Top Alternatives to Disposable Plastic Shopping Bags

So you’ve decided to kick the plastic bag habit - great news!

But won’t it make life difficult? Is this really going to have an impact?

There are great alternatives available to you that don’t cost the earth. There is something for everyone so you can find one that works best for you.

How convenient are the alternatives?

You need a bag that does the job. Think about what you need a bag for – how much will it need to hold? Can it carry a heavy load? Does it match your personal style?

Consider how practical it is for you to use.

Large, bulky bags are fine if you always carry them in the car, but if it has to fit into your purse – or even your pocket – look for something lightweight that folds up small.

If it doesn’t fit your lifestyle, you're less likely to use it. And that sort of defeats the purpose!

How eco-friendly are the alternatives?

The more times you use your bag, the more eco-friendly it becomes. Each time you refuse a ‘free’ plastic bag you’re helping cut environmental pollution and plastic waste, so choose something durable.

A bag made from recycled, repurposed and/or recyclable material is a great choice, but beware!

Paper bags are often seen as a sustainable alternative to plastic, but they are likely to be used only once and then thrown away. Paper bags actually use more energy than plastic bags to manufacture and, although they can be recycled or composted, around 80 percent of all paper bags end up in landfill.

So what are the best alternatives?

Top picks to replace plastic shopping bags

#1 Reusable Tote Bag (Recycled)

There are a lot of tote bags on the market now, which can make your decision to choose the right one difficult.

Most totes on the market are made from cotton or synthetic cloth. 99% of the time they are made from virgin materials.

Concern: Products made from virgin materials cost more to make from an environmental impact perspective. Since their production has a high environmental impact, you need to keep using them for a long period of time in order for them to become more environmentally friendly than disposable bags. 

Benefit: Totes made from recycled materials, on the other hand, can be more environmentally friendly than disposable bags on first use.

The Tern Tote, for example, utilizes fabric made from recycled plastic bottles.

If you want to decrease your environmental impact as much as possible, do your due diligence before purchasing. Make sure you are investing in a tote that is made from recycled or repurposed materials instead of virgin fabrics. 

 

#2 Natural Fibre Bags (Cotton Canvas, Jute, and Calico)

jute bag alternative to plastics

Shopping bags made from natural materials look great and are usually eco-friendly.

Pros:

  • 100% plastic-free
  • washable
  • durable

Cons:

  • not always socially responsible
  • can require over 100 uses before becoming truly environmentally friendly

Learn More: Bag Types and Break Even Points

Natural fiber totes are usually made to be versatile. You can use them as a book bag, beach tote or everyday purse.

Although they’re pliable and can be folded, these bags are normally too bulky to fit in your pocket.

The main criticism about natural fiber totes is that they are marketed as being environmentally friendly while many of them are not. Cotton bags, for example, are resource intensive to produce. Therefore they are not as eco friendly as many other alternatives.

#3 Folding Reusable Bag

compact reusable bag

Usually made from lightweight, woven polyester or nylon, these bags fold up small enough to fit in a jeans pocket or on a key chain.

Key Benefit: A bag you can always carry with you will prevent you from ever having to use plastic. There's nothing worse than getting to the store and realizing you've left your reusable bags back at home.

Potential Drawback: Due to the thin material that makes them so compact, they’re not always the strongest or most long-lasting bags, but they are super-convenient for impromptu shopping trips.

Consider how many plastic bags you think you can displace by owning a compact reusable bag. If it's over 50 per year, you're in the clear - it's probably a good investment. 

If it's less than 50, you might be better off reusing disposable bags. Jam 1-2 in your purse, car door, or back pack. Use those instead of the new ones from the store.

#4 String Bag

The string (or mesh) bag is a European classic. Often seen in the markets of France, these cotton bags are very strong and durable. As well as grocery shopping, they make a rather practical beach tote – just don’t put your keys in there, as they’ll fall through the mesh!

A benefit of the string bag is that some use less material, can fold up smaller than fabric totes, and you get more style points. 

DrawbackThe same concerns apply to this bag as with natural fibre totes. 

If you're serious about reducing your environmental impact, we recommend you choose one to two styles that works best for you and stick with it. If the conventional tote isn't quite your style, the string tote is a good alternative.

#5 Backpack

backpack for groceries

If you have a backpack, why not take it shopping?

It’s probably not worth buying one specially for this need, since the materials and manufacturing process are not so eco-friendly, but a backpack is great for bringing heavy items home from the store. It also frees up your hands to carry extra bags – or allows you to cycle home.

We don't recommend buying a dedicated shopping backpack. If you already have one you can use for groceries, then it's a good decision to utilize that instead of disposable bags.

#6 Bike Panniers

Detachable panniers are a great alternative to disposable plastic bags. They are versatile and tough to forget if you're taking your bike to the store...

Benefit: Biking + reusable bags is a double whammy!

Drawback: Only good for dedicated trips to the store. 

You may need to also invest in a compact bag to carry with you for time when you're already out and need to swing by the store to pick something up. 

If you're biking to the store less than twice per month, you might be better off just loading your groceries in a back pack and biking home. The more you use these alternatives the more eco friendly they are, so keep that in mind when considering what is best for you and your goals. 

#7 Cardboard Boxes

Chances are you've already experienced this at Costco.

It’s not glamorous, but using cardboard boxes to carry your shopping is much better than disposable plastic bags.

If you simply need to take your stuff from the shop to the car, and the car to the house, boxes will do the job just fine. Many stores and markets have them freely available, or you can save delivery boxes at home and take them with you. Reuse until they wear out then recycle them.

For bulk shoppers: Rather than buying a bulk reusable bag (usually made from vinyl) use cardboard boxes and recycle them when you're done.

#8 DIY and Up Cycled Bags

For the ultimate eco-friendly shopping bag, make your own using repurposed material. You can make a bag from an old t-shirt, a pair of denims, a pillowcase or any unwanted fabric such as a pair of curtains or bath towel; there are even some no-sew tutorials online you can surely YouTube.

Benefits: Unique, very eco friendly, and affordable.

Drawbacks: Requires a minimal level of sewing ability and time investment

You can also buy up cycled bags if you aren't up for making your own. We recommend you ask a few questions to find out where the material came from, as not all 'up cycled' products for sale are genuine.

 

What will you choose?

Start now by checking out some alternatives to plastic bags here: Best Reusable Alternatives

Whatever you pick, by choosing reusable bags over disposable plastic, you’re helping rid the world of plastic pollution – one shopping trip at a time.

 

Learn more about the plastic problem and how we can solve it:

The Problem with Plastic

Solving The Plastic Problem

 

 

Image Credit: 1) Tern Goods 2,4) Amazon 3) Custom Earth Promos 5) Pinterest 6) Roam Blog 7) Hauser PTO 8) Crafty Corner

 


2 comments

  • Hey Francis. Did you mean you advocate on the use of reusable shopping bags?

    David Evans
  • We advocate on the use of shopping bags and other plastic materials that are harmful to our terrestrial and marine environments. Plastic wastes as wonder materials are destroying our biological diversity on the planet. We thank you and look forward to hearing from you soon.
    Best wishes. Francis Gako. Principal Conservationist. PES.Papua New Guinea

    Francis Gako

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