A. Hey Elias, good question, with an easy answer. Neither. Both are bad. However, strange as it might seem, plastic wins the number crunching to beat paper, two to one, in Life Cycle Analysis (LCA). But ask that tall guy pictured to the left, if plastic is good. We think he might say 'No.' Over 100,000 birds and marine life die each year, due to an encounter with plastic debris, much of it plastic bags. In Australia, alone, 80 million plastic bags litter beaches and public spaces. That's out of nearly 7 billion check-out bags used annually. And because plastic lasts about, oh, say 500 years, when the bird it killed decomposes, the bag is freed to injure another. But don't go thinking that paper is much better. Oh no. It's been estimated that the US was responsible for the felling of 14 million trees to produce the 10 billion paper grocery bags used back in 1999. Not a figure that is likely to got any less in the meantime. So no, neither bag is greener. But there is another, that is. And it doesn't require some nerd in a white lab coat to calculate what it might be. Indeed whole towns in Australia figured it out and declared themselves plastic bag free zones. All retailers are refusing to offer single use plastic bags. Their secret to success - it's the reusable bag. One you use more than once. Simple, really.
Australian Retailers Association (ARA), retailers currently have an agreement with the Federal Government to have reduced their consumption of lightweight single use plastic check-out bags by 25%, as of December just gone. By the end of 2005, it must be a 50% reduction. One of their initiatives on this front has been to encourage reusable bags. See one of the major chain's offerings here. Even some IKEA Australia stores have gone the route of banning single use bags. A couple of years before, they began charging 10 cents per bag. Bag usage dropped by 87%.
In March 2002 it became big news, when Ireland introduced their PlasTax to reduce the cancerous growth of plastic shopping bags. In just the first 3 months of becoming law, the tax raised $3.45M USD and cut use of bags by 90%. But ten years before all that, a friend of mine, working for a retail chain, introduced a program called "Don't Bag the Environment". For every bag the customer did NOT take, the company took 20 cents out of the till, in front of the customer and donated it into a clear money box, to a environmental organisation. This was a remarkable Win-Win-Win-Win. 1) the customer felt great because they'd done something for the environment, 2) marine life had less bags to trouble them, 3) a different environmental group received a much needed injection of cash every 3-6 months and 4) the retailer made money - well, saved money, same thing - because, of the four sizes of bags they used, three cost more than 20 cents to buy! And these were mostly unbleached, recycled paper bags too. (It's been estimated that the supply of 'free' plastic bags to Australian shoppers actually adds $173M AUD to the national grocery bill.)
In short , Elias, (and I apoligise for being long winded) encourage your customers to bring their own bag, box, day pack or whatever, to your store. Even to reuse their old 'single use' bags. They'll save money, your store will save money and the environment makes a huge saving too. [by WM]
More 'paper or plastic?' reading in TreeHugger
Paper Bags or Plastic Bags? Everything You Need to Know
Sinister Supermarkets: Paper AND Plastic
I'm Not an Ethical Plastic Bag
Anya Hindmarch's Carrier Bag
Reusable Shopping Bag Madness in Australia