Eco-packaging: Why paper bags are BAD for the planet

Paper bags have become the latest eco-packaging choice for businesses and consumers wanting to act (or appear) more environmentally-friendly. What’s not to like? Paper bags are biodegradable, recyclable and natural. It’s easy to assume that when compared to their scandalous plastic counterparts, paper bags are a sustainable and eco-packaging choice. But like most environmental issues, there’s a lot to consider when it comes to eco-packaging such as paper bags.

Here are 7 reasons why paper bags can be bad for the planet.

Paper bags are made from trees

Obvious, I know. It’s also extremely obvious that we need trees to prevent and reverse catastrophic global warming. So why did we suddenly think eco-packaging paper bags were the environmental holy grail? Well, because they’re not plastic. As many as 15 billion trees are cut down each year, Meanwhile, the global number of trees has fallen by ~46% since the start of human civilization. Creating further demand for paper isn’t the answer.

Paper production is pretty bloody polluting

It takes 4x as much energy to manufacture a paper bag compared to a plastic one. The majority of paper bags are made by heating wood chips
under pressure at high temperatures. This is done in a toxic chemical solution that contributes to air and water pollution. Therefore, paper bags generate 70% more air and 50x more water pollutants than plastic bags.

Paper bags DON’T break down in landfill

Research shows that paper in landfills doesn’t degrade faster than plastic. In fact, nothing completely degrades in modern landfills because of the lack of water, light, oxygen and other important elements that are necessary for natural materials to be composted. Just like food waste, paper bags can create methane, a greenhouse gas that traps more than 20x the heat of carbon dioxide, when dumped in landfill.

Paper bags contaminated with food are destined for landfill

Paper that has food or grease on it can’t be recycled with clean paper. In fact, contaminated paper can ruin a batch of recycled paper if it is not caught before it goes to the factory. The tendency for contamination is the reason manufacturers reject tons of recyclable paper each year.

Eco-packaging paper bags are not environmentally-friendly

Paper bags can be contaminated by other recycling

Even if you work hard to make sure your paper bags don’t become contaminated with food or grease, there’s potential for them to encounter contaminants in mixed recycling bins or bags. That’s why it’s SO important that you wash and dry all cans, jars and food packaging before adding it to mixed recycling.

Paper bags are the original single-use bags

Eco-packaging paper bags are not durable and that’s exactly why plastic bags took their place. The second these suckers get a tiny bit of moisture on them or you put one item too many in, paper bags are ruined and then discarded. Considering paper bags need to be used at least 3 times to be deemed more environmentally-friendly than a plastic bag, it’s unlikely this is actually happening.

Eco-packaging paper bags continue the linear, single-use economy that’s destroying our planet

Whether a bag is paper or plastic isn’t the real issue, the fact that it’s single-use is. Our current linear economy is fueled by single-use culture and is unsustainable. The move to a sustainable future involves developing a circular economy, where we reduce, reuse and recycle instead of tossing things when we’re done with them. Eco packaging paper bags are a bandaid solution for the damaging linear economy. In comparison, reusable bags are a solution.

Circular Economy Graphic

What can you do instead?

Take. Your. Own. Bag.

So simple, yet so effective. Say no to ALL single-use carrier bags, even the eco-packaging paper bag kind.

Don’t buy it if you need a single-use bag to carry it

In our overly commercialised lives, it’s very rare that we actually need to buy something if we don’t have a reusable bag to put it in. Unless there’s going to be dramatic consequences to not buying something when you don’t have a reusable bag, buy it at another time when you do.

Cultivate a reuseable mindset

Eco-packaging is a great innovation, but it still doesn’t address the underlying issues that got us to a world that’s overrun with plastic pollution. Plastic ISN’T the problem, single-use is. Any bag that you’re planning to use less than a handful of times before sending to landfill is an unsustainable choice.


TL;DR: Neither single-use plastic or paper bags are a sustainable choice. Always opt for a reuseable bag instead.


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5 thoughts on “Eco-packaging: Why paper bags are BAD for the planet

  1. For years I have been of the opinion that many of our problems could be solved by researching how bamboo might be used. I can’t understand why the so-called ecologists continue to push using paper over plastic when we need the trees to stabilize the soil and the water cycle while bamboo would be a perfect replacement as a raw material for those bags and other products made of wood. The whole thing is just too fishy.
    In Haiti where there are constant mud slides and floods, it would seem to make sense to start planting bamboo where trees used to be.
    So China currently has a corner on the bamboo market. Bamboo without being sold converted into a product but just as a way to quickly replace lost forests is still something worth doing. Not that it would grow where the pines grow but somewhere else to help cleanse the air.
    Why doesn’t the government and the scientists get behind R&D to promote its use?

    1. This is a really great analysis, Kathy! I couldn’t agree with you more. It’s great to see a rise in some bamboo products such as toilet paper and toothbrushes. Let’s hope this trend continues!!

  2. I was wondering why the paper shopping bags are not manufactured as a non-toxic product so they can be used in vegetable gardens as safe ground cover to assist with water retention (why do we not regulate the use of toxic ink and glues on our bags) Perfect scenario would be to see it being centrally collected, shredded and available to businesses, schools, homes.

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