The Film and Bag Federation, a trade group within the Society of the Plastics Industry based in Washington, D.C., said the right choice between paper or plastic bags is clearly plastic.
Compared to paper grocery bags, plastic grocery bags consume 40 percent less energy, generate 80 percent less solid waste, produce 70 percent fewer atmospheric emissions, and release up to 94 percent fewer waterborne wastes, according to the federation.
Robert Bateman, president of Roplast Industries, a manufacturer of plastic bags—including reusable ones—in Oroville, California, said the economic advantage of plastic bags over paper bags has become too significant for store owners to ignore. It costs one cent for a standard plastic grocery sack, whereas a paper bag costs four cents, he said.
"The plastic bags are so inexpensive that in the stores no one treats them as worth anything … they use two, three, or four when one would do just as well," he said. First introduced in the 1970s, plastic bags now account for four out of every five bags handed out at the grocery store. "When you look at it as a product, it is an unbelievable success story," said Cobb.
The success of the plastic bag has meant a dramatic increase in the amount of sacks found floating in the oceans where they choke, strangle, and starve wildlife and raft alien species around the world, according to David Barnes, a marine scientist with the British Antarctic Survey in Cambridge, England, who studies the impact of marine debris.
Barnes said that plastic bags have gone "from being rare in the late 80s and early 90s to being almost everywhere from Spitsbergen 78° North [latitude] to Falklands 51° South [latitude], but I'll bet they'll be washing up in Antarctica within the decade."
Bateman said that plastic bags are becoming a victim of their success. "The industry is at the stage where its success has caused concerns and these concerns need to be addressed responsibly," he said. Among other initiatives, Bateman supports the development of biodegradable plastic bags, a technology that has made strides in recent years.