By Robert Grigg & Benjamin Forcier

For years, this question has plagued the minds of grocery shoppers everywhere. Without a reusable bag, shoppers must choose from one of two evils but the choice isn’t as clear as it seems.

First off, both bag types must be manufactured and require transportation, already putting a hefty carbon footprint on them. Looking at the manufacturing side of things, plastic looks much better than paper bags. Manufacturing and shipping Paper bags requires the use of wood, twenty times the amount of water, almost twice as much energy, and seven times as much space than paper bags do while plastic bag production emits much less pollution since the gas used in production is captured, frozen, and stored before burning into the atmosphere. Regarding the use of space, paper is outperformed again by plastic – for every paper bag being shipped in a truck or sitting in a landfill, seven plastic bags could fit in the same space.

While uglier during production, the second half of a paper bag’s life is a little more eco-friendly than that of its plastic counterpart. First of all, Paper bags will degrade faster outside of a landfill and pose little threat to wildlife that comes in proximity to it. When a plastic bag ends up outside of a landfill, they will decompose very slowly and – like a rock eventually turns to sand – break apart into Microplastics which have recently been observed in massive quantities in the guts of aquatic creatures. These tiny fragments are extremely pervasive and nearly impossible to clean up without special equipment. While consuming microplastics in small amounts isn’t harmful, As creatures at the bottom of the food chain consume small increments of plastic, Larger predators such as fish, sharks, and whales will accumulate a frighteningly large concentration of plastic in their gut. Considering how easy bags are to recycle, Plastic falls short as special requirements prevent plastic shopping bags from being recycled with other traditional plastics. Paper bags can go in the bin alongside with the usual paper recycling, leading to a higher rate of recycling amongst paper-users

Considering all of this, there is no clear consensus for which is best – it depends on where the bags end up. If one plans on putting in the extra effort to recycle them or if they can guaruntee their plastic bags will end up in a landfill, plastic bags are the friendlier choice. If one doesn’t plan on ensuring proper disposal/ recycling or if they live near bodies of water – paper is the best choice.

While this post’s sources were pulled from Reason.org, OceanConservancy.org, and The National Ocean Service, one may want to look up the benefits and drawbacks of each to see what better fits your region and lifestyle. However, to avoid this dreaded question entirely, the best option is still to get in the habit of using cloth bags.