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Paper Bags or Plastic Bags?

By Stephen Hamilton 24 March, 2014

These are questions that we get asked frequently, and we find that there are different motivations for asking.

Reasons for asking can include the following:

  • Interested in what bag will perform better - that is not break, retain shape, or be better for printing upon
  • Interested in environmental factors, and wanting to make better environmentally sustainable choices
  • Interested in cost - different material types have different costs
  • Availability - let's be honest, if you need bags in a hurry, you'll order what is available

How do you decide? For many, it is a combination of two or more of the above reasons. Let's break down these factors one by one, and hopefully this will help you make a good decision.

Bag Performance

The physical integrity of the bag used is critical. Specifically, you don't want a bag that is going to break, tear, or stretch.

Both paper bags and plastic bags are strong. Plastic singlet bags (think the plastic bags commonly found at supermarkets, made from HDPE) are one of the strongest. Many plastic bags are, particularly in retail environments, are made from LDPE (Low Density Polyethylene) and in our experience people overestimate the strength of these bags. This can results in stretch, or torn, bags.

When it comes to printing on either type of bag, both can be printed on effectively. One key consideration is the volume of bags required. Printing smaller print runs in Australia is more affordable with stock paper bags, as print runs can be as small as 500 bags. On the other hand, print runs for plastic bags start at larger quantities. This is usually done on a raw material weight basis (minimum 100kg), but for the most common bags, the minimum is roughly 10,000 bags.

Environmentally Sustainable Choices

Let's look at the environmental factors surrounding the Paper Bags vs Plastic Bags debate:

Paper Bags

Pros:

  • Bio-degradable
  • Recyclable (especially good for composting)
  • Paper bags typically have greater volume - that is, they hold more stuff

Cons:

  • Involves cutting down trees
  • Manufacturing & recycling involves use of lots of chemicals
  • Very energy-intensive to produce

Plastic Bags

Pros:

  • Requires less energy to manufacture than paper
  • Use of plastic bags creates less emissions than use of paper bags
  • Moisture resistant, resulting in less breakage of bags & product

Cons:

  • Is made from oil, a non-renewable resource
  • Can only be recycled a limited number of times before losing its plasticity
  • Most plastic bags take many decades to break down, and often end up polluting waterways and endangering wildlife

It is pretty much impossible to categorically state that paper bags are a better environmental choice than plastic bags, or vice-versa. There are many factors to consider, and it is complex.

However, as an Australian company, we recognise that most of our nation's population and a large portion of our primary industries are based in coastal areas. As one of the driest places on Earth, we understand the value of our waterways. With that in mind, we believe the negative effect plastic bags have on our waterways and wildlife warrants special consideration. Sadly, many bags end up as litter, but while paper bags break down relatively quickly, plastic bags often end up in waterways. Most plastic bags are not bio-degradable and can take decades to break down. In the meantime, this has a serious negative impact on flora and fauna.

Furthermore, if you are looking for something that is truly a better eco-friendly choice, consider reusable bags, such as non-woven polypropylene bags, or calico bags.

Both are bags that can be reused by the consumer many times over, which is a big positive. This has the advantage that any branding you get printed on these bags is also seen again and again - excellent exposure over and over! Perhaps you could consider these bags for your packaging requirements?

Bag Cost

Costs vary greatly based upon the dimensions of the bags (including thickness of the material), handle type, and especially the type of material the bag is made from. You will have to check the pricing for the particular type of bag you require.

Generally speaking, this is the order of price based on material, lowest to highest:

  • Plastic Bags
  • Paper Bags
  • Non-woven Polypropylene Bags
  • Calico Bags

Availability

The reality here is that availability will vary in line with market supply and demand. The simple way around getting the bags you'd prefer is to order in reasonable quantities, and order early. Most suppliers will keep stock aside if a purchase order is supplied, as it helps them to keep their stock management in good stead too. You may want to consider ahead of time alternative options in case your first choice isn’t available.

Conclusion

For the record, QIS Packaging stocks all types of bags mentioned in this article. However, we feel that in most cases, Paper Bags are a superior choice to Plastic Bags. Paper Bags are arguably the better environmental choice here in Australia, as evidenced by some state governments and local councils moving to ban plastic bags.

Paper Bags are a good medium for printing upon, and costs are relatively low for printing runs compared to plastic bags. Paper Bags are durable, and are widely available in many sizes and colours.

For people placing a large emphasis on environmental sustainability, we recommend reusable calico bags. These are considerably more expensive to buy, but many retailers have more than offset this by charging clients for these bags. Eco-conscious consumers are generally happy to pay a little extra for sustainable choices.

So, armed with some more information, which bags will you choose, and why? We would love to hear from you in the comments.


About Stephen Hamilton:

Stephen is the Digital Marketing Manager at QIS Packaging, which means he is closely involved with the technical and content strategy aspects of the QIS website and other digital properties. At work, Stephen is passionate about testing, measuring & improving marketing activity. Outside of work, he loves BBQ, music and sports.

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