Paper or Plastic? Just the Facts

ByABC News
December 8, 2003, 12:27 PM

— -- There's been an ongoing debate about whether paper or plastic is the better choice for the environment. Here's a look at plastic bag use and factors to consider when making the decision.

Convenient and Everywhere

Plastic bags were first introduced in 1977 and now account for four out of every five bags handed out at grocery stores.

Americans make 2.3 trips to the grocery store each week. If people use five to 10 bags each time, that's between 600 and 1,200 bags per person per year.

Stores usually pay less than a penny per plastic shopping bag, and 3 to 4 cents per paper shopping bag.

According to the Grocery Industry Committee on Solid Waste, less than 1 percent of shoppers consistently use cloth shopping bags.

Paper or Plastic? You Decide.

Plastic grocery bags consume 40 percent less energy to produce and generate 80 percent less solid waste than paper bags.

Plastic bags can take 5-10 years to decompose. Paper bags take about a month to decompose.

Paper bags are made from trees, which are a renewable resource. Most plastic bags are made from polyethylene, which is made from petroleum, a nonrenewable resource.

Two thousand plastic bags weigh 30 pounds, 2,000 paper bags weigh 280 pounds.

A packed standard-sized paper bag can hold up to 14 items, an average plastic bag often holds 5-10 items.

Research from 2000 shows 20 percent of paper bags were recycled, while 1 percent of plastic bags were recycled. But plastic bag recycling is growing as plastic lumber products become more popular.