Are Paper Bags Recyclable?

Yes, they are. But it’s not a straightforward concept; there are many factors to consider when it comes to recycling paper bags.

It is a widely known and accepted fact that paper is recyclable; hence paper bags are too.

While that’s true, paper bags can become unrecyclable with the slightest bit of damage/ruination.

Therefore, the issue of recycling paper bags is one that requires detailed discussion. 

Recycling Paper Bags

While paper bags are recyclable, recycling them is not always feasible because they get contaminated easily and threaten to pollute the rest of the recyclables in a plant.

Therefore, you cannot always send your paper bags for recycling.

Paper is recycled in three stages.

  • In the first stage, it is shredded to bits to be mixed with water.
  • After that, it’s boiled at incredibly high temperatures to acquire a pulp-like consistency. 
  • Once the mushy pulp is prepared, it is reused to make new paper products.

The overview of the paper recycling process clearly shows that water has an integral role to play in it.

Due to this, any element that doesn’t mingle with water cannot be present in the recycling plant.

This means if a paper bag is stained with oil or grease, it cannot go through the recycling process, rendering the paper unrecyclable. 

Simply put, if you want to ship your paper bags for recycling, you need to ensure they are free from all oily or greasy contaminants, which may not always be possible.

Let’s say you bring groceries home, and some oily liquid leaks inside the bag. Or you pack leftover food in a paper bag, and the oil from the case seeps through, soaking the paper.

Simply put, you cannot always ensure that a paper bag will remain clean. Therefore, sometimes you may not be able to get it recycled. 

However, not all hope is lost, because when you cannot recycle paper bags, you can compost them. 

The good thing about paper is that it’s biodegradable, so you can add it to your compost pile and let the microbes do their job.

After the mulch is ready, you can mix it with the soil and enrich your backyard!

Compost is excellent for fertilizing the soil, so why not use paper to make some and improve your yard’s fertility.

Take a compost bin and put all of the organic waste in it. Let it stay there a while (until microorganisms start decomposing), and then add the paper bits.

A few weeks later, you will have your compost ready for use.

Also read: Compostable vs. Biodegradable Trash Bags

What to Do With the Handles? 

Many paper bags have handles attached that are not always recyclable. If you have such a variety, tear off the handle if it’s not made of paper.

But if it is also paper-based, process it with the rest of the bag. 

What To Do With Paper Bags That Are Not Entirely Made Of Paper?

We often see bags that apparently seem to be made entirely of paper but have traces of plastics. Sometimes, they are even lined with plastic for better durability.

Either way, if a paper bag has plastic, you cannot send it for recycling or compost it (even if the plastic used is recyclable itself).

As surprising as it may seem, paper + recyclable plastic in a bag render it unrecyclable. Since the two materials are combined so well, they cannot be separated.

As a result, they cannot be treated separately, which is essential; otherwise, the recycling plant will cease to function.

Plastic and paper have different recycling mechanisms and cannot be processed together.

So if they are put through the same contraption, they will not get recycled and collapse the entire system. 

So long story short, if a paper bag contains plastic, you cannot recycle it or put it in the compost pile.

Also read: Are Paper Plates Bad for the Environment?

Paper Bags vs. Plastic Bags

Paper and plastic bags are pitted against one another based on their impact on the environment.

In this competition of which is better for Mother Nature, paper is considered an unrivaled winner, simply because it’s recyclable. 

But it is worth noticing that now many plastic varieties are also recyclable, which means one cannot automatically declare paper bags more sustainable than plastic bags. 

To better understand the construction and composition of paper and plastic bags that impact their recyclability, here is an in-depth comparison between the two.

A paper bag is 100% recyclable, but it takes a significant amount of extra energy to be recycled compared to a plastic bag.

That’s right! Paper bags require approximately 91% more energy for recycling than plastic bags. In other words, their recycling process is much more energy-intensive.

Moreover, the energy required to produce the two bag varieties is also starkly different. Manufacturing paper bags takes 4 times more energy than plastic bags.

On top of that, paper bags are made using pulp acquired from trees. This means massive swaths of trees are cleared to provide raw materials for paper production, which in turn are used to make paper bags.

So it’s safe to say, making paper and paper bags is not helping the environment as it deprives the planet of greenery, which is essential for sucking carbon out from the atmosphere.

Paper bags release 70 times more air pollutants and 50 times more water pollutants than plastic bags. In other words, they contribute more to air and water pollution.

Additionally, paper bags are biodegradable, which is why many people believe that they decompose in landfills, unlike plastic bags, and hence are better for the global waste management problem.

But that’s not true because any organic material requires oxygen and microbes to decompose, which are conditions that may or may not be present in a landfill.

So, there is no guarantee that if paper bags end up in landfills, they’ll degrade faster than plastic bags.

What’s more, paper bags are arguably the most unreliable and flimsy holders on the market, that tear from the littlest pressure.

Due to this, users have to keep replacing their paper bags, which may not be the case with plastic bags.

While plastic bags are harmful to the environment, they are much more durable than paper bags and don’t need to be replaced every so often.

As a result, their volume doesn’t increase as rapidly as that of paper bags. 

Another thing to consider about paper is that its fibers are not too strong, i.e., they lose strength after every recycling run. As a result, they cannot be reprocessed after 5-6 times.

So, even if you think that using paper bags is wise because you can send them for recycling, you must realize that you can do that only so many times.

After 5-6 cycles, you cannot restore used paper. But that’s not the case with plastic. The plastic varieties that are recyclable are much more durable than paper fibers and can be recycled enough times.

All the facts mentioned above make it pretty clear that paper bags are not all that better than plastic bags.

Of course, this conclusion in no way implies that plastic bags are better and should be preferred over their paper counterparts.

Perhaps the best course of action going forward would be to switch to cloth bags. 

However, that doesn’t take care of the paper bags you already have. So, what do you do with those? You repurpose them!

Repurposing Paper Bags

One of the biggest conveniences of paper bags is that they can be used in different ways, provided you keep them clean.

Gift Wrapping

How often do we wrap gifts in those plastic wrapping sheets available in the market? Perhaps, all the time.

So instead of spending money on plastic, why not use the paper bags you have lying around to wrap presents?

All you need to do for that is undo the bag, i.e., separate the glued ends and turn the square or rectangular holder into a plain sheet.

Then use it to cover your gift and finish the presentation with some cute ribbons.

Tie Flowers

Flowers on a brown paper sheet look incredibly classy. So, if you want to give someone a bouquet, get the flowers of your liking, tie them with a ribbon and cover the stems in a paper sheet.

Cover Books

Want to keep your little one’s textbooks safe? The easiest way you can do that is by covering them with paper from paper bags.

Open a bag and use the sheet you retrieve to cover your child’s books. You can also do the same thing with your books or novels if you don’t want them to get dirty.

Use for Arts And Crafts

Paper from paper bags is as good as regular paper kids use for drawing and other art activities.

If you want to provide your kids with extra supplies for arts and crafts, you can use old paper bags and give the paper you get from those to your little Picassos.

Line Garbage Cans

Another way to go about reusing a paper bag is by lining your garbage can with it. But be sure not to dump any liquid waste into that trash bin, as doing so will destroy the paper.

Ending Note

While paper bags are recyclable, you may not be able to recycle them every single time. Therefore, consider using more sustainable options such as cloth bags.

As for the paper bags you already have, either compost them or repurpose them in case you cannot send them to a recycling facility.

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