The European Commission is waging war on disposable plastic bags. According to estimates, we use between 500 and 1,000 billion bags each year worldwide, and Europe alone accounts for 100 billion (1). Yet 8 billion of these end up as litter. Made of polyethylene produced using a petrochemical derivative, plastic bags are highly resistant and difficult to recycle. They pollute the soil and water and take centuries to decompose. 

The European Commission, working through Janez Potočnik, Commissioner for the Environment, has therefore asked EU member states to cut their consumption of light-use plastic bags by 80%. Under the proposal, members of the European Union are being encouraged to up their fight against this environmental scourge, with the option of either cutting their use or levying taxes. Some countries which have already implemented such measures will have to increase their efforts further.

Denmark, Germany and Ireland have confirmed the viability of taxing the distribution and use of plastic bags. Since its introduction of a 50 cent bag tax, Ireland has seen consumption fall by 92%. As of 1st of January 2014, consumers and distributors in France now have to pay a tax of 6 cents. This does not however apply to disposable plastic bags made of more than 40% plant-based material.

The ban on using plastic bags with a thickness of less than or equal to 50 microns is a more radical approach. Several Asian and African countries have already taken the plunge, and using plastic bags has been illegal in Italy since 2011. Along the Tuscan coast, 73% of its plastic waste comes from plastic bags (2).

This Brussels-led offensive against plastic bags has made environmental experts sceptic: without any real pan-European regulations, attempts will remain timid and all measures self-imposed. We therefore still need to find an effective counter measure to the use of plastic bags which continue to be touted by distributors and consumers alike. So what about paper?

Paper bags: a wholesome alternative

Throughout their entire life cycle, from manufacture to recycling including use, paper bags present numerous environmental advantages over their plastic counterparts. Plastic bags are made from high density polyethylene which in turn is made using oil, a non-renewable fossil fuel.

On the other hand, paper bags are made from virgin fibre, usually obtained from sustainably managed forests. FSC-certified paper (Forest Stewardship Council) guarantees responsible management of the forests. In other words, the forest is harvested according to environmental, social and economic sustainability standards. Paper is even more environmentally-friendly when made from recycled pulp. The manufacturing process not only considerably reduces the ecological footprint of photochemical oxidants and CO2 emissions, but also uses much less energy at all stages (3).

From the point of view of both the distributor and consumer, paper bags are more attractive and have more of an impact than the traditional plastic bag. A flexible advertising medium, they allow brands and related information to be clearly displayed. They are also practical to carry for the user. There is also much less risk when bags made of paper get discarded.

When no longer needed, plastic bags have disastrous consequences on the environment. With only a fleeting useful life but virtually rot-proof, plastic bags are only used for about 20 minutes, but take between 100 to 400 years to decompose. And although recycling them is a costly process, destroying them involves an incineration technique that produces a significant amount of greenhouse gas. Paper, which is fully recyclable if made from virgin fibres, is naturally biodegradable, and in the natural environment a paper bag will decompose after just two months. Therefore for both economic and ecological reasons, paper has every chance of becoming the new standard when it comes to shopping bags.


(1) Source: European Commission

(2) Source: ARPA - ARPAT

(3) Reduction in greenhouse gas emissions of up to 30%

Go back