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Americans Say Paper Bags More Eco-Friendly Than Plastic

Americans Say Paper Bags More Eco-Friendly Than Plastic

by Art Swift and John Fleming
Chart: data points are described in article

Story Highlights

  • 73% say paper shopping bags do less harm to environment
  • 22% say plastic bags less harmful
  • More Democrats than Republicans vote for paper

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- In an otherwise polarized nation, Americans are fairly united in their take on the "paper vs. plastic" debate. When asked which shopping-bag material is better for the environment, 73% say paper bags do less harm, while 22% say plastic.

Americans Believe Paper Better Than Plastic for Environment
Which of these does LESS harm to the environment -- [ROTATED: using paper shopping bags (or) using plastic shopping bags]?
Paper Plastic
% %
Mar 1-5, 2017 73 22

These results come from Gallup's Environment Poll, conducted March 1-5.

There has been debate in recent years in business and among scientists over whether the paper bags used in grocery stores and supermarkets are more harmful or less harmful to the environment than plastic bags. Several municipalities have either banned plastic bags or imposed a tax on their use, because of environmental concerns. Advocates for paper have touted its sustainable sourcing and biodegradable aspects, while those supporting plastic usage have noted the reusable nature of the product, such as for cleaning up after dogs. Plastic bags became the norm in supermarkets mostly because they are cheaper.

Democrats More Likely Than Republicans to Favor Paper Over Plastic

While members of all party groups are more likely to say paper bags are less harmful to the environment than plastic ones, slightly more Democrats (77%) and independents (74%) than Republicans (67%) consider paper the better choice.

Democrats Prefer Paper Shopping Bags More Than Republicans Do
Which of these does LESS harm to the environment -- [ROTATED: using paper shopping bags (or) using plastic shopping bags]?
Paper Plastic
% %
Republicans 67 28
Independents 74 22
Democrats 77 17
Gallup, March 1-5, 2017

Gallup also finds little difference in these views according to respondents' general orientation toward the environmental movement. People who are active in the environmental movement, or sympathetic to it, are only slightly more likely than others to believe that paper bags do less harm to the environment than plastic bags. This is the case even though those active in or sympathetic to environmental causes are much more likely to worry about various threats to the environment, and to take concrete actions to help protect the environment.

Paper vs. Plastic, by Americans' Level of Involvement in the Environmental Movement
Percentage of those in three categories -- active participants in the environmental movement, sympathetic but not active, and neutral or unsympathetic -- who think paper bags or plastic bags are less harmful to environment
Active participant Sympathetic Neutral/Unsympathetic
% % %
Using paper shopping bags 76 76 69
Using plastic shopping bags 19 20 26
Gallup, March 1-5, 2017

Bottom Line

For years, lobbyists and industry groups on both sides of the paper-plastic divide have tried to convince the public -- and, by extension, manufacturers, retailers and shippers -- of the environmental superiority of their products.

Some of these arguments have focused on whether paper- or plastic-based products are more sustainable, or easily replenished, in the long term. Advocates for paper claim that it is biodegradable, easily recyclable and reusable, while plastic advocates have laid claim to recyclability and reusability. Both have steered away from arguments that focus on how their rival's products are actually made, which from an environmental perspective might be characterized as a draw.

Amid these claims and counterclaims, Americans judge paper to be the clear winner for shopping bags. This transcends the usual political rifts, and even those who are indifferent or unsympathetic to environmental issues favor paper over plastic from an environmental perspective.

In light of these findings, it is not surprising that some U.S. communities -- as well as the states of California and Hawaii, in addition to the District of Columbia -- have restricted or banned the use of disposable plastic shopping bags or charge a fee for their use. However, some of the same jurisdictions also place fees on some paper bags, especially those made from nonrecycled paper.

Although there is nearly universal access to recycling programs across the United States and constantly evolving applications for the reuse of both paper and plastic products, Americans give the environmental nod to paper shopping bags over plastic by nearly 3 to 1.

Survey Methods

Results for this Gallup poll are based on telephone interviews conducted March 1-5, 2017, with a random sample of 1,018 adults, aged 18 and older, living in all 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia. For results based on the total sample of national adults, the margin of sampling error is ±4 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. All reported margins of sampling error include computed design effects for weighting.

Each sample of national adults includes a minimum quota of 70% cellphone respondents and 30% landline respondents, with additional minimum quotas by time zone within region. Landline and cellular telephone numbers are selected using random-digit-dial methods.

View survey methodology, complete question responses and trends.

Learn more about how the Gallup Poll Social Series works.

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