Plastic vs Paper vs Cotton vs Other Reusable Bags: Comparison, & Which Is Best?

Plastic vs Paper vs Cotton vs Other Reusable Bags: Comparison, & Which Is Best?

In this guide, we compare the different materials of bag – plastic, paper, cotton, composite, and different reusable bags.

We look at which ones might be best environmentally, practically, and overall.

 

Summary – Which Type Of Bag Material Is Best Environmentally & Overall?

  • We’ve already provided a large part of the answer to this question in this guide about the different materials of bags
  • In terms of eco friendliness …
  • Single use LDPE plastic bags actually lead across several environmental measurables/categories according to some life cycle assessment reports. When it comes to human toxicity impact, paper and composite bags can be equally as low impact. 
  • The reusable bags such as the cotton and composite bags have to be re-used far more times than the more disposable bags (like plastic) in order to have the same environmental performance, largely because of their significant production footprint in terms of energy, resources etc. (which takes more uses to average out … soft plastic can be cheap and have a low production footprint)
  • These LCA (life cycle assessment) reports though don’t account for several factors such as the impact of littered and polluted waste in the environment, or economic impact, just as a few examples. Also, the main LCA we reference is purely a Danish study – so things like bag types, recycling rates, waste management systems, bag production processes, and so on, can vary country to country and impact results.
  • A full picture of the full impact of each type of bag isn’t quite available, and is definitely location and situation specific.
  • The best bag can certainly depend on the indicator you are measuring or assessing for e.g. greenhouse gas emissions, water use and consumption, waste generated, litter rate, pollution and mismanaged waste rate, time taken to break down and decompose, impact on humans, impact on wild life, and so on.
  • Some things that are clear though are that re-using bags as many times as possible, repurposing bags for as long as possible, and trying to limit the amount of new bags you buy can be beneficial. Unbleached bags and bag without printing on them (i.e. plain looking bags) can also be more environmentally friendly.
  • In terms of practicality of use (that we didn’t touch upon in the above linked guide) …
  • Paper bags are going to have issues with strength, durability and getting wet and losing their integrity (if they get punctured, torn, or stretched). Soft plastic bags are going to have strength issues with heavy loads. Composite and natural fibre bags can be extremely strong and can provide the best strength and durability of all the bags – jute composite bags in particular can be extremely strong and durable. Reusable bags like cotton and composite might be more expensive to buy and manufacture than the extremely cheap disposable plastic bags, but they often last far longer.
  • Overall, apart from the choice of bag we use, we have other significant lifestyle choices we can make if we want to be more sustainable, such as the food we eat, how we get around in transport, and the home we live in (just as a few examples). So, sustainability can be something we address on a wider scale than just our bag choice.

 

Plastic Bags

Plastic bags can be the common lightweight LDPE plastic shopping bags, or the heavy plastic bags, such as PP, PET and polyester.

 

According to the above LCA report (available in the mst.dk resource link below):

  • Plastic LDPE bags have the overall lowest environmental impact across a range of environmental measurables
  • Biopolymer bags providing a similar impact  to plastic LDPE bags across climate change, and water resource depletion indicators
  • Heavy plastic bags like PP, PET, and polyester need to be reused more times to lower their environmental production cost
  • Woven PP bags have a lower environmental impact than non woven

The best disposal method for each bag might be:

  • Plastic, LDPE – Reusing/repurposing as a bin bag
  • Plastic, PP – Recycle, reuse as waste bin bag if possible, else incinerate
  • Plastic, Recycled PET – Recycle, reuse as waste bin bag if possible, else incinerate
  • Plastic, Polyester PET – Reuse as waste bin bag if possible, else incinerate
  • Bio Polymer – Reuse as waste bin bag if possible, else incinerate

Incineration might be the best disposal option for all bags when reuse or repurposing isn’t possible anymore.

 

In terms of litter and bag pollution rates:

  • Plastic bags are among the littered items most commonly found during clean ups on land and on beaches and coast lines 
  • This may suggest not only that we use a lot of them, but they have high waste rates and pollution or littering rates

– bettermeetsreality.com

 

Read about some of the more general pros and cons of plastic as a material when used in products in this guide.

 

Paper Bags

Paper bags can come in a variety of types, made with both recycled and and virgin paper, bleached and unbleached, different colors, and so on.

 

According the the mst.dk LCA report:

  • The best disposal method for paper bags might be ‘Reuse as waste bin bag if possible, else incinerate’
  • Unbleached paper bags may have a similar environmental impact to LDPE plastic bags for climate change, human toxicity (cancer effects), and fossil fuel resource depletion indicators
  • Unbleached paper has a lower eco impact than bleached paper)
  • Bleached paper bags need to be reused more times to lower their environmental production cost
  • Paper bags have to be re-used far less than cotton or composite bags to have the same environmental impact as LDPE bags

 

Cotton (& Canvas & Cloth) Bags

Cotton bags can come in conventional cotton, and organic cotton.

Organic cotton is usually made without the use of GMOs or synthetic chemicals like pesticides, and certified organic cotton can have additional standards.

 

According the the mst.dk LCA report:

  • The best disposal method for cotton and textile bags might be ‘Reuse as waste bin bag if possible, else incinerate’
  • Textile bags need to be reused more times to lower their environmental production cost
  • Cotton bags have to be re-used the most of any bag type in order to have the same environmental impact as LDPE bags
  • Conventional cotton bags have a lower environmental impact than organic cotton

 

Composite & Other Reusable Bags

Other reusable bags come in many types, with a composite bag made of jute and other materials being one example.

 

According the the mst.dk LCA report:

  • The best disposal method for composite bags (like jute composites) might be ‘Reuse as waste bin bag if possible, else incinerate’ 
  • Composite bags have a similar impact as LDPE bags for the human toxicity (non cancer effects) indicator
  • Composite bags have to be re-used less than cotton bags to have the same environmental performance as LDPE bags

 

Sources

1. https://www.bettermeetsreality.com/should-we-ban-plastic-bags-are-they-better-or-worse-than-other-types-of-bags/

2. https://www2.mst.dk/Udgiv/publications/2018/02/978-87-93614-73-4.pdf

3. https://www.bettermeetsreality.com/most-common-plastic-waste-generated-found-on-beaches-in-oceans-on-land/

4. https://www.bettermeetsreality.com/the-pros-cons-of-plastic/

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