Plastic vs. Reusable Bags: Which Bag Is Best?


Marketing/Green Policy Development
Jan 18, 2017
Plastic vs. Reusable Bags: Which Bag Is Best?

Did you know that you need to reuse a canvas bag 171 times to mitigate the environmental impacts over a plastic bag?

But now, due to the looming threat of climate change and the overfilling of our landfills, more and more people are making the choice to be more environmentally conscious in their everyday lives. One of the ways people have been transitioning to a more green lifestyle is by using reusable bags. There are even ordinances in places like New York and even in Washington DC that have banned the use of plastic bags. So naturally, we’re doing the right thing, right?

In some sense, yes. Many facts seem to suggest that plastic is choking our planet. The great Pacific Garbage Patch alone, which floats between Hawaii and California with scientists estimating its size to be two times bigger than Texas, should be enough evidence to make all of us aspire to reduce our consumption and waste. 

- Plastic bags take anywhere from 15 to 1000 years to decompose.
- Worldwide, an estimated 4 billion plastic bags end up as litter each year. Tied end to end, the bags could circle the earth 63 times. 
- Some 14 million trees are cut down annually for paper bag manufacture 
- Only 1 percent of plastic bags are recycled in the United States. The rest end up in landfills, the ocean, floating around our streets, and more. 
- It’s estimated that 1 million birds and thousands of turtles and other sea animals die each year after ingesting discarded plastic bags. (This is truly a preventable tragedy.)
- More than 10 percent of the washed-up debris polluting the U.S. coastline is made up of plastic bags.
- It takes 12 million barrels of oil to produce the estimated 100 billion plastic bags that Americans use each year.
- The petroleum used to produce 14 plastic bags can drive a car one mile.

**For more facts check out:

Reusable bags are appealing for additional reasons: they’re strong, can be stylish, and and can endure many shopping trips over the years. Bins and reusable bags are also often biodegradable and the average reusable bag has a lifespan equal to that of more than 700 disposable plastic bags. They can also be cost effective, as many stores now offer shoppers discounts and program points for bagging with reusables--small cents can add up to big dollars over time. And in some areas, these fees for bags are even required. Some estimates suggest that purchasing a single set of reusable shopping bags and using them every time you go shopping could eliminate the disposal of as many as 20,000 disposable plastic bags! 

There are three main types of reusable bags on the market: Canvas, Polyester, and Polypropylene bags. 

- Canvas Bag: The first reusable shopping bag to gain popularity was the canvas bag. Canvas totes are available in conventional cotton, organic cotton, or even hemp. However, there is a negative environmental impact of conventional cotton cultivation, since a major percentage of the world's herbicides are used on cotton prior to harvesting. While organic cotton is better, both conventional and organic cotton use a significant amount of water, so the environmental impact of the fabric bag is directly proportional to its weight. If you are looking for a canvas bag, look for a lighter one. No matter what you choose, it will still hold more weight than a plastic or paper bag. 
- Polyester Tote Bag: Polyester tote bags are easily portable shopping bags made from a very thin but durable fabric. The bag is about the same size as a disposable plastic bag used for shipping and stores neatly in an integrated pouch that can clip to your purse or fit in your pocket. At just 35 grams, the manufacturing of the polyester material for one bag creates 89 grams of greenhouse gas emissions, which is equivalent to the manufacture of just seven disposable plastic shopping bags. 
-Polypropylene Bag: Another shopping bag that has been recently been gaining popularity is made from polypropylene and is designed in the shape of a brown paper shopping bag. These bags, can now be found at the checkout lines pretty much everywhere, from supermarkets to Ace hardware stores. At 103 grams, 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.

So which bag is best? The difference in environmental impact between the polyester bag and the polypropylene bag is negligible, especially when compared to the ecological footprints of disposable paper and plastic bags. The impact of canvas bags is higher, but still negligible when compared with the disposable alternatives over time. All in all, the environmental impact of all three bags is substantially lower than the impact of plastic or paper bags when you use them frequently, so you can’t really go wrong as long as you’re opting for a reusable bag.

It is also important to note that there are studies out there that prove there is downside to using reusable bags if you do so infrequently. Unpublished government research from the UK that has found plastic bags are 200 times less damaging to the climate than reusable cotton bags. The study incorporates the impact of raw material extraction, bag production, transportation and disposal and focuses on how many times reusable bags are actually reused by consumers. For example, a cotton bag would need to be reused every day for a year before it actually offset the environmental impact of one plastic bag. Even more surprising, a canvas tote bag would take 171 reuses to negate the environmental impact of using a plastic bag. But as long as you can commit to using your canvas bag 171 times, or something like a Polypropylene Bag 11 times or more, then you’re making a sound green decision. 11 times seems reasonable, right? 171 sounds more challenging. 

Also, the fabric/materials in reusable grocery bags can sometimes be perceptible to contamination by germs like Salmonella or E. coli from food or other items. According to a joint food safety research report issued by researchers at the University of Arizona and Loma Linda University, reusable grocery bags can serve as a breeding ground for dangerous foodborne bacteria like coliform bacteria including E. coli.These germs can potentially cross-contaminate other food or items that we carry in our reusable bags, making us sick. 

Fortunately, there are simple ways to reduce cross-contamination and keep safe from germs.

- Wash your bags: Cloth reusable bags should be washed in a washing machine using laundry detergent and dried in the dryer or air-dried, and plastic-lined reusable bags should be scrubbed using hot water and soap and air-dried.
- Always put raw meats into a separate disposable plastic bag before putting them in a reusable bag. This helps to prevent any juices that drip off of raw meat packages from touching other foods and contaminating them. 
- Keep your food separated. Use separate bags dedicated for meats, fresh fruits and vegetables, and ready-to-eat foods. Remember that cold food needs to be refrigerated within two hours of leaving the store or market. 
- Store reusable bags in high, dry, and cool places. Store reusable bags in a cool, dry place, such as in your home or in the garage. Higher temperatures, like those inside of a car, can actually cause germs like Salmonella bacteria to grow faster.
- Don’t use the bags for other purposes. Bags used for groceries should be used only for food. Don’t carry items such as baby bottles, toys, gym clothes, and other items in the same reusable bags that you take to the grocery store.

What this ultimately means is that consumers need to be responsible and properly care for reusable bags. It doesn’t really help the planet if people are storing 20+, or 50+ reusable bags around their homes to just use on occasion or if they keep forgetting to bring them to the store in the first place. It is important to remember that committing to using reusable bags properly should be our priority, as it makes both economical and environmental sense. But for those who cannot quite make this commitment, you shouldn’t just call it quits on reusing plastic or paper bags. Keep in mind that this is becoming the law in some places, in fact, in August 2014, California became the first state legislature to enact legislation imposing a statewide ban on single-use plastic bags at large retail stores. 

Regardless, if you’re still using plastic or paper bags or you are in transition to using reusable bags, you can still reuse plastic bags in many ways or repurpose them as trash can liners. When all else fails, you can simply recycle the rest - but once produced it’s of course better to reuse as much as possible.

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EmmamHowe // Marketing/Green Policy Development

I am highly motivated college student with strong leadership, organizational, and interpersonal skills. I am very interested in political science, economics, and language and cultural studies, and I intend on pursuing each of these throughout my college experience. My goal is to finish out my undergraduate years with degrees in both international studies and economics with a minor in political science. I hope to work my way up through state government and then onto the national government to promote an environmental economic agenda that will bring the US closer to reaching its climate goals.

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