Written by Stephanye Najar
There is a common misconception of brown paper bags as being an alternative solution to plastic bags. Although paper bags are provided as an option at many checkout stands, paper bags are contributing to unethical practices that indirectly affect the environment. Some would argue that paper bags is a “sustainable” approach as opposed to plastic bags, yet their impacts on the environment are equally harmful. In the case of plastic bags, environmental affects are seen on ecosystems, specifically marine life, which are vulnerable to plastic dumping from runoffs that end up in oceans. Plastic bags accumulate and travel down storm drains leading into the ocean. Once in the ocean, the bags begin to impact marine ecosystems and species. On the other hand, plastic bag manufacturing causes air pollution from incineration of natural gas, which impacts air quality. As a result, such manufacturing poses detrimental health issues for those living near manufacturing sites. In fact, plastic bags were created in order to stop the consumption of paper bags, which was a concern in the early 19070s. Since paper bags require more energy to transport, its transportation costs are more drastic than that of plastic bags. Paper bag manufacturing has been said to be resource intensive, considering its impact on deforestation caused by tree plantations, which are identified as monocultures. To understand the origin of paper bags, one needs to trace its historical usage as being single-use bags. From the patent inventions of Francis Wolle in 1840 to Margaret E. Knight, who employed the idea for an, “improvement in paper-feeding machines” in 1870, these inventors were seeking creative ways to make grocery-shopping convenient during the Industrial Revolution. Although paper bags were seen as a consumer revolutionary mechanism, today it raises questions of environmental ethics and the political economy: How do paper bags effect the environment? If so, what, if anything, should people (or for that matter, businesses or corporations) do about it? What is the relationship between the political economy and consumerism in terms of the environmental impact of paper bags?
In recent years, California’s ban on plastic bags, also known as Proposition 67, has impacted and brought statewide awareness. California is known as the first state to ban plastic bags, which has positively influenced the nation as a whole. As stated on the website, Ballotpedia, under the title, California Proposition 67, Plastic Bag Ban Veto Referendum (2016), states, “The measure was designed to prohibit large grocery stores and pharmacies from providing plastic single-use carryout bags and ban small grocery stores, convenience stores, and liquor stores from doing so the following year. It allowed single-use plastic bags for meat, bread, produce, bulk food, and perishable items. The measure required stores to charge 10 cents for recycled, compostable, and reusable grocery bags” (Ballotpedia). As a result, grocery stores offer paper bags at the cost of the individual. If customers forget their tote bag, then they have the option to either purchase a 10 cent paper bag or carry their grocery items out of the store if they do want to purchase a paper bag. The former option came into effect state wide beginning January of 2017. Analyzing the impacts of paper bags through an environmental ethics and political economy lens will support the notion that paper bags are an alternative problem and not a solution.
Historically, the invention of grocery paper bags date back to the 1840’s, by the inventor, Francis Wolle, whose design met the demand for grocery bags by producing bags at a massive scale during the Industrial Revolution. Although this early invention of paper bags was convenient for the time being, they contained inconvenient flaws; one for the most being they were not self-standing bags. Since the bottom of bags were sealed in a form of an envelope, which also caused issues especially for those carrying a few pounds of produce. As stated in The Evolution of the Grocery Bag, “The history of design has yet to see the development if a perfect object, though it has seen many satisfactory ones and many substantially improved ones. The concept of imperative improvement is embedded in the paradigm for invention, the better mousetrap” (Petroski, 100). As a result of being early inventions, grocery paper bags needed some improvements. In the years that followed, Margaret E. Knight invented the “durable” paper bag dating to 1870. The updated versions of paper bags consisted of handles and were able to hold a few pounds of produce. The patent version of Knight’s invention, “improvement in paper-feeding machines”, consisted of “the basis of the flat-bottomed bag”. As started by Petroski, “Knight’s machines performed its greatest magic by shaping the end of the tube into a flat bottom by means of a series of three folds, and the drawings that delineate the three-step mechanical folding process look like instructions for “industrial origami”: the first fold formed the end of the tube slit diamond, the second creased one tip of the diamond over to make a pentagon, and the third creased the other tip over to form an elongated hexagon” (Petroski, 104). In other words, Knight’s complex invention completely changed and revolutionized paper bags; of course she faced scrutiny for being a female inventor during the Victorian Era where social structures limited women as housewives and viewed men as wage earners, which created barriers for entrepreneurial women.
Moreover, paper bags have been of significant use since the 1940’s, during World War II, paper bags were being tested for durability. As shown in the 1944 archival article, Paper Finds New Uses, Morrow examined possibilities for paper bags to immerse into combat clothing and tents. More specifically, crepe paper was used as an alternative parachute to deliver supplies during World War II; paper bags were tested for durability in order to protect supplies against weathering. A description under an image of paper bags being drenched is captioned, “DRENCHED- To test the ability of paper bags to withstand rough treatment, paper shipping sacks developed by Bemis Bro. Bag Co. and the American Cyanamid and Chemical Corp. were sprayed for 24 hours” (Morrow). Evidently, paper bag usage has evolved throughout western history, for the purpose of consumerism and warfare. Taking into account its mass production from Bemis Bro. Bag Co, one may wonder how many trees were extracted for the military to consume paper bags. In general, the use of paper bags, have evolved since their earlier inventions from Francis Wolle and Margaret E. Knight. Important to realize, is that paper bag consumption reveals human and environmental relationship. The process of paper bags stems from resource extraction that creates environmental degradation linked to monoculture farming of trees.
Environmental Ethics Lens
Analyzing paper bags through the environmental ethics lens brings questions of anthropocentric views, which is defined as, “an ethical standpoint that views humans as the central factor in consideration of right and wrong action in and toward nature” (Robbins, 316). Notably, degradation of land from resource extraction for paper bag consumption is environmentally unethical. With the use of technological advancements, resource extractions have more than quadrupled since the turn of the century. In this case, the paper bag industry has produced more bags than what was produced during Francis Wolle and Margaret E. Knight era. With an increase of paper bag production, comes an increase of man-made monocultures that have a great impact on the environment. Considering that paper bags come from tree plantations, which are monocultures that provide little biodiversity of other species. Specifically, an environmental problem associated with monoculture, is soil degradation cause by cultivating the same crop within a limited amount of land space. In the case of the United States for paper bag consumption, corporations contribute to a massive scale of resource extraction from tree plantations, causing detrimental impacts on the environment. As stated in the Tree chapter in the textbook, Environment and Society: A Critical Introduction, Robbins states that in the United States of America, “there are more than 17 million hectares of planation forest, created and maintained by the government in conjunction with timber companies, That is a figure larger than the total forest cover of most countries in the world” (Robbins, 169). Important to note are the effects plantations have on the environment, since they lack biodiversity exposing the land to poor soil conditions, which makes it susceptible to catch fungal disease brought by unwanted pest. Due to the lack of biodiversity, natural occurring processes like ecosystem services are depleted alongside with forest, which endanger native species. For these reasons, consumption of paper bags is environmentally concerning for the future of land usage.
Furthermore, taking into account ecosystem services and forest depletion, species that once inhabited the land are put in danger from our unethical consumption behavior. With this in mind, natural forest and land that stood in place before the tree plantation occurred for paper bag production are depleted to make room for synthetic tree plantations. These paper bags are only built to last for a single-use that entails a short trip from the grocery checkout stand to the consumer’s home. Indeed, paper bags are resource-intensive and a waste of natural resources. As stated on the, Paper vs. Plastic Bags-The Studies, on the section of solid waste, states, “paper bags have much greater mass and weigh five to seven times more than plastic bags so they add five to seven times more tonnage to the waste stream for municipalities to manage. This in turn results in a fivefold to sevenfold increase in greenhouse gas emissions” (Canadian Plastics Industry Association). Evidently, the environmental impacts of paper bags outweigh its consumer benefits. In general, paper bags generate high level of carbon emissions from intensive energy usage; since paper weighs more than plastic it requires more energy to transport from different sites than plastic would. As noted in the article, Paper of Plastic?, by the Environmental Literacy Council, “It would take approximately seven trucks to transport the same number of paper bags as can be transported by a single truck full of plastic bags” (Environmental Literacy Council). Evidently paper bags are more energy intensive considering the weight and size of paper in comparison to plastic, transportation emits pollution, which affects air quality although the results are not visible, environmental impact of smog appear years later. Taking an ethical stance against the use of paper bags, raises questions of environmental ethics since paper bags are produced from monoculture-tree plantations, why are they an option at the checkout stand in grocery stores across California- a state that banned plastic bags for their environmental impacts? This question also addresses a political economy standpoint.
Political Economy Lens
Further critical analysis of paper bags through the political economy lens interconnects capitalist values with environmental degradation in the manufacturing process of paper bags. Specifically, tree plantations, which are viewed as property of the human industry through the notion of “Production of Nature”, which is defined as, “the idea that the environment, if it ever did exist separate from people, is now a product of human industry or activity” (Robbins, 321). In other words, the paper bag industry establishes ownership of water, trees and soil, in order to profit from commodities that are made from these natural resources. Yet, the conditions of production of paper bags have been reported to be more resource heavy than creating plastic bags. As stated in, The Scottish Report (2005) section states, “[A] paper bag has a more adverse impact than a plastic bag for most of the environmental issues considered. Areas where paper bags score particularly badly include water consumption, atmospheric acidification (which can have effects on human health, sensitive ecosystems, forest decline and acidification of lakes) and eutrophication of water bodies (which can lead to growth of algae and depletion of oxygen)” (All About Bags). Evidently, the production of paper bags creates negative externalities that raise questions of environmental concerns that are just as harmful as plastic bag manufacturing and consumption.
Moreover, the environment and human relationship within the paper bag industry is influenced by economic incentives that generate monetary value for the industry. In order for the industry to continue striving, they must seek to maximize profit. As stated by Robbins in the Trees chapter of, Environment and Society: A Critical Introduction, about the capitalist market economy, “requires sustained accumulation of capital and its continued circulation through the system” (Robbins, 109-110). In other words, in order for the industry to flourish they must continue to meet consumer demands even if it depletes the environment. Granted that paper bags are market driven, these corporations face competition, which influences land use extension. As stated by Robbins, “As prices fall further in commodity crisis, the need to continue to extend farming into more forest land and to intensify production using modern, forest-averse techniques becomes greater. Producers continue to expend and intensify production to make up for losses accrued in falling markets leading to poorer prices, more forest clearance, and more intensive mining of soil” (Robbins, 176). In this case, tree plantations owned by the paper bag industry promote deforestation and is seen as an “inevitable crisis in capitalist agriculture”, due to the competitive market values. In brief, those benefiting from the industry often times ignore socioeconomic and environmental issues.
Ultimately, paper bags raise questions of concern that exposes the industries flaws. Approaching it form the environmental ethics and political economy lens depicts unethical land treatment and pollution caused from the manufacturing process. It is important to note that paper bags are not a sustainable solution to plastic bag consumption. In either case, both paper and plastic bags are a burdensome for the environment and human health. To illustrate the interconnectedness of paper bags, massive production influenced by economic profits causes environmental negative externalities, which are hazardous for human health. All things considered, should single-use paper bags continue to be an option at the grocery checkout stands nation-wide? Especially when our consumption for paper bags have environmental impacts that are hazardous for non-humans who cannot protect themselves from daunting anthropocentric values that are interconnected with the global economy. For the future of the planet we need to take into consideration the affects of mass consumption and focus on how to live “intune” with nature even if it means skipping on the 10 cent paper bag and caring produce to your home.
Morrow, Martha. “Paper Finds New Uses.” The Science News-Letter, 8 Jan. 1944.
“Paper or Plastic?” The Environmental Literacy Council, the Environmental Literacy Council, 2015.
“Paper vs. Plastic Bags- The Studies.” All About Bags, Canadian Plastics Industry Association. 2012.
Pallay, Geoff. “California Proposition 67, Plastic Bag Ban Veto Referendum (2016).”Ballotpedia, Ballotpedia, Jan. 2016,
Petroski, Henry. “The Evolution of the Grocery Bag.” The American Scholar, vol. 72, no. 4, Aug. 2003, pp. 99–111.
Robbins, Paul, et al. Environment and Society: A Critical Introduction. 2nd ed.,Wiley Blackwell, 2014.