For many in the retail and grocery industry, a commitment to sustainability begins with their choice of bag. Planet-friendly packaging and totes help with the reduction of waste and send a strong brand message to consumers.

Both paper and reusable plastic bags contribute to a healthier environment, but many factors differentiate the two options.

According to a 2022 report by the Columbia Climate School, “to equal the relatively low global warming impact of plastic bags, paper and cotton bags need to be used many times; however, it’s unlikely that either could survive long enough to be reused enough times to equal the plastic bag’s lower impact.”

“While people often assume that paper is a more eco-friendly option, most experts agree that reusable plastic bags are ultimately better for the environment,” says Michael Bove, Senior Sales Manager, PreZero US, a company that makes reusable grocery and retail poly bags out of recycled materials from their recycling facilities. “To make an informed decision, you must look at the full scope and life cycle of each material.”

Proponents of paper immediately point to the recyclability of paper over plastic, but it’s important to understand that not all paper bags are created equal. Many used in the retail industry feature heavy coatings, plastic liners and inks that render them attractive but unrecyclable. Additionally, if a paper bag gets wet or soiled by food, liquid or other elements, the paper quality degrades and is more likely to become trash instead of recycled into a new paper product.

It’s also important to understand the differences between single-use plastic bags and reusable poly bags made from post-consumer recycled content. Traditional single-use plastic bags have earned their reputation for harming the environment. The UN Environment Programme warns that, “We have seen a worrying shift towards single-use plastic products, items that are meant to be thrown away after a single short use,” and “85% ends up in landfills or as unregulated waste.

However, reusable plastic bags, like those made by PreZero, are made with at least 40% post-consumer recycled (PCR) content and are certified for at least 125 uses. When they get soiled, they can be hand or machine-washed without losing any structural integrity.

PreZero Vice President of Packaging Business Development, Roxanne Spiekerman says, “When we reuse the same material multiple times, the environmental benefit is even greater than that of merely recycling because no further processing or manufacturing needs to be done. There is a reason reuse comes before recycle in the mantra Reduce-Reuse-Recycle.”

Other important considerations: The production of paper bags uses more energy and water than that of reusable plastic bags, leading to greater carbon emissions. Plastic bags take up less space and weigh less — both factor into transportation and storage, which of course have environmental impact.  

When compared to paper bags, 1 million reusable LDPE (low density polyethylene) bags of equal size and capacity, weigh less than a third that of paper bags. This results in a smaller storage footprint and significant savings on transport costs.

To further minimize the environmental impact of reusable plastic bags, PreZero has become a leading advocate for store take-back programs, working with private companies and local governments to make it easier to recover plastic materials that can be recycled into new reusable bags.

Spiekerman maintains that, “PreZero is constantly assessing the full cycle of its products and is working tirelessly to find the best paths to sustainability.  Our goal is evident in our name.” she says. “At PreZero, we do everything we can to preserve resources and reduce the amount of non-reusable waste to zero.”

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