing when it comes in contact with moisture. Also, mixing with other materials can prevent the ink printed on the material from penetrating into the food.

Nevertheless, treated paper is a problem because it can hardly be recycled in this way. The German Federal Ministry for the Environment also considers paper bags “not really better than disposable plastic bags“.

However, paper bags are even more likely to be recycled and rarely end up in trees or floating around the streets like plastic bags. If they did, they wouldn’t stay there long either because the paper fibers rot quickly.

All in all, if you want to use paper bags, you definitely need to make sure they are used multiple times, advises the ministry.

What about cotton or polyester mosquito nets?

When comparing alternatives, reusable polyester fruit and vegetable nets came out on top in the sustainability rankings. A 2021 study on behalf of nature conservation group NABU came to this conclusion, assuming these nets would be used at least 50 times.

Many supermarkets offer these nets as a more sustainable alternative to disposable bags. According to the study, the best from an ecological point of view are those that contain recycled polyester.

However, fresh polyester also trumps other options. Cotton mosquito nets come second, assuming they would be used at least 100 times.

However, you need to make sure they are organic cotton. Otherwise, the agricultural process could be very harmful to the environment due to high water consumption.

Notorious disposable plastic bags came third in the ranking and paper bags came in fourth.

Can we use compostable bags in good conscience? Plastic bags made of corn or potato starch, advertised as “compostable”, are not a good alternative according to experts. This is because it is important for the waste cycle to recycle materials.

Therefore, composting after one use is considered a waste of resources. If you still want to buy them, you need to make sure that you are able to give the bags to industrial composting plants to decompose afterwards. The material will not degrade on your own compost pile. – dpa

Ethel J. Montes