For every news article that tells us ‘Reusable bags are better for the environment’ there seems to be another one saying ‘Reusable bags are not really eco-friendly’.
The arguments for and against the environmental sustainability of reusable shopping bags can be confusing, so what’s the truth?
Why do we need reusable bags?
Our ever-increasing use of disposable plastic bags is causing problems around the world, including environmental damage, climate change and pollution, damage to wildlife and natural habitats, and harm to human health.
Reusable bags can help solve these problems by reducing the number of single-use plastic bags manufactured and discarded every day.
What impact do reusable grocery bags have on the environment?
There is a wide range of reusable bags available today; some are better for the environment than others due to the materials used, manufacturing processes and end-of-life disposal.
All bags - including those sold as ‘eco-friendly’ - have some environmental impact. Reusable bags are generally stronger and heavier, so they use more resources in their manufacture and distribution, resulting in a larger environmental footprint.
Natural fabric bags
Some natural-fibre bags such as cotton and canvas have a significant impact on the environment due to the way the crops are grown and processed. While cotton is a renewable material, its production requires large quantities of water, pesticides, energy and fertilizers. Choose organic and recycled cotton materials if possible, or calico, an unbleached cotton material that undergoes less processing.
Hemp and jute (also called hessian or burlap) need less pesticide and fertilizer than cotton, but still use lots of water in cultivation.
Plastic reusable bags
Many different types of plastic can be used to make reusable bags. As plastic is a non-renewable source and the manufacturing process contributes to climate change, they have a large environmental footprint.
Reusable bags made from recycled PET (polyethylene terephthalate) are a more eco-friendly choice. Made from recycled plastic bottles, PET fabric has an almost 90% lower carbon footprint than nylon, and 75% lower than polyester.
To give them added strength and durability, however, reusable bags are often manufactured using more than one material. This can make them harder to recycle, which increases their environmental impact as they must be incinerated or sent to landfill.
Considering all the negatives, how can a reusable bag be more eco-friendly than a disposable plastic bag? It’s all about how often you use it.
When are reusable bags more eco-friendly than single use plastic bags?
A UK study concluded that whatever type of bag is used, the key to reducing the impacts is to reuse it as many times as possible.
When comparing disposable plastic shopping bags (made from high density polyethylene – HDPE) with various other bags, the study found that the reusable bags must be used many more times if they are to be a better option environmentally.
The minimum number of times each bag must be reused varies:
- Low density polyethylene (LDPE) bag – 4 times
- Non-woven polypropylene (PP) bag – 14 times
- Cotton bag – 173 times
Reusing the bags at least this number of times ensures that they have a lower global warming potential and are more eco-friendly than conventional disposable HDPE bags.
Do reusable bags really reduce my environmental footprint?
Yes, absolutely – but only if you use them again and again.
In terms of sustainability, reusable bags are just like many other products that we buy. Whether we buy clothes or shoes, furniture or food, it’s more eco-friendly if we use it to its fullest potential.
Throwing away unused or under-utilized items is a waste of resources, so don’t just buy a reusable bag – use it, reuse it... then use it some more.