Are Reusable Grocery Bags Really Green?

Like many of you, I have a hodgepodge of reusable grocery sacks that I keep on hand to carry my groceries.

Eco-minded shoppers rave about the benefits of reusable shopping bags, but these bags may not always be as green as they appear.

Though eco-minded shoppers rave about the benefits of these bags, some recent reports have indicated that they may not be as “green” as they appear.

The not-so-green side of reusable grocery bags

  • The resources required to create reusable bags. Whether made of polypropylene, cotton, or something else, raw materials and energy are needed to create reusable grocery sacks. The volume of materials and amount of energy may be significant. According to this article, non-woven polypropylene bags require about 28 times as much energy to produce as the standard disposable plastic bags.
  • The energy required to ship bags from where they’re manufactured to where they’re sold. If reusable bags are not manufactured locally, they must be shipped before they can be sold to consumers. When bags are made in a place like China, a significant amount of fuel is required to get them to the U.S.
  • Poor quality bags that need replaced often. Many reusable bags are poorly constructed. When these bags fall apart after a few uses, they end up in the trash alongside disposable bags.
  • The new plastic bags purchased by some consumers as a substitute for used plastic grocery bags. Some consumers reuse disposable plastic grocery bags as trashcan liners and for picking up dog droppings. In the absence of plastic grocery bags, consumers often purchase new plastic bags to use for these purposes.

Tips for getting the most out of reusable grocery bags

Though the previously mentioned factors can detract from the extent to which reusable grocery bags are environmentally friendly, if used as intended, these bags can have a positive impact on the environment. In fact, this article states that if every reusable bag is used at least once each week, just 4 or 5 reusable bags can replace up to 520 plastic bags a year. The following factors are important to keep in mind when selecting reusable bags.

  • Choose bags that will last a long time. Select bags that are tough and durable so they will last a long time instead of being thrown out alongside disposable bags.
  • Consider where the bags are manufactured. Because it can take a lot of energy to transport bags to consumers, try to find ones that are made in the U.S.A. If you can find ones made in your region, this is even better!
  • Consider from what materials the bags are manufactured. Based on the amount of energy required to produce various bags, they have to be used for varying amounts of time to make up for the negative effects of a plastic bag. For example, a non-woven polypropylene bag has to be used just 11 times to make up for the negative effects of a disposable plastic bag used one time. A cotton bag, however, has to be used 131 times to make up for the negative effects of a disposable plastic bag used one time (source). Even quality reusable bags will eventually wear out and need tossed out or recycled, so also consider how a material will breakdown if thrown away or if it can be recycled.
  • Purchase bags you’ll use. Reusable bags are pointless if you will not use them. Select bags that are easy to store and use so you’ll actually carry them with you and use them.
  • Remember to use the bags. Have you ever made it to the grocery store checkout and realized you left your reusable grocery bags in the car or at home? Unfortunately, I do this on occasion. Find an approach to help you remember your bags.

For additional information, visit the links in this post and this article from NPR.

Do you use reusable grocery bags? Have they reduced your use of disposable plastic bags? How long do the bags typically last you?

Shared on the following link-ups:

Thrifty Thursday, Thriving Thursday, Works for Me Wednesday & One Project at a Time.

Comments

  1. I’ve always found the material of reusable bags disappointing. But, I use them everywhere and even the cheap ones last me forever. Literally. I don’t think I’ve ever thrown one out. I’ve even put them through the wash and they’ve been okay. I feel like buying, say, 10 unsustainably-made reusable bags is still better than getting plastic bags every time I shop, even if I do recycle them.

    • I’ve had trouble with the material, too. Though I’m super frugal and generally hate spending money, I have found that bags that cost a bit more often do last longer.
      I’m glad to hear you are able to make even the cheap ones last.

  2. I use them all the time, but like other poeple who don’t wash occasionally get bacteria from them.

    • Hi Jeri,
      Great point about the need to wash the bags! They do retain a lot of bacteria if not washed frequently.

  3. Very interesting points and I have to agree. I am so glad someone is putting this out there for others to think about.

  4. I don’t understand…are you advocating for the continued irresponsible use of plastics? This article seems to let us off the hook from taking sound steps.

    Instead of propagating continued use of convenience plastics, why not recommend instead use of a sturdy, eco sound grocery bag? The Germans use canvas tote bags. I’ve reused the same three canvas bags for 15+ years with no problems.

    • Hi Kern,

      Thanks for expressing your concerns. I’m simply trying to shed light on the topic of reusable grocery bags so we don’t blindly embrace their use without considering that some of them aren’t as “green” as others. I’m not a proponent of using disposable plastic grocery bags (I personally use reusable bags). I also don’t encourage others to use disposable bags (I’ll reread my post to check my language use and see if I can fix anything that appears as though I’m advocating for the irresponsible use of plastics).

      You will note that in the post I suggest considering “from what materials the bags are manufactured.” This is how I address your question about using sturdy, eco-sound bags. Canvas is a strong, sturdy, long-lasting option. If a person uses these bags for a long period of time, then they’re definitely eco-friendly. However, as I also noted in the post, research shows (see the links) that these do have to be used numerous times to compensate for the energy required to manufacture and transport them. Thus, users need to understand that if you purchase the bags but only use them once or twice they may not really be eco-friendly.

      I hope that clarifies things a bit. 🙂

  5. I like both plastic and reusable. I do reuse the plastic in my trash cans.

    I try to keep my reusable bags in both of our cars ready to go. In order not to forget them I put them in on the bench were we sit down to put on our shoes as soon as they are emptied. Your kind of forced into taking them to the car!

  6. The answer to your question is that reusable bags are green if you truly commit to reusing them until they are no longer usable.

    I have been using reusable bags all my life to some extent, and I’ve been making more of an effort for the past 20 years–since a disastrous incident in which a plastic bag tore and spilled my groceries (including many small and breakable items) when I was still 2 blocks from home! I’ve never had that happen with a real bag.

    I agree that the polypropylene bags that are often freebies or $1 do not hold up well, but I’m certain I get at least 28 uses out of each one! The only bags I’ve purchased have been canvas ones, all of which have held up to at least 15 years of frequent use.

    In addition to shopping, we use our bags to carry supplies to and from church and meetings, and to pack stuff like books, snacks, and toys for car and bus trips.

    While it’s true that bags get dirty over time and do need to be washed, it’s also important to remember that groceries aren’t necessarily clean–they have been handled by an unknown number of people, they have been in dirty trucks and warehouses, and fresh produce has been in contact with dirt–so your bags are hardly the only source of contamination. I always wash my hands after unpacking groceries, wash produce before using…and try not to think too much about handling food packages while I cook!

    • Hi Becca,
      When I get the polypropylene freebies I use them, too, but as you indicate they don’t last as long.
      Great point about groceries not being clean. Hand-washing after shopping is a must!

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