How to Recycle Paper Bags

Paper bags take lots of energy to produce and have poor reusability, but they are easy to recycle.

By Maryruth Belsey-Priebe

Fact checked by Sander Tamm

Recycling Paper Bags
Recycling Paper Bags / Sander Tamm / Ecolife

Paper or plastic? It’s a question Americans are asked all of the time when standing in the check-out line of the supermarket. The great debate between paper or plastic grocery bags rages on, though most environmentalists will tell you that, surprisingly, plastic bags are better for the planet. These statistics tell the story:

  • Making paper bags requires about four times the energy it takes to make plastic bags, though paper bags are compostable and plastic bags are not.
  • To be an eco-friendly alternative to a plastic bag, a paper bag would have to be reused at least three times.
  • Paper bags are made from renewable resources, unlike plastic bags which are made from non-renewable petroleum byproducts. Plus producing paper bags results in more than three times as much greenhouse gas emissions compared to plastic bag production.
  • Plastic shopping bags result in up to 80% less solid waste than paper bags. They also generate smaller quantities of air pollution.

Nevertheless, paper bags are still used in huge quantities. According to the Sierra Club, Americans consume the equivalent of 14 million trees worth of paper bags every single year!

Reduce paper bag use

Since paper bags are worse for the environment, let’s find ways to reduce our dependence on them:

  • Take reusable bags with you on all shopping trips – from grocery shopping to the bookstore.
  • If you forget your reusable bags but have only a handful of things to take from a store, refuse a bag and carry your items by hand.
  • Pack lunches in reusable lunch bags rather than small paper bags.

So while it’s important for us to choose more sustainable bag options we also need to find ways to reduce our consumption of trees. Recycling paper bags is just one such solution to our paper bag waste problem.

How to recycle paper bags

Here are a few ways to recycle your paper bags:

  • Curbside recycling: In many ways, your paper bags are like your newspapers, and so often they are recycled with that group of paper waste. However, you may need to remove plastic handles and other accessories that would contaminate the recycling process. Like other paper products, when paper bags are recycled, they’re broken down with water, heat, and a blending process, then screened to remove debris and then turned into new paper products.
  • Drop off recycling: If you’re without a curbside recycling program, you can often drop off paper bags for recycling with your other paper goods. Just be sure they’re free of contaminants and folded neatly to conserve space.
  • Composting: If your paper bags are printed with either soy or vegetable-based dyes, then by all means, tear up your paper bags and put them in your compost pile or your worm bin. Conventional dyes made with heavy metals can be toxic and shouldn’t be used in compost that will be applied to a garden that produces food.

When there are no recycling or composting options for your used paper bags, then find ways to reuse them. For instance:

  • Line your garbage can with paper bags rather than plastic ones as they’re easier to break down in a landfill.
  • Make crafts out of paper bags, such as puppetshats, or decorated gift bags.
  • Use your paper bags as wrapping paper for gift-giving.