Why Aren’t Biodegradable Plastic Bags Better than Paper Bags?

It doesn’t seem too long ago that we were all using traditional single-use plastic bags. Come home from the weekly shop and you’d probably have 10 or 12 left in the boot. Those days have passed – people and governments finally wised up to the impact single-use plastic bags have on the environment, and we’re now strongly encouraged to use more sustainable options instead.

That means we’ve seen paper bags become more popular, but some people believe the old single-use plastic bag is going to make a comeback in the form of biodegradable plastic.

Here’s why biodegradable plastic bags still aren’t as eco-friendly as basic paper bags.

The Illusion of Biodegradability

One of the misconceptions about biodegradable plastic bags is that they swiftly break down when discarded in landfills or left in the environment. Unfortunately, the reality is more nuanced. Biodegradable plastics are designed to break down under specific conditions, and most shopping bags of this kind will only degrade at certain temperatures. When disposed of improperly, such as in the ocean, where a considerable amount of plastic ends up, these bags do not reach the required temperature for degradation, and they tend to sink, preventing exposure to UV rays.

Environmental Risks

Biodegradable bags can contribute to water contamination and pollution, especially as many people tend to be careless with their waste disposal. Furthermore, these bags may release harmful substances during the decomposition process, posing risks to aquatic ecosystems. Moreover, while biodegradable bags made from algae may seem like a more sustainable option, it’s essential to recognize that their decomposition may still release substances that can impact water quality. In such cases, professional pond management services or similar options might become crucial to restore the quality of the water.

Similarly, even if every biodegradable plastic bag were sent to a landfill, it wouldn’t necessarily solve environmental issues. As these bags break down, they can release harmful greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. The promise of eco-friendliness becomes questionable when considering the potential harm caused by the release of these gases during the degradation process. It underscores the importance of exploring alternative, more sustainable options and adopting comprehensive waste management practices to address the broader environmental impact of various materials.

Bio-Based vs. Petroleum-Based Biodegradable Plastics

An essential factor in determining the eco-friendliness of biodegradable plastics is their source. Bio-based materials are derived from natural sources, making them more sustainable than petroleum-based counterparts. Unfortunately, the majority of biodegradable plastics in use today are still made from oil, mirroring the production process of conventional plastics. Additionally, they often contain transition metals such as cobalt, manganese, and iron, which are used to facilitate the breakdown process. This means that, despite the “biodegradable” label, these plastics still contribute to environmental strain and resource depletion.

Alternative Sustainable Choices

Considering the limitations and potential drawbacks of biodegradable plastics, it’s crucial to explore alternative sustainable options. Basic paper bags remain an environmentally friendly choice, as they are biodegradable, compostable, and produced from a renewable resource. Moreover, reusable fabric bags made from materials like cotton or jute offer a durable and eco-conscious alternative, significantly reducing the need for single-use bags altogether.


While the idea of biodegradable plastic bags may seem like a step in the right direction, a closer look reveals the complexities and limitations of these materials. Their selective degradation, potential release of harmful gases, and reliance on petroleum-based sources challenge the notion of true eco-friendliness. As consumers and policymakers alike continue to navigate the path towards sustainability, it is essential to remain informed about the environmental impact of various choices and actively seek alternatives that genuinely contribute to a healthier planet.