by: Leslie Jones

“Paper or plastic?” used to be as common of a question in grocery stores as “Would you like help carrying your bags to your car?” Now, incidentally, rarely are either of these questions uttered in stores today.



Plastic grocery bags were introduced in the 1970s and gained immediate popularity.  This veritable success story has a track record that any inventor would more than envy. Since its introduction four decades ago, this product has gone from “unheard of” to “unbelievably popular”. Now accounting for about four out of every five bags handed out in grocery stores, the plastic grocery bag as a product is an amazing success.



As an environmental concern, however, they are an absolute nightmare.



The most common type of plastic shopping bag is made of Low-Density Polyethylene, or LDPE. This grade of plastic tends to be both durable and flexible. Plastic cling wrap, sandwich bags, squeezable ketchup bottles are also made from LDPE.


Polyethylene, a petroleum-derived polymer, cannot technically be considered biodegradable since microorganisms don’t recognize it as food. “The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defines biodegradation as “a process by which microbial organisms transform or alter (through metabolic or enzymatic action) the structure of chemicals introduced into the environment.”



Tests and experiments have been performed with solid waste in containers. Microbe-rich compost was introduced then air was added to promote biodegradation; newspapers and banana peels decomposed in days or weeks, while plastic shopping bags were not affected.



Researchers fear that products as abundant as plastic shopping bags may never go away….or fully decompose. Instead, this type of plastic just gradually turns into smaller and smaller particles of plastic.



Paper bags, although a little more expensive, can biodegrade in a matter of weeks, and can also go into the recycling bin to be reused to make other paper products.



Expensive, in this case, is relative. A higher initial expense may be incurred for stores to purchase them from a wholesaler and may be passed on to customers. The lessened environmental impact, however, is worth a few extra pennies per product.


Another alternative exists for carrying groceries and other products home from your shopping trip. Reusable cotton or canvas bags come in all shapes and sizes and come in hundreds of styles and colors. The uses for these canvas bags are endless.  People have used them to take their lunch, as a beach tote, a diaper bag, as a bag for trash in their cars, and an infinite number of other things.  As many things as there are to carry, there is a reusable bag to carry them.


In today’s mindset, the conflict often exists between “fast, easy, and convenient” vs. “environmentally responsible”. So many things in our society promote the idea of cheaper when the wave of the future should be reusable and recyclable.

4 Ways You Can Help:


1.  Ask for paper bags whenever possible



2.  Take your used plastic bags to a local grocery store recycling dropoff


3.  Use plastic grocery bags to make something new


4.  Choose reusable cotton or canvas bags



Plastic Grocery Bags: How Long Until They Decompose .., (accessed February 18, 2014).