By Ashley Schiller on Sep 21, 2009

360: Reusable Bags

Earth911’s 360 series breaks down the ins and outs of your everyday items.

The question “paper or plastic?” is not as easy to answer as you might think.

Many argue the best answer is “neither.” But really, it’s hidden answer C: “Bring your own reusable bag.” However, not all reusable bags are created equally.

Some are made from more sustainable products than others, making it important for consumers to become informed about the differing materials, so they can purchase accordingly.

Photo: Amanda Wills, Earth911.com

Choosing the most sustainable material is one of the best ways to make your reusable bag last. Photo: Amanda Wills, Earth911.com

Paper Bags

Sometimes customers choose paper bags, believing they are easier to recycle than plastic, thus the “greener” choice. However, while paper materials are more commonly accepted by community recycling programs, paper bags themselves are actually harder on the environment than plastic bags. Check out the numbers:

  • Plastic grocery bags require 40-70 percent less energy to manufacture than paper bags.
  • For every seven trucks needed to deliver paper bags, only one truck is needed to deliver the same number of plastic bags.
  • The production of plastic bags consumes less than 4 percent of the water used to make paper bags.
  • Each year, Americans use about 10 billion paper bags, which results in the cutting down of 14 million trees.

Limited-Use Plastic Bags

Plastic bags are pretty impressive products. They only weigh about 4 to 5 grams but can hold up to 17 pounds – nearly 2,000 times their own weight.  Although they are usually stashed away in a drawer or closet initially, most people reuse them later.

According to the American Chemistry Council (ACC), about 90 percent of Americans reuse their plastic bags for garbage disposal, lunch bags and pet pick-up.

The problem with plastic bags is their disposal. They are fully recyclable, but the majority of curbside programs do not accept them because their lack of weight makes it easy for them to get stuck in recycling machinery. Fortunately, an increasing number of stores are taking responsibility and accepting used bags for recycling. According to the EPA, about 12 percent of plastic bags and wraps were recycled in 2007, an increase from previous years.

Reusable Bags

For many, the answer is to not use paper or plastic, but a reusable bag. These can cut down on waste if they last for a long period of time. The key is to buy the right kind of reusable bags. However, if the bags are cheap and do not last long, they will end up in the landfill and defeat the purpose of your purchase.  Don’t accumulate more bags than you need. Think “quality,” not “quantity.”

Important questions to ask yourself before buying:

  • Who makes the bag?
  • What is the bag made of?
  • Will it last?

Reusable bags may be made of a variety of materials. Here are three examples of sustainable materials that are often used to make reusable bags:

Recycled Polyethylene Terephthalate (PETE or plastic #1) - Approximately 31 percent of plastic bottles produced in the U.S. are made from PETE, and it is one of the most highly recycled plastics. Finding uses for this post-consumer material is essential to supporting the recycling business, and reusable bags made from PETE are generally long-lasting and durable.

Recycled Cotton - Many reusable bags are made of cotton, but the key is to find organic cotton, or even better, recycled cotton. Using recycled cotton helps reduce the harsh dyes, pesticides and herbicides of conventional cotton, while also using less water and human energy than conventional and organic cotton. Recycling discarded fibers also helps divert millions of tons of textile waste entering our landfills each year.

Hemp – Often referred to as a “super fiber,” hemp products will outlast their competition by many years. Products made from this fiber are strong and hold their shape, while cotton products can stretch with time. Hemp is also naturally resistant to mold and ultraviolet light. Hemp bags and other products are increasing in popularity in the U.S. and around the world.

Afterlife

What to do with reusable bags when they are no longer functional is another waste dilemma. The ACC explains in a report that most of the biodegradable and compostable bags on the market do not breakdown in a natural environment, home composting device or landfill. Rather, they will only breakdown in a professionally managed, large scale composting facility.

Because less than 100 such facilities exist in the U.S., a large amount of bags will likely end up in the landfill. For this reason, the ACC argues that recycling limited-use plastic bags is better than switching to reusables, while other environmental organizations argue that the benefits of reusables are higher.

Whomever you agree with, it is important to shop smart and reduce your consumption of virgin materials while you are seeking to green your bag. Make sure to fill bags completely (or at least to the weight that you can carry) and look for  products that utilize sustainable packaging to put inside them.

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Comments

  1. Erin says

    Another idea is…and I thought this was an obvious one…make your own bags out of old clothing…if you have a too small shirt for example another way of reusing it is to sew up the neck and sleeves, tie the sleeves together and wahlah a ‘new’ fashionable reuseable bag. Just a thought.

  2. says

    Ashely, we couldn’t agree with you more. Consideration needs to be given to the type of reusable bags we purchase. Unfortunately, the inexpensive polypropylene bags being promoted across our country right now will provide the next wave of bags in our landfills. They are constructed with thin pieces of plastic film punctured to look like woven fabric. We believe consumers should choose bags they love, while considering the durability and size most convenient for their needs. This will help create the long-term habit of joyfully using reusable bags.

  3. Amy says

    I had a similiar thought. In my trunk I keep lots of the 99-cent grocery store bags that are made with recycled materials and they are great and strong (my oldest is at least 2 years old and has only just got its first rip–duct tape to save the day)! Beyond that, though, I keep my eye out for canvas and light-weight cloth bags when I’m shopping second-hand stores and yard sales–usually stong, well-made, and keeping another product from heading to the landfill.

  4. Jeffrey says

    Ashley,
    This was such an informative article that I was surprised and dismayed that you fell for some of the American Chemistry Council’s lines:

    While it is undoubtedly true that 90% of people in the US reuse plastic bags, it would only be accurate to say that 90% of people reuse SOME of their plastic bags. Being in the waste management field, I know that most bags are just discarded.

    And the ACC’s argument that recycling is better than switching to reusables is totally wrongheaded and only promoted because it supports their industry’s bottom line. In most cases, recycling is a last-ditch effort to keep something out of the trash that was improperly designed as a throw-away. The most effective way to help the planet is to reduce consumption. And then it is wise, as you say, to pick the best reusable items.

  5. Tiger says

    Strongly agree with Jeffrey. US people consumed 5 times more than Chinese or India. The mostly effective way is to reduce consumption, only buy products that we need, but not what we want. Recycling and reusable are two total different concepts. recycling doesn’t necessarily make sustainable, but reusable is much better.

  6. Cathy says

    Great discussion. I was uncertain about the paper or plastic alternatives that I have to choose when I forget my reuseable bags. My best reusables are canvas bags that were given to us about 10 years ago and are still functional. I frequently run my reusables through the wash, so I have noticed that nothing works for the long term like canvas.

  7. Peggy says

    The plastic bags that grocery stores have been using are the worst grocery containers ever. Never growing up did I see paper bags blowing around or stuck on everything around the city or along the highway. Our highways, roads, parking lots, parks, fences and trees are littered with those horrible plastic things stuck and waving everywhere!! You can drive by the one year after year and it still waves stuck in the tree not too much worse for wear! Get rid of those thing now and go back to paper – at least it biodegrades eventually – and encourage shoppers to resue them for a 5-cent incentive per bag and charge 10-cents per bag they use at the store. You’ll see how quick people bring them back or get canvas bags!

  8. says

    Although plastic bag recycling efforts are increasing and reusable bag promotion is in full effect, we here at Simply Green Solutions know its gonna take more time to get people in the habit of using reusable bags, reusable canteens, and similar products. Although its not a true solution to the problem of waste in general, its better than feeding the water, air, ground and our bodies – plastic debris that never biodegrades or photodegrades. Plastic waste reduction must occur somehow, and by not reusing a bag, it adds to the problem. Responsibility is key.

  9. Cathy says

    In the past year I have begun to use my own cloth re-usable tote bags for my groceries. I have found that they hold a lot more groceries and are easier to carry. I can put 3 times as many groceries in my re-usable bags as I can in a typical plastic grocery bag. They stay upright in my trunk also, so I don’t have to re-bag all the items that used to roll out of the plastic bags by the time I got home. After I put away my groceries I put my bags back in the car so I’ll be sure to have them for the next trip to the store. I love this website!

  10. says

    Great article this is a subject everyone should learn more about. If you going to go reusable you should maximize it’s potential.

    I am the founder of Project GreenBag. We design bags that are:

    Certified 100% Organic Cotton
    Made in the USA
    Reusable + Recyclable
    100% Biodegradable
    Sweatshop Free
    Super Strong & Durable
    Machine Washable

    http://www.projectgreenbag.com

    Thank you :)

  11. Oemissions says

    please, more info on these cheap fabric reusable bags with every stor’s logo on tem and often given out for free or as promotions.
    what we need to know; how many are going to the landfill.
    are there any recycling centres that take them/

  12. says

    I decided to take on this issue of plastics and water. If I request to BAN Plastic Bottlewater and Plastic/Paper Bags then I must provide a Sound solution. A temporary solution but an ongoing attempt is moving in the direction of sustainability.
    Please, anyone, help direct me towards the right websites, people who already have started and converted and hopefully already provided SOLUTIONS.
    I am a Lazy Environmentalist…why re-invent the wheel…I am ok about tailoring the wheel to make it work in the community I live and where our future will live, that be children.

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