Eric Masanet Debunks Paper and Plastic Bag “EcoMyth” on WBEZ

Sustainability expert encourages "life-cycle" approach to assessing environmental impact

Plastic bags become litter. Paper bags are recycled. The choice is easy, right?

Eric Masanet, associate professor of mechanical engineering and chemical and biological engineering at the McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science, recently appeared on WBEZ Worldview’s EcoMyths segment to address the true environmental cost of the paper versus plastic debate. 

Eric MasanetIt is a common assumption that paper shopping bags are a more environmentally friendly alternative to plastic bags. According to Masanet, people often focus solely on the environmental cost of plastic bags to become litter after they are disposed, while paper bags are celebrated for being degradable and recyclable. 

Masanet, whose research focuses on life-cycle analysis, explained that one should consider the environmental impact paper and plastic bags leave during every stage of existence in order to make an informed choice about which is most green. Analyzing the resources required during manufacturing and transportation, for example, presents a surprising realization about paper bags’ environmental footprint.

“If you have a choice between plastic and paper to carry home your groceries, essentially whatever you choose is going to have an impact. On the paper side, it is very energy intensive to manufacture, and there is a lot of water use that goes into manufacturing paper.” 

Listen to Eric Masanet on WBEZ Worldview’s EcoMyths.