Written by Lenzie Ward, P3 Specialist
Published on June 14, 2023

 Which Type Of Bag Is Best For The Environment? And Why?

Plastic, Paper, or Reusable? And the answer is: … It’s complicated.

Picture this – you’re in line at the grocery store and the person in front of you just paid. It’s your turn now, but before the cashier turns to you, you ask yourself “paper or plastic?” If you’re more of an environmentally focused consumer, this can feel like a big decision. You may think it’s a no-brainer and say, “Let’s go with paper. Plastic is bad for the environment.” Or, you may have planned beforehand and brought your own reusable bags. Although the answer to the plastic, paper, or reusable question may seem straight-forward, the science paints a more complicated story. Here are a few pros and cons to each, that may help you decide which option is best for you the next time you go shopping.

Plastic: the conventional grocery bag, made of high-density polyethylene (HDPE)

plastic bag


  • Lowest environmental impact from manufacturing – lower carbon emissions, less waste and hazardous byproducts generated during production
  • Relatively durable and waterproof
  • Reusable (numerous times)
  • Convenient to carry

Pro/Con: Recyclable, but not curbside.



paper bag


  • Recyclable, curbside
  • More readily biodegrades
  • Compostable


Pro/Con: Must be reused 4 or more times in order to reduce its environmental impact below that of a conventional plastic bag.



  • Significant environmental impact from manufacturing. It is estimated that paper bags consume 4 times as much energy in manufacturing as plastic bags.
  • May contain fertilizers and pesticides
  • Manufacturing generates more chemical waste
  • Not very durable; will degrade when wet
  • Inconvenient to carry if it does not have handles
  • Requires trees to be cut down

Reusable: Plastic/Polypropylene (PP)

reusable 1


  • Very durable and water resistant
  • Can be reused for years
  • Reduces litter
  • Convenient to carry


Pro/Con: Must be reused 11 or more times in order to reduce its environmental impact below that of a disposable plastic bag.


  • Must remember them before going to the store
  • Does not readily biodegrade; once it does degrade, it becomes microplastic.
  • Made from petroleum and natural gas
  • Requires occasional handwashing/disinfecting

Reusable: Cotton

reusable 2


  • Durable
  • Can be reused for years
  • Convenient to carry
  • Biodegradable


  • Must be reused 131 or more times in order to reduce its environmental impact below that of a disposable plastic bag.
  • Greatest environmental impact to manufacture
  • May contain fertilizers and pesticides


While the answer isn’t completely clear which specific bag is the most environmentally friendly, you can be sure that the most sustainable option is the bag you already have. The saying still stands – reduce, reuse, and recycle.