Plastic, paper or cotton bags: which is more sustainable?

Plastic pollution of the planet gradually impacts the consciousness of people. Those who want to do something for our common home and zero-waste activists are no longer considered eccentrics. It has become good practice for Gen Z, millennials, and older people to donate batteries to designated collection points, sort the trash, and not use disposable bags. 

One easy way to make the planet healthy is to reuse shopping bags. Such string bags have already earned their popularity among fighters for the clean world: they are not expensive, almost weightless, and can even fit into a miniature bag.  

Manufacturers are positioning shoppers as an environmentally friendly alternative to the usual plastic bags. However, this is not the case, according to the study by the Denmark Ministry of Environment and Food, one bag will have to be worn for 54 years, and most likely it will not be possible to recycle it completely. 

Many people in New York now carry similar cotton bags with the logos of various restaurants, shops, and other brands. At the same time, for the use of these accessories to benefit the environment, they must be used 20 thousand times – this means every day for 54 years. Cotton also requires a lot of water to grow and is difficult to process. In addition, an unsuitable bag will have to be handed over only to special collection points, and you cannot simply throw it into the trash. At the same time, many shoppers cannot be completely recycled due to the various dyes that are used to print pictures. 


What are shopping bags made of? 


Shopping bags are sewn from natural and synthetic materials. Sometimes manufacturers go for non-standard solutions and create products from recycled materials, textile craft, newspapers, and magazines. 

Cotton, linen, jute, polyester – all these materials are durable and can have a stylish look. Shoppers can also be made in the form of fibers by weaving – it all depends on the imagination of the designer. The main goal is to create a reusable item. 

Until recently, it seemed that it was better to choose a bag made from natural materials, ideally from organic cotton but  research by scientists from Denmark revealed that a cotton bag is not the best replacement for a plastic bag. It requires a lot more resources for production compared to the package. 

Both cotton and polyethylene have their drawbacks. To produce the former, pesticides are often used, and a large amount of water is expended. And during the manufacture of plastic bags, greenhouse gases are emitted. In addition, plastic is not biodegradable. 

Ecology professor Melanie Dupuis adds that there are already more useful materials for making bags than plastic and cotton. For example, hemp, recycled bottles. Aesop also plans to reduce the amount of water used in cotton production: its products will be made from 60% recycled and 40% organic cotton. 

  Which material is worse? 

  The table below compares the environmental performance of different materials used in the manufacture of bags using data from a study in Denmark. 

environmental performance of different materials used in the manufacture of bags using data from a study in Denmark


The Washington Post held analysis according to which paper produced with the intensive use of pesticides pollutes the air 70 times more and water 50 times more than the production of plastic bags. That is, it is more toxic to humans and the environment than plastic bags. Although 66% of paper and board is recycled, the recycling process uses additional chemicals to remove ink and convert the paper to cellulose. 

Danish researchers compared LDPE, polypropylene, paper, cotton bags, and several other types of bags and concluded that LDPE bags had the lowest environmental impact. Unbleached paper bags are equal to HDPE bags in terms of global warming. At the same time, the environmental impact of bleached paper was significantly higher than that of unbleached paper. 

Part of the environmental impact of paper bags is due to their weight, which is 6 to 10 times the weight of plastic bags, which requires more fuel and costs to transport and distribute. To transport the same number of plastic and paper bags, one and seven trucks, respectively, are required. In warehouses and landfills, paper bags take up much more space. But the impact of the paper bags depends on sustainable harvesting management and the environmental measures used at the paper recycling plant. 


study by the Progressive Bag Alliance found that 14.9 kg of fuel was used to make plastic bags, compared to 23.2 kg for paper bags. 7 kg of solid household waste was formed from plastic, and 33.9 kg from paper. The plastic bags used 58 gallons of freshwater, and the paper bags used a thousand. 

Non-recyclable packaging ends up in the trash. It ends up in a landfill and breaks down into microplastics, which are found almost everywhere: in the stomachs of marine animals, in the soil, and the city air. More than a million birds, over 100,000 marine mammals, and many fish die each year due to microplastics. 


Compared to others, cotton bags have the greatest impact on nature. Growing cotton requires land, water in large quantities, chemical fertilizers, and pesticides. The production and use of fertilizers contribute significantly to eutrophication. Collecting, processing, transporting raw materials to the market requires a lot of energy. Heavy cotton bags are also more expensive to ship. Therefore, only 15% of the 30 million tons of cotton is processed annually. 

Shopping bags made from organic cotton that is grown without pesticides are even worse ecologically. Since its yield is 30% lower than conventional cotton, organic cotton requires 30% more water and land. 

Among other things, cotton is very water-consuming. In addition, recycling a shopper in an environmentally friendly way is not as easy as we think. Throwing such a bag into the trash can is not enough. 

According to analysts, only 15% of the 30 million tons of cotton produced annually actually ends up in textile storage facilities for further processing. 

If the bag does end up being recycled, most of the inks used to print labels and logos on them are PVC-based and therefore not recyclable. 

Plus, the costs – you first need to print the patterns and cut the bag out of the fabric. As a result, from 10 to 15% of the cotton simply disappears. Recycling is quite energy-intensive. 


More and more brands are using people as free billboards, following the trend of eco-friendly cotton bags. The more popular they are, the more they are being produced. This is a good example of people trying to be more aware without realizing the actual complexity. 

One cannot say that cotton is worse than plastic or paper; it makes no sense to compare these fundamentally different materials. We can only say that disposing of something is a bad idea, plastic or not, so replacing plastic bags with cotton or paper bags is likely to have detrimental side effects such as increased deforestation and soil and water pollution. 

Regardless of which bag you choose, it matters much more how many times it is used, what you decide to put in it, and how it will be utilized. 


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