How to Recycle Paper Bags

An Overview on Recycling Paper Bags

Paper or plastic? It’s a question Americans are asked all of the time when standing in the check-out line of the supermarket. The great debate between paper or plastic grocery bags rages on, though most environmentalists will tell you that, surprisingly, plastic bags are better for the planet. These statistics tell the story:

  • Making paper bags requires nearly double that of making plastic bags, though paper bags are compostable and plastic bags are not.[1]
  • Paper bags are made from renewable resources, unlike plastic bags which are made from non-renewable petroleum byproducts. Plus producing paper bags results in more than three times as much greenhouse gas emissions compared to plastic bag production.[2]
  • Plastic shopping bags result in up to 80% less solid waste than paper bags. They also generate smaller quantities of air pollution.[3]

Nevertheless, paper bags are still used in hugs quantities. According to the Sierra Club, Americans consume the equivalent of 14 million trees worth of paper bags every single year![4]

Reduce paper bag use

Since paper bags are so much worse for the environment, let’s find ways to reduce our dependence on them:

  • Take reusable bags with you on all shopping trips - from groceries, new clothes, or to the bookstore.
  • If you forget your reusable bags but have only a handful of things to take from a store, refuse a bag and carry your items by hand.
  • Pack lunches in reusable lunch bags rather than small paper bags.

So while it’s important for us to choose more sustainable bag options we also need to find ways to reduce our consumption of trees. Recycling paper bags is just one such solution to our paper bag waste problem.

How to recycle paper bags

Currently, less than 20% of all paper bags are recycled by Americans.[5]

  • Curbside recycling: In many ways, your paper bags are like your newspapers, and so often they are recycled with that group of paper waste. However, you may need to remove plastic handles and other accessories that would contaminate the recycling process. Like other paper products, when paper bags are recycled, they’re broken down with water, heat, and a blending process, then screened to remove debris and then turned into new paper products.
  • Drop off recycling: If you’re without a curbside recycling program, you can often drop off paper bags for recycling with your other paper goods. Just be sure they’re free of contaminants and folded neatly to conserve space.
  • Composting: If your paper bags are printed with either soy or vegetable-based dyes, then by all means, tear up your paper bags and put them in your compost pile or your worm bin. Conventional dyes made with heavy metals can be toxic and shouldn’t be used in compost that will be applied to a garden that produces food.

When there are no recycling or composting options for your used paper bags, then find ways to reuse them. For instance:

  • Line your garbage can with paper bags rather than plastic ones as they’re easier to break down in a landfill.
  • Make crafts out of paper bags, such as puppets, hats, or decorated gift bags.
  • Use your paper bags as wrapping paper for gift giving.





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References

1  Resource and Environmental Profile Analysis of Polyethylene and Unbleached Paper Grocery Sacks. (n.d.). Retrieved July 21, 2010, from American Chemistry: http://www.americanchemistry.com/s_plastics/bin.asp?CID=1211&DID=4601&DOC=FILE.PDF

2  Review of Life Cycle Data Relating to Disposable, Compostable, Biodegradable, and Reusable Grocery Bags. (2008, March 28). Retrieved July 20, 2010, from Use-Less-Stuff.com: http://use-less-stuff.com/Paper-and-Plastic-Grocery-Bag-LCA-Summary-3-28-08.pdf

3  (Resource and Environmental Profile Analysis of Polyethylene and Unbleached Paper Grocery Sacks)

4  True or False: Paper bags. (2008, June 9). Retrieved July 21, 2010, from CNN.com: http://edition.cnn.com/2008/TECH/06/02/myth.train/index.html

5  Paper vs. Plastic Bags. (n.d.). Retrieved July 21, 2010, from Institute for Lifecycle Environmental Assessment, MIT: http://stuff.mit.edu/afs/athena/course/3/3.a30/www/refs/Institute%20for%20Lifecycle%20Environmental%20Assessment.pdf

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