The Truth About Reusable Bags


Are reusable bags really better for the environment?

With the whole eco-movement taking the marketplace by storm, brands, shops, consumers are choosing and buying up "eco-friendly" reusable shopping bags to replace HDPE plastic bags. While this might be a good move to reduce the amount of plastic waste that ends up in our waste streams, or in the environment, purchasing reusable bags is not as eco-friendly as we think. 

A study in the UK found that the production of tote bags commonly marketed as sustainable actually had an environmental impact many times larger than that of a standard plastic HDPE bag. Because of the resources needed to produce the materials for cotton totes, the study measured a cotton bag’s total footprint (including growing, manufacturing, and transportation) at a whopping 598.6 lbs (approx 271 kg) of CO2. The standard HDPE bag, on the other hand, emits 3.48 lbs (approx 1.58 kg) — i.e. buying 1 reusable bag is about 172 times worse for the environment than using a HDPE plastic bag. 

The standard HDPE bags had less impact on the environment because fewer materials are needed to make them. Production of HDPE bags also created less waste and required about half the electricity needed to manufacture cotton totes.

The study found that the most sustainable way to deal with plastic bags wasn’t necessarily to recycle them, but to reuse them as many times as possible before recycling

However, the message here is NOT to encourage use of plastic bags. 

Plastic bags — bad for the environment because wildlife is harmed through ingesting plastic substances, our land and water get polluted by leachate, and ultimately, our homes and livelihood are directly affected.

Reusable bags — bad for the environment because of the resources required and the high carbon footprint from production.

While both may be harmful to our planet in their own way, choosing a non-plastic, sustainable alternative may ultimately be better for the environment. But this is only true when alternatives are used consciously and with prudence. So if you prefer to use a cotton tote, make good on your purchase by using it for enough years to realise its sustainability potential.