When it comes to your grocery shopping, there are multiple choices in bags for you to use at the grocery store. Each having own benefits and drawbacks. Cotton bags are biodegradable. However, they cost much extra energy to make compared to a traditional plastic bag, which can be damaging to the environment.

Each year people use hundreds of billions of plastic bags. In an attempt to cut down the number of bags being used single time and then discarded away, cities around the globe have instituted bans or taxes on plastic bags. But paper or reusable bags are lot better for the environment? Science suggests that there is not a clear answer.

This blog by Mr. Gaurav Jalan, Founder, and Director of Packman Packaging Pvt Ltd, India’s top manufacturer and supplier of shopping bags to eCommerce and retail companies talks about which bag is the finest to use.


A broader advantage of plastic bags is that when compared to other kinds of shopping bags, producing them carries the lowest environmental toll. The thin, plastic grocery store bags are most commonly manufactured using high-density polyethylene (HDPE). Though production of these bags does use resources such as petroleum, it results in fewer carbon emissions, waste, and harmful byproducts compared to cotton or paper bag production. Plastic bags are quite relatively sturdy and reusable. Several studies about various bagging choices that show plastic bags production demands fewer resources assume plastic bags are used at least two times—once coming to the home and once as a trash bag—and factor this into the calculations regarding which bags are more sustainable.

Plastic bags are recyclable, though only a few recycle them. Recycling plastic bags is a tough nut to crack; they fly away here and there in the recycling plant and get trapped in machinery. Because of this, several cities do not offer curbside recycling for plastic bags. Rather, large-scale retailers provides bag recycling services. However, these services are reliant on the consumer bringing the plastic bags back to the store.

Bags those are not recycled end up becoming litter, as they are not biodegraded. Apart from filling up landfills and becoming eyesores, plastic bags that become litter endangers several facets of the environment, on both land and water. This is due to the plastic bags, like all plastic materials, eventually break up into microscopic pieces, which scientist terms microplastics. Microplastics have been seen nearly everywhere: in marine animals, farmland soil, and urban air.

Though scientists have just started studying the results of microplastic proliferation, and we do not yet know their impact on animals, humans, and the environment, scientists are worried about how this level of plastic pollution might change our planet. The studies that estimated plastic bags to be less harmful to the atmosphere than paper and reusable bags did not take the impacts of litter into account and rather assumed that the plastic bags will be recycled or used in the form of trash bags.


Reusable bags are obtained from various materials, and the environmental effects of manufacturing those materials vary hugely. One study from the United Kingdom (UK) saw that, regarding bag production, cotton bags ought to be reused 131 times prior to they reduce their effect on climate change to the same way as plastic bags. To have a comparable ecological footprint (which encompasses climatic change as well as other environmental factors) to plastic bags, a cotton bag actually has to be used thousands of times. Materials besides cotton, however, perform better in sustainability metrics. Nonwoven polypropylene (PP) is another popular choice. Made of a more durable form of plastic, these bags require to be reused around 11 times to break even with the effect of conventional plastic.

Also, to varying greatly in their eco-friendliness, there is the likelihood that reusable bags go unused, as consumers have to remember to bring these bags with them to the store. The biggest gain of reusable bags is that their use reduces down the amount of litter on land and in the water. Studies have seen that bans on plastic bags in several cities have reduced the amount of plastic litter in nearby waters bodies.


Paper bags have certain advantages over plastic bags when we talk about sustainability. They are simple to recycle, and, as they are biodegradable, they can be used for things like composting. Albeit, paper is quite resource-heavy to produce: Making a paper bag takes almost about 4 times as much energy as it needs to produce a plastic bag, besides the chemicals and fertilizers used in producing paper bags do additional harm to the environment.

Studies have indicated that, for a paper bag to neutralize its ecological impact compared to plastic, it will have to be used anywhere from 3 to 43 times. As paper bags are the least durable of all the bagging alternatives, it is unlikely that an individual would get enough use out of any single bag to even out the environmental impact.

Still, the reality is that paper is recyclable assists lessen its impact. During the year 2018, 68.1% of paper consumed in the United States alone was recovered for recycling, a percentage that has been increasing in the last decade. But, because paper fibers become shorter and weaker every time the recycling process takes place, there is a restriction to how many times paper can be recycled.

Points to Consider

Due to the reusable and paper bags have a big environmental expense upfront, and plastic bags make bigger negative effects post being used; it is difficult to determine which kind of bag is truly the most sustainable. Irrespective of whether the bag made of is plastic, paper, or another material, the most sustainable option is the bag you already have. In every study and for every kind of bag, it was clear that reusing the bag as many times as one can reduce its impact on the environment. Overall, making the attempt to reuse any bag that comes into your possession, and disposing of the bag responsibly, is crucial.