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Are reusable bags always the best eco choice?

April 08, 2018

Are reusable bags always the best eco choice?

Plastic bag status has recently gone from a tolerated to despised. The unfavorable impacts of plastic bags are undeniable: When they’re not piling up in landfills, they’re blocking drains, cluttering up streets, surfing air currents, and contaminating oceans. What if reusable bags aren’t good for the environment either!

Replacement of plastic bags

People still need bags to bring home their groceries. The effect on the environment by replacing plastic bags might be pretty bad.

Which reusable shopping bag  is a good eco-choice? Let's look at the options.

Canvas bags

The first reusable shopping bag to gain popularity was the canvas bag. Canvas totes are available in conventional cotton, organic cotton, or even hemp.

Conventional cotton
The environmental impact of conventional cotton cultivation is well known. Only 2.4 percent of the world’s cropland is planted with cotton, yet it accounts for 24 percent of the global market for insecticides and 11 percent for pesticides, the World Wildlife Fund reports. For every kilogram of cotton produced, requires approx 11.000 liters of water on average. And on a global scale it is not commonly recycled.

It is estimated that approx 10% of the chemicals applied to cotton fields are effective. The rest goes into the air, soil, and surrounding water supplies, harming or killing wildlife and farm workers - severely affecting the ecology of the surrounding areas. It is estimated that about 3,000,000 people suffer the effects of pesticides poisoning each year, 20,000 subsequently die.

Conventional cotton bags exhibited the highest and most severe global-warming potential by far.

Organic cotton

Alternative is organic cotton, which is strong, long lasting, and will biodegrade once you have finished using it.

Organic cotton is produced and certified to organic agricultural standards. Its production sustains the health of soils, ecosystems and people by using natural processes rather than artificial inputs. Importantly organic cotton farming does not allow the use of toxic chemicals and is produced with much less water. It combines tradition, innovation and science to benefit the shared environment and promote a good quality of life for all involved (source).


Hemp has been used in clothing, ropes and sails. Hemp is derived from the stems of plants such as flax, jute and stinging nettle. The fibre produced from pure hemp is similar to linen in texture. Hemp  requires very little water, especially when compared to cotton, which, uses about 50 percent more water per season than hemp. Hemp also requires a relatively small amount of land to cultivate and can produce up to double the fibre yield per hectare than cotton.

Hemp fabric is made from the long strands of fibre that make up the stalk of the plant. The various stages of this process can be done organically through a mechanical process that requires no chemicals. However, many companies now produce hemp fabric chemically, in a process that is much more intensive on the environment, but faster and cheaper to create (source).

Polyester Bag

Polyester bags are easily portable shopping bags made from a very thin fabric. Although it is less energy intensive than nylon to produce, it still requires more than double the energy of conventional cotton to produce. The production of polyester uses harmful chemicals, including carcinogens, and if emitted to water and air untreated, can cause significant environmental damage.

Majority of polyester products is of poor quality and used and manufactured because it is a cheap alternative to natural fibres. More than 70 million barrels of oil are used to make polyester each year.  It is not biodegradable and will persist in the ecosystem even as it eventually breaks apart. In fact, it is believed that synthetic garments are the biggest source of microplastic pollution in the oceans because up to 1900 fibres can be washed off one garment every time it is washed (Source).


Polypropylene (PP)  Bag

Another shopping bag that has been gaining popularity is made from polypropylene. The manufacturing of the polypropylene material for each bag creates 138 grams of greenhouse gas emissions, which compares to the manufacture of 11 disposable plastic shopping bags. PP is extensively used for manufacturing various kinds of products, however due to its large scale consumption a lot of waste is generated at the end of their life cycle to the environment with low rate degradation.

Austrian chemists have discovered chemicals that manufacturers add to stabilize polypropylene (PP) plastics. The discovery of the new chemicals is of concern since they may occur in commercial products where they could migrate out of the plastic and potentially into humans. This chemical has been shown to cause mutations, tumors and endocrine effects in test animals. It has been responsible for allergic responses in people (source).

Paper bags

Paper bags are extremely resource-intensive and even more so than plastic bags, and it is difficult to reuse paper bags because they tend to tear. The big difference is that paper does biodegrade easily.

What are supermarkets doing to fight plastic?

The supermarkets seem to be competing with each other to be seen as green and socially responsible companies. But are supermarkets actually offering environmental advantage over conventional plastic bags?

Some supermarkets have started to offer degradable bags.  Degradable plastic bags need exposure to sunlight in order to break down – but the majority will end up in landfill sites where they will not be in the right conditions to break down rapidly.

As an alternative supermarkets have also started to offer reusable bags. However supermarkets are very concerned with the cost of plastic replacement. So they tend to offer cheap bags in low quality. These bags are often made by factories that are cutting corners on safety and health.

Few of these bags are made to last long enough to obtain the number of uses required to reach resource-expenditure parity with the plastic bags they were meant to supplant. Though they promise timelessness and sustainability, they develop holes, straps come undone, seams disintegrate. They become fouled with stains and grime.

It may seem that supermarkets are often more interested in green-wash than genuinely reducing its impact on communities and the environment.

Every bag, paper, plastic or reusable, has an environmental impact.

The best practice for reusable bags might be one of two extremes: use them all the time, or not at all. It is often true that the more we pay the more we value the things we buy. As a consequence there is less waste. This also goes for the groceries bags you choose to use. So make a conscious choice.

As long as you don’t throw your reusable bags away, their negative impacts remains  minimized. If you spend more time and money you might be able to find a sustainable bag you can use 400 times and reduce your over consumption of bags.

What will the future bring

Plastic ban in several Indian cities became an encouragement for a 25 year old entrepreneur in India to find a way to produce 100% organic, biodegradable, and Eco-friendly bags.  

They look like plastic bags but are made of materials like natural starch and vegetable oil derivatives. If placed in a glass of water at normal temperature, a bag dissolves in a day. And when placed in a glass of boiling water, it dissolved in just 15 seconds! These bags take less than 180 days to biodegrade naturally once discarded. So users can throw them away without worrying about harming the environment. The bags are even edible and will cause no harm to animals if ingested. Learn more.

Hopefully these bags will be available to use in all stores soon.

Keep in mind that it’s also what we put in the bag at the grocery store that matters.

Learn how to reduce the plastic in your day to day life.

Get a fair trade reusable food bag in GOTS certified organic cotton

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