What are the best reusable grocery bags? 11 types ranked for sustainability and durability.

Last year on my Facebook page, we had a great discussion of the merits of different reusable grocery bags. In light of reports comparing the number of uses each type of bag needs to have for equal or lesser impact than plastic ones, it seemed that reusables might not be as green as they appear.

Choosing reusable bags can be confusing!

Choosing reusable bags can be confusing! Image credit: Krystal Torney

Many popular articles online cite studies (especially this 2018 Danish study, and also this 2011 UK study, based on data from 2006, and this 2014 US study) which show the number of times different bags need to be used to mitigate their environmental production costs.

They usually support reusable plastic bags for their lower carbon footprint in production, but do not consider the burden of plastic pollution after their useful life. Ideal disposal methods are readily discussed, but these do not always reflect reality.

Most of the studies don’t consider bags made from natural fibres except for cotton either, but hemp, jute and other natural materials require fewer resources to produce than cotton does.

Also, the main studies cited do not consider composting as an end-of-life cycle alternative to incineration, landfill or recycling, so again the natural fibres are at a disadvantage. Composting requires no resources to achieve but does provide a useful product from unusable fibre bags. This would then lower their impact just like recycling or capturing energy from incineration/methane emissions does for plastic bags’ impact in the studies.

Woven reusable bags.

Bags have been woven for centuries and are in use all over the world.

So I have read a lot about this issue now and hereby present my own rankings for eleven types of reusable bags, from the research and from my own experiences with most of them. I’ve been using reusables for a decade now and have worn out some bags, while others are still as good as new. My findings and recommendations are based on many factors, so you can see all the pros and cons and make a decision based on what’s most important to you.

I’ve included details about washing the bags, as this is an often overlooked but important point for something meant to be reused often to carry food. The New EcologistFood Safety standards and the US study recommend that we wash our bags regularly to avoid bacteria growth and cross-contamination.

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I compared 11 types of reusable bags for their sustainability profile, durability, ease of washing, and impact after their useful life. It's a big list with lots of information to help you find the bags that are right for you, that will last! #reusable #ecofriendly #sustainable #reusablebag #bags #shopping

As with all conscious consumerism, what’s most vital is the reduction of mindless shopping. Buying things we don’t really need adds to our environmental footprint no matter what reusable bag we take it home in.

Reducing plastic packaging is also really helpful, but it’s very hard to avoid it completely and I think it’s more important to consume less anyway. Owning stuff that goes far beyond our needs and continually updating or replacing items that are still usable has us locked into a vicious cycle of consumerism that requires huge amounts of resources to maintain.

Reusable bag types and five points of consideration

Natural materials

Bamboo

Production costs/values

Bamboo is often touted as a very sustainable crop, due to needing minimal water and no fertilizers or pesticides. It also grows very fast and draws down or sequesters more CO2 than trees. I have been dazzled by bamboo products in the past and professed my love for bamboo clothing in one of my first blog posts, due to their sustainability credentials, comfort and super-softness.

Long bamboo grass.

Bamboo grows tall and strong.

But bamboo is an incredibly hard grass that can be used as a building material, so turning it into soft and slinky fabric requires chemical processing that can leach into the surrounding environment. My favourite ethical store Biome does not stock any items made from bamboo fabric, stating that it is “misleading to label these fabrics as ‘bamboo fabric’ “ because the resulting fabric is technically rayon, a synthetic textile produced from regenerated plant cellulose. The US does not allow the term “bamboo fabric” any longer but Australia hasn’t caught up with that yet.

Also, the increasing demand for bamboo has also led to land clearing for monocrops which creates the need for pesticides, and some farmers have started using fertilizers to enhance growth and maximise returns, too. These all decrease bamboo’s sustainability profile.

On the other hand, bamboo bags may be made from a material more like other natural sources, such as hemp. Ecocult states that:

Bamboo fabric is a cellulosic material, but whether it’s semi-synthetic depends on how it’s been processed. If it’s a stiff linen, then it’s simply bamboo linen that has been physically processed similarly to hemp. If it’s a soft fabric, then it’s bamboo rayon.”

Reusable bamboo shopping bags are made from thick, stiff fabric, so it’s likely that they’re bamboo linen, not rayon.

And 1 Million Women states that making fabric out of bamboo might not be as bad as it was once reported, being a newer and greener technology than making rayon out of wood and cotton.

Recommended number of uses

Bamboo bags are not compared in any of the studies I could find online, and they aren’t as readily available as most other types of bag. The products I researched were made to last and meant to be reused for many years.

Bamboo canvas tote made by Robin Polsley on Etsy.

Bamboo canvas tote made by Robin Polsley on Etsy. Image credit: Robin Polsley

Durability

The fibre used in bamboo bags is thicker than clothing made from bamboo, and it’s strong.

Are they washable?

They should be easily washable in the machine; but if the bag is combined with other materials it may require gentler washing.

Environmental impact after use

Many sources state that bamboo fabric products are fully compostable, including 1 Million Women.
Ecocult compares several studies that monitor how fast rayon biodegrades and reports that it does even faster than cotton.

However, be aware that if the bags have heavy printing with non-biodegradable paint or ink, they may be unsuitable for composting (or at least the printed section). Can I Compost This says designs “that seem to sit on the fabric rather than ones that are part of the weave or have soaked in – that’s usually a sign that it’s been printed with PVC inks and plastics like PVC will not break down.”

Cotton

My strong cotton bag.

My strong open-weave cotton bag. Image credit: Krystal Torney

Production costs/values

The Danish study compared various types of reusable plastic bags with organic and non-organic cotton bags against many environmental indicators:

“Climate change, ozone depletion, human toxicity cancer and non-cancer effects, photochemical ozone formation, ionizing radiation, particulate matter, terrestrial acidification, terrestrial eutrophication, marine eutrophication, freshwater eutrophication, ecosystem toxicity, resource depletion, fossil and abiotic, and depletion of water resource”.

It found that cotton bags had the most environmental impact, primarily due to the reported ozone depletion impact from cotton production. I looked up why and that is due to a chemical used in cotton processing, which has been criticized for its inclusion in the study as it is an older form of cotton production.

On almost all other indicators, cotton bags fared better than plastic bags, with the exception of water use. Cotton is a thirsty crop compared with other crops for fabric discussed below, but when accounting for its water use and all other indicators except for ozone depletion, the number of times cotton bags need to be used still reduces significantly: by 80% — 99%.

Still, cotton production has other issues affecting people directly. The documentary Bitter Seeds reports on the staggering fact that in India, the world’s largest exporter of cotton, a farmer commits suicide every 30 minutes now. Linking Monsanto’s GMO cotton seeds with debt and financial stress, cotton is not all fairly traded despite the industry having some regulations in place.

Cotton growing in the field.

Cotton growing in the field.

Recommended number of uses

The Danish study found that organic cotton bags would need to be reused at least 149 times for climate change, and at least 20,000 times considering all indicators. Changing the reference flow of these findings changed their outcome though, to 83 times for climate change and 10,000 for all indicators.

This means that not rounding up the number of organic cotton bags that are needed to compare to them to the size of other bags decreases their necessary uses by half across all impact categories. And without factoring for ozone depletion, they’d need only to be used 150 — 3800 times.

Conventional cotton bags would need to be used at least 52 times for climate change, at least 7100 times considering all indicators, and these numbers remained the same when the reference flow was changed. However, without factoring for ozone depletion, they’d need to be used between 50 — 400 times considering all environmental impacts.

The UK study found a similar result, stating that (conventional) cotton bags would need to be reused 173 times to have the same global warming potential as a single-use plastic bag. As with the Danish study, almost all of cotton’s impact on the environment was shown to occur in producing the raw materials.

Durability

Cotton bags are strong and are made to be reused for many years. I have had a calico bag for approximately six years and it is showing no signs of wear and tear. I estimate that I’ve used it fortnightly in that time, which is more than 150 uses.

I think that the recommended number of uses for cotton bags (that don’t account for ozone depletion) are plausible, for well-made bags at least.

Shopping with my calico cotton bag.

Shopping with my calico cotton bag. Image credit: Krystal Torney

Are they washable?

Yes, easily in the washing machine. (mine above is due for one!)

Environmental impact after use

Cotton items can be recycled or upcycled in various ways which reduces their impact, but this is not considered in detail in the studies.

100% cotton products are compostable and fully biodegradable: under the right composting conditions the material will be gone within a week to five months. In landfill, this will take longer but it will break down completely.

However, a point to consider is that when conventional cotton biodegrades, the chemicals used to grow the cotton also return to the ground and have a negative effect on the environment. This effect was also not considered in any of the studies.

Also, as with other fibres, be aware that if the bags have heavy printing with non-biodegradable paint or ink, they may be unsuitable for composting (or at least the printed section). Can I Compost This says designs “that seem to sit on the fabric rather than ones that are part of the weave or have soaked in – that’s usually a sign that it’s been printed with PVC inks and plastics like PVC will not break down.”

Hemp

Production costs/values

Hemp is known for growing fast with little need for chemicals or water. Hemp uses half as much land and water as cotton to grow the equivalent amount; some sources even report it takes as little as 5% of the water requirement of cotton to grow hemp.

One study showed that producing fabric from organic hemp uses a bit more energy than organic cotton production, though still concedes that hemp is a more sustainable fabric than cotton or polyester overall.

A field of hemp grown for fabric.

A field of hemp grown for fabric.

In three months, hemp is up to four meters tall and has taken care of most pests and weeds effectively by itself. Hemp is reported to sequester more CO2 than trees with 1.63 tonnes of carbon removed from the air for every tonne of hemp produced, and is said to remove contaminants from the soil, too.

Hemp is a fully renewable product that appears to be a low-impact resource with high yields. It’s one of the more expensive options though; due to its controversial past, it still isn’t grown in many countries and is thus usually imported. It’s also not as readily available as the other options, but as regulations are changing now and hemp is being explored as a viable modern crop in many countries, I suspect it will be in the near future.

Recommended number of uses for a hemp bag

Hemp reusable bags are not cited in any of the comparison studies I could find online. However, these students from the College of Natural Science at the University of Massachusetts propose that hemp is the most sustainable alternative to plastic bags.

Durability 

Hemp plants produce strong fibres that can are ideal for durable bags and other products, and companies like Hemp Go Green make them to last a lifetime. Hemp products are said to get stronger over time.

I have not used a hemp shopping bag personally, but I do have a hemp nut milk bag. It is noticeably stronger than other nut milk bags I’ve tried and I am confident it will last a very long time.

My hemp nut milk bag.

My hemp nut milk bag. Image credit: Krystal Torney

Is it washable?

Yes, hemp bags are machine washable, but hand washing is often recommended to keep their shape and/or reduce wear.

Environmental impact after use

100% hemp products are fully compostable and biodegradable.

However, please be aware that if the bags have heavy printing with non-biodegradable paint or ink, they may be unsuitable for composting (or at least the printed section). Can I Compost This says designs “that seem to sit on the fabric rather than ones that are part of the weave or have soaked in – that’s usually a sign that it’s been printed with PVC inks and plastics like PVC will not break down.”

Jute

Jute that has been harvested.

Harvested jute.

Production costs/values

A United Nations report titled Jute and Hard Fibres: Overview of Major and Current Issues states that jute and other hard fibres (JHF):

“show a distinct competitive edge over synthetics in a number of environment-related areas. First, energy consumption in the production and transformation of synthetic raw materials is about 10 times higher than that needed for natural fibres. Secondly, while synthetics release considerable amounts of CO2 during their life-cycle, natural fibres absorb harmful gases rather than release them. Thirdly, JHF represent quickly (on a year’s basis) renewable resources, whereas production of polypropylene is based on the use of non-renewable fossil resources. Fourthly, the major advantage of JHF, however, and the most appealing to consumers’ concerns, is related to the waste-disposal stage of the product’s life.”

Jute is the second-largest crop in the world grown for fibre (after cotton) and it grows almost as fast as hemp; it’s ready for harvest four to six months after planting and produces 20-40 tonnes per hectare. Also, each hectare of jute sequesters up to 15 tonnes of CO2 and releases up to 11 tonnes of oxygen.

Clean Up Australia supports jute as the best replacement for plastic bags, as does the City Of Sydney.

While jute shows many environmental advantages, there are social disadvantages to report. Jute is primarily grown in India and Bangladesh, and it’s a labour-intensive process for which the farmer may earn less than US$0.70 per day. Earlier this year, Firstpost reported on the low wages and exploitation of the jute industry in West Bengal, with jute mills closing down and poor quality substitutes ruining the market.

The Danish study scored composite jute bags as one of the best for Human toxicity (non-cancer effects), but it has been reported that workers in mills who inhale textile fibre dust (from jute and other natural fibres) have various respiratory problems.

My 100% jute bag from the brand Bang.

My 100% jute bag from the brand Bang. Image credit: Krystal Torney

Recommended number of uses

Professor Mike Ashby, emeritus professor in the Department of Engineering at the University of Cambridge, reported in 2013 that a “Juco” bag (which is made from 75% jute and 25% cotton), would need to be used 19 times before it is a more sustainable alternative than single-use plastic. As jute is a very strong and durable fibre, a jute bag can easily be used many more times than that.

The Danish study compared a composite bag of 80% jute blended with cotton and polypropylene, and found it would need to be reused at least 23 times to have less impact on climate change compared to a thick reusable plastic bag, and 870 times to mitigate the impact on all the environmental indicators studied. The study assumed the same manufacturing requirements as cotton though, as they could not find sufficient data on jute bag production.

Durability

I have had a 100% jute bag for at least eight years and it’s still very much in weekly use. I calculate that I’ve used it over 400 times, and know I will be able to use it for years yet.

I’ve also had a jute bag lined with plastic for about four years, and it’s still usable but is fraying on the bottom because the plastic is wearing on the jute. And I have some composite jute bags from supermarkets now, which feel durable but I’ve only had them for about a year so can’t say with certainty how long they will last.

My plastic-lined jute bag that is fraying on the bottom.

My plastic-lined jute bag is fraying on the bottom.

Are they washable?

Professor Ashby doesn’t seem to think so, stating that jute bags can only be reused often “provided nothing leaks or breaks inside it causing terminal contamination.” He might be worried about the fact that jute can be weakened by water, which is why it is often woven with other fibres like cotton.

However, The Spruce confirms that jute can be washed, gently by hand in cold water. Jute shouldn’t be wrung or washed with other items and must be left to dry completely before use. Spot-cleaning stains is also possible, which is what I have done with my bag and it’s been fine.

Environmental impact after use

100% jute bags (and bags blended with other 100% natural fibres) are fully compostable and biodegradable. When the jute or jute blend is coated with plastic though, it gets trickier. See a full discussion of this below under “Composite bags”.

Also, as with other fibres, be aware that if the bags have heavy printing with non-biodegradable paint or ink, they may be unsuitable for composting (or at least the printed section). Can I Compost This says designs “that seem to sit on the fabric rather than ones that are part of the weave or have soaked in – that’s usually a sign that it’s been printed with PVC inks and plastics like PVC will not break down.”

Paper

Paper isn’t technically branded as a reusable bag, but I’ve included it because it’s often seen as a more environmentally-friendly alternative to single-use plastic bags.

Logged pine trees

Pine trees are one type of wood used for making paper.

Production costs/values

The Danish study reports that unbleached paper bags have the lowest environmental impacts (sometimes tied with other types of bags) on several indicators: climate change impact, human toxicity (cancer effects), and fossil fuel resource depletion. However, this study did not consider any other natural materials for bags except for cotton and a composite jute/cotton/PP bag.

The UK study showed how many times different bags need to be reused to have less impact on climate change than HDPE bags (the lightweight, single-use plastic bags). It found that if HDPE bags are reused once as bin liners, a paper bag would need to be used a minimum of seven times to have less impact on climate change than the plastic bag. If the HDPE bag was reused three times before becoming a bin liner, the paper bag would need to be reused nine times to have less impact.

I’m doubtful that they’d be able to be reused that many times. Even so, this study doesn’t consider other environmental impacts which are important when discussing bags made from trees.

The US study compared plastic and paper bags (for paper both 30% recycled content and 100% recycled content were considered) on 12 environmental categories: global warming potential; water depletion; cumulative energy demand; terrestrial acidification; marine eutrophication; human toxicity; terrestrial ecotoxicity; freshwater ecotoxicity; marine ecotoxicity; fossil fuel depletion; photochemical oxidant formation; and an average score across all of the categories.

The study found that both of the reusable bags studied; LDPE bags (low-density polyethylene: the thick plastic reusable bags) and NWPP bags (non-woven polypropylene: the main ‘fabric’ reusable bags sold at supermarkets) have lower overall environmental impacts than paper bags.

Recommended number of uses

Paper bags were the original disposable bag: they are not designed to be reused long-term.

Emma holding a paper bag.

Paper bags are often seen as eco-friendly alternatives. Image credit: Krystal Torney

Durability

Paper bags aren’t very strong and break apart if they get wet. Multiple uses are limited to good care and carrying lighter objects.

Are they washable?

No.

Environmental impact after use

The US study uses EPA statistics for recovery and recycling of paper bags, which were reported to be almost 50% in 2009. I believe the US is the highest user of paper grocery bags, so it appears that half of them are consistently recycled; though this may have increased in more recent years.

The other half of the 1.5 billion pounds of paper used for bags and sacks (in 2011) are either incinerated or head to landfill. You might think that because they’re made of paper that they decompose quickly and completely, right? I did too, but no! Paper doesn’t degrade much faster than plastic in landfills, and 40% of paper bags head there.

The US study reports that only 27% of paper bags will have decomposed after 100 years in landfill. That means that of the 600 million pounds of paper bags the US send to landfill in 2011, 438 million pounds will still be there in 2111.

Paper bags also generate more solid waste than disposable plastic bags as they are heavier and thicker, and they have a much higher water content than plastic bags. So they take up more room in landfill and they take almost as long to break down. However, I don’t believe they cause much harm to wildlife like plastic bags do.

Recycling paper bags is possible, though it has been reported that recycling paper uses more energy than recycling plastic. The Danish study states that for paper bags, “incineration is the most preferable solution from an environmental point of view.”

Woven bags from natural materials such as seagrass, coconut husk, palm leaves, and straw/grasses.

Woven seagrass shopping bags

Woven seagrass shopping bags. Image credit: Biome Eco Stores

Production costs/values

I assume that in the past, the materials for bag weaving were found naturally and the whole plant was used in various ways. However, there is little data available on their current environmental impact and no studies I can find online that compare them to other bag types in terms of their sustainability.

‘Straw’ bags are quite trendy at present, and this article discusses how top-label designers have hooked on to the trend and are charging exorbitant fees for bags that are produced the same way as the cheaper ones. There are also questions regarding how women are paid and the working conditions for a largely unregulated industry: at present cotton is the only textile with a Fair Trade certification.

For some of the fibres, chemical processing is necessary to soften them for weaving which also decreases their safety for workers and their sustainability profile.

I think natural woven bags have the potential to be a very sustainable and ethical alternative, if organisations are utilising abundant resources, paying workers well and ensuring safe working conditions for them. The only way to know you’re buying an ethical product is to research the company thoroughly.

Woven coconut palm leaves close up

Woven coconut palm leaves.

Recommended number of uses

Natural fibre woven bags are made to be reused for years.

Durability

The fibres used to weave bags are strong and durable, though they probably don’t have the same level of durability as hemp or jute.

Are they washable?

Spot-cleaning is preferable on most of these bags.

Environmental impact after use

All at fully compostable and biodegradable, if they are not woven with synthetic materials.

Woven coconut string shopping bag.

Woven coconut string shopping bag, made by a community cooperative in Sri Lanka. Image credit: Flora and Fauna.

Composite bags (mixed materials)

Production costs/values

This will depend on the individual materials used. Please see the sections for each different material.

Common combinations are hemp or jute with cotton, jute with a plastic coating, and non-woven polypropylene with a plastic coating (on the interior or exterior).

Two of my composite reusable bags which are falling apart.

Two of my composite reusable bags which are falling apart. Image credit: Krystal Torney.

Recommended number of uses

They are sold as long-lasting reusables, but there is little data about them. As reported above in the Jute section, composite bags made of jute blended with cotton were recommended to be reused 19 times to be better than single-use plastic, and bags made of jute, cotton and polypropylene would need to be used 23 times for less climate change impact than a thick reusable plastic bag, or 870 times for less impact on all environmental indicators.

Durability

Most composite bags are quite durable, though I found that my mixed-synthetic bags fell apart faster than single-synthetics. I had the insulated Cool Bag above for about five years before it started breaking, and the plastic-coated Australia flag bag for only two years. The insides of both bags are still intact though.

I also have an older jute bag lined with plastic, and it lasted for several years before the jute started fraying. That hasn’t happened with my 100% jute bag, which I’ve had much longer. The large IGA bag below is also jute lined with plastic, which helps retain its shape. It is about the same age as the Woolworths/Macro bag (which is cotton and jute) but is not softening like that one is.

My newer composite jute bags: the Woolworths one is blended only with cotton, and the IGA one is lined with plastic

My newer composite jute bags: the Woolworths one is blended only with cotton, and the IGA one is lined with plastic. Image credit: Krystal Torney.

I wouldn’t have bought the IGA one if I realised it was plastic-lined at the time, given that it doesn’t last as long and it’s harder to recycle (see more below).

Are they washable?

It depends on the materials that are combined to make the bag. Most are meant to be wiped-clean.

Environmental impact after use

The composite bags that are lined with plastic make them easier to clean, not porous, and/or more rigid. But these benefits backfire later because plastic-lined bags are very hard to recycle at the end of their life.

Some lined bags like these hemp bulk food bags are made to be separated when they’re no longer usable, but many bags are not so carefully designed. They have to be separated by hand if you want to recycle the different parts, or added to landfill if separation isn’t possible. I’m happy to report that I can peel the plastic off the jute from my fraying composite bag.

Composite bags that are made of fully natural materials can be composted successfully, if they are not heavily printed with non-biodegradable inks. Please see the above sections for more information about that.

Bags with different materials for handles can be easily separated for recycling or disposal.

Synthetic materials

LDPE (Low-Density Polyethylene)

LDPE bags from the two main supermarkets in Australia

LDPE bags from the two main supermarkets in Australia. Image credit: Krystal Torney.

Production costs/values

LDPE is a waterproof and impact-resistant plastic. All plastics are made from non-renewable resources such as coal, crude oil and gas, or from recycling products already made from plastic.

Both major supermarkets in Australia sell these thicker reusable plastic bags for 15c, and both state that they are made from 80% recycled materials.

The Danish study found that LDPE bags have the lowest environmental impact of all the bags they studied.

The US study found that:

LDPE reusable bags should be preferred over NWPP [non-woven polypropylene: see below] bags, but only 6% of consumers state they prefer LDPE reusable bags and only 3% use them regularly.”

The US study also noted that the majority of shoppers don’t use their LDPE bags a sufficient number of times to bring about the lesser environmental impact that they could achieve.

Recommended number of uses

The Danish study found that recycled LDPE bags should be used at least twice considering all environmental indicators, before being used as a waste bin bag.

The UK study found that LDPE bags should be used at least four times to have lower global warming potential than lightweight plastic bags.

Lightweight plastic bags can be recycled and turned into more plastic bags.

Lightweight plastic bags can be recycled and turned into more plastic bags.

Durability

These thick plastic bags are designed to be used much more than traditional plastic grocery bags, but are not designed to be used forever.

The US study states that:

More than 50% of people who reported using LDPE reusable bags are not reusing them enough times to make average number of trips for equivalency of their environmental impacts equal to those of PRBs [lightweight plastic bags]. For equivalency, they would have to reuse them twice to more than three times as many times, depending on whether secondary uses of PRBs are included in the environmental impact category calculations.”

The study doesn’t detail whether consumers aren’t using them enough because they are breaking, though. The bags we own have definitely been used more than a handful of times, so I doubt that other LDPE bags would be unable to be reused sufficiently. In most cases, I believe that because they are inexpensive and are still a plastic that is viewed as disposable, they are used as bin liners or simply discarded before they are worn out.

Are they washable?

Cleaning by wiping with hot water and/or soap is recommended, but they are not machine-washable. I have hosed mine down before and left them to dry outside.

LDPE bag drying in the sun

The plastic is easy to hose down for cleaning!

Environmental impact after use

LDPE bags can be recycled in the same streams as lightweight plastic bags, which most supermarkets collect for. They can be potentially be turned into plastic bags again, but are most likely used in the manufacture of composite lumber. This is because plastic cannot be endlessly recycled as it degrades each time, and lumbar is a useful final product.

However, only 3% of plastic bags are recycled in Australia, and only 1% in the United States: the two biggest waste producers. Considering that the majority of plastic bags are not recycled or incinerated at the end of their life — Huffington Post reports that “Most of the 100 billion bags used per year in this country [the US] go to landfills, where they’ll linger for centuries or longer.” — they remain present in our environment and difficult to remove.

Microplastics are the result of degraded plastic in landfill or in the ocean and have long been known to have entered animals’ food chains. New research has found that humans are also consuming it in larger amounts than we realised: over 50,000 particles per person each year has been recently reported. Plastic bags do contribute to the issue of microplastics, and thus have an effect on our health and the environment long after their use.

Where plastic is incinerated, it can also have an effect on greenhouse gas emissions and human health, depending on the quality of the incineration plant.

Recycled PET or RPET (Polyethylene Terephthalate)

Me with my recycled PET backpack which is super light, strong and easy to travel with.

My recycled PET backpack is super light, strong and easy to travel with. Image credit: Krystal Torney.

Production costs/values

PET is the most recycled plastic in the world, and RPET has become a more common resource for reusable fabric products like bags. The PET comes from plastic bottles which are shredded and granulated to make ‘PET flakes’: the raw material that is used to make products that would’ve otherwise been made of polyester.

Our World in Data shows the results of a meta-study about whether recycling, landfill or incineration is best for dealing with plastic, and reports that:

Recycling had the lowest global warming potential and energy use across nearly all of the studies. From an environmental perspective, recycling is usually the best option.”

It does note however that recycling plastic can only occur a few times, and usually becomes a product of inferior quality. It also may not be as cost-effective as producing products from raw materials, depending on oil prices. And, recycled materials produce less final product than virgin materials: there is a loss of quantity in recycling too, not a 1:1 replacement.

Plastic water bottles.

Plastic water bottles are a large waste product globally.

Still, with the world’s plastic problem so big, including trillions of plastic water bottles, it makes sense create something from the resource that will last.

(Another great solution to waste is creating bags directly from items like used wrappers and bulk bags, as these sellers do on Etsy. They’re not necessarily PET, but they’re an example of upcycling and reusing ‘waste’ plastic.)

Repurposed packaging bag by ShabbySheUK.

Repurposed packaging bag by ShabbySheUK.

Recycled bird feed bags by SiansYarns.

Recycled bird feed bags by SiansYarns.

 

Recommended number of uses

The Danish Study found that recycled PET bags need to be used at least eight times to have less impact on climate change than lightweight plastic bags, and 84 times considering all environmental indicators.

Durability

I don’t have RPET grocery bags, but I do have a backpack, bread bag and produce bags made from it. They are all very strong yet lightweight, and could easily be used the recommended number of times. I don’t believe they’re quite as durable as my polyester bags (below) but can safely assume several years of use.

My RPET bread back and produce bags, made from recycled plastic water bottles.

My RPET bread back and produce bags, made from recycled plastic water bottles. Image credit: Krystal Torney.

Are they washable?

Yes, on a cool gentle cycle in the machine, or warm handwashing. As with all synthetic fabrics, they are likely to shed microfibres when washed, so a gentle hand wash or using a microfibre washing bag is recommended.

Environmental impact after use

The Danish Study and Go Green bags report that RPET can be recycled in most curbside recycling bins (unless the bag is laminated). The Danish study notes that recycling is the preferable end-of-life for RPET fabric, with lower environmental impacts overall than incineration or use as a bin liner.

Still, if the bags are not recycled or dealt with responsibly, they will become plastic pollution and break down slowly. They don’t biodegrade and aren’t suitable for composting. Recycling also creates carbon emissions and requires detailed sorting and processing. And like all plastics, RPET cannot be recycled infinitely.

Polyester bags

My polyester bag from the supermarket.

My polyester bag from the supermarket. Image credit: Krystal Torney.

Production costs/values

Polyester bags are produced in the same way as RPET bags, except that the materials have not been recovered and reused. Polyester is a plastic that comes from crude oil, gas or coal.

They are very light and easily foldable, yet strong and able to carry heavy loads.

Recommended number of uses

It is interesting to see that polyester bags were reported to need less reuse than RPET bags in the Danish Study, with only 1.9 times for climate change and 28 times considering all environmental categories. I believe this is due to the higher production costs associated with the recovery of used plastic to produce RPET.

Polyester bags were not considered in the other studies I could find online.

Durability

These bags are extremely durable. I have had the Envirosax pictured below (left and right bags) since March 2010 — I remember exactly as it was my 30th birthday! —  and they have lived in my handbag ever since. I use them exclusively for groceries and laundry as we travel, and at home, they are my back-up bags for the supermarket and my go-to bags for any other shopping needs.

In almost ten years of regular use, they barely look worn and are still very useable.

Polyester bags from EcoSilk and Envirosax.

My well-used and still-going-strong polyester bags! Image credit: Krystal Torney.

The purple bag pictured is from a brand called EcoSilk, which is made of ‘parachute silk’, a nylon. They are not as common but have similar characteristics to the polyester bags. I’ve had the Ecosilk bag for at least seven years and it’s also in regular use with no signs of wear.

Are they washable?

Envirosax recommends handwashing rather than by machine, but I have machine-washed mine many times (oops!) However, the supermarket polyester bag clearly states to wipe-them clean only, no washing or getting them wet. I am unsure why but it may be a waterproof coating applied to the bags.

Environmental impact after use

They are recyclable like RPET in many curbside systems. Some companies (like Envirosax and Ecosilk) offer a service to take back their products for recycling in bulk and a discount on future purchases.

Again, if the bags are not recycled or dealt with responsibly, they will become plastic pollution and break down slowly. They do not biodegrade and aren’t suitable for composting. Recycling also creates carbon emissions and requires detailed sorting and processing, and polyester can’t be recycled infinitely.

NWPP (Non-Woven Polypropylene)

One of my NWPP bags, the original 'green' bags!

One of my NWPP bags, the original ‘green’ bags! Image credit: Krystal Torney.

Production costs/values

NWPP bags are the most common ‘green’ bags, in Australia at least. They reportedly can be made from recycled plastic, but Wikipedia states that they are not, and the US Study also says that “Although some NWPP suppliers claim that their bags contain PCR [Post-Consumer Recycled plastic], this is unlikely to be the case”. The major supermarkets in Australia don’t mention that their NWPP bags are made of recycled materials as they do for their LDPE bags, so I assume theirs are made from virgin plastic.

Being a non-woven fabric, NWPP has its pattern spun-bonded by machinery. It doesn’t fray, is breathable and strong, and is easily sewn for bags and other fabric uses. The bags are usually sewn with cotton thread, which adds to their environmental impact.

The US Study found that of the 3,500 people studied, 61% of preferred NWPP bags but forgot them 40% of the time. It also found that NWPP, like LDPE, has lower environmental impacts overall if reused a sufficient number of times, but notes that over 50% of people don’t reuse theirs enough.

Synthetic bag manufacturing.

Synthetic bag manufacturing.

Recommended number of uses

The UK Study found that NWPP bags should be used a minimum of 11 times to have lower global warming potential than lightweight plastic bags.

The US Study found that NWPP bags need to be used over 20 times to have less environmental impact (averaged over all categories) than single-use plastic bags.

The Danish study found that NWPP bags must be used at least five times for less climate change impact than single-use plastic bags, and at least 52 times for less environmental impact overall.

Durability

NWPP bags are strong and durable. Often the stitching comes apart before the bag shows any signs of wear, but they can be easily mended to continue their reuse. All of the bags that I have tried can be used more than the recommended amount by any of the studies quoted.

Personally, I believe that because they are very cheap and are often given for free with promotions, they hold little value for some people and are easily discarded before they’re used to their full potential.

My stitching is coming apart but the NWPP fabric is not wearing out.

My stitching is coming apart but the NWPP fabric is not wearing out.

Is it washable?

Yes, they can be and I have machine washed some of mine (not the ones coated with plastic though). However, most manufacturers recommend that you wash them by hand or on a gentle cycle, or wipe clean as needed.

If you do machine wash them, use a microfibre washing bag to avoid microplastics entering the waterways.

Environmental impact after use

The US Study notes than only 1% of NWPP bags will have degraded in landfill after 100 years. The analysis in the study assumes a 0% recycling rate for NWPP bags in the study, because:

NWPP bags cannot be recycled easily. Fabrics present difficulties in recycling facilities similar to those presented by films, in that they foul up the sorting machines. The bag handles are also difficult for the machines to process. In addition, the intense and varied colors of NWPPs limit recycling opportunities.”

However, there’s conflicting information available online saying that NWPP bags are recyclable. Supermarkets accept them through the RedCycle program and Woolworths will even replace a damaged NWPP bag for free and recycle the old one. Go Green bags also states that they are curbside recyclable in many neighbourhoods, but consumers would need to confirm first with their local council.

Still, being a recyclable product and actually being recycled are two separate things. NWPP bags aren’t compostable and present the same issues are other plastics in landfill.

A huge pile of rubbish in landfill.

Confusion about recycling means that most NWPP bags will end up in landfill.

Final scores across each category for each reusable bag

Bag TypeProduction Pros & ConsRecommended # of UsesDurabilityEase of WashingImpact After UseAverage Score
Bamboo
3/54/54/54/55/54/5
Cotton2/52/54/55/54/53.4/5
Hemp4/54/55/54/55/54.4/5
Jute3/54/55/53/54/53.8/5
Paper2/52/51/50/53/51.6/5
Woven natural materials3/54/54/53/54/53.6/5
Composite bags (mixed materials)3/53/53/53/52/52.8/5
LDPE (Low-Density Polyethelyene)4/53/52/54/52/53/5
Recycled PET
4/54/55/54/53/54/5
Polyester (non-recycled materials)3/55/55/53/53/53.8/5
NWPP (Non-Woven Polypropylene)3/54/54/54/52/53.4/5

Final recommendations for the best reusable grocery bags

Whatever bags you already have are the most environmentally-friendly ones to use. Using them to their full potential, and then disposing of them as best you can, generates the lowest footprint. Then consider investing in new bags that suit your needs and will last a long time. They may be more expensive upfront, but will be more cost-effective if you can reuse them for many years to come.

My placings for these 11 types of reusable bags are:

  1. The highest score overall was hemp bags, with 4.4/5. They will last many years and cost little to the environment. They aren’t as readily available as other bag types though, and cost a little more than other types at present.
  2. Tied for second place are bamboo and recycled PET bags with a high score of 4/5. Bamboo canvas shopping bags may also be hard to come by locally but are becoming more common, as are RPET bags. Choose bamboo if you want to stick to natural fibres, or RPET if you want to help make some use of our excess plastic waste.
  3. In third place there’s also a tie, between jute and polyester bags (3.8/5). Jute bags are more readily available, but to ensure you’re supporting workers in the industry, opt for brands who can demonstrate their commitment to ethical and safe production methods. (suggestions below)
    Polyester bags are lighter and also a very durable solution. They are my first choice for your back-up supply in your handbag/car/bike as they roll up so small.
  4. Natural woven materials scored 3.6/5. They are becoming readily available for purchase outside of supermarkets, and are a great long-lasting and biodegradable choice: as long as they’re ethically produced.
  5. Cotton and NWPP bags are next with 3.4/5. While they don’t have the environmental footprint that you might have imagined, they do not fare as well as the above bag types. Best to use up the bags you have made from these materials as much as you can, dispose of them properly, and consider a different type for your next purchase.
  6. LDPE bags only scored 3/5 across my indicators, even though they score well on the scientific papers quoted. They are not as durable as other reusable types and too often become plastic pollution, unfortunately. But if you use them to their full potential and recycle them afterward, they have a fairly low impact on the environment overall.
  7. Composite bags score the second-lowest with 2.8/5. They’re harder to deal with at the end of their lifespan, and they don’t seem to be as durable as other types in my experience.
    Still, bags made of two or more types of natural fibres will probably fare better than bags comprised of plastic-coating and fibre, and are usually compostable, too.
  8. Last of all are paper bags, scoring only 1.6/5. They’re not ones you’d purchase for your renewable supply anyway, but keep their environmental footprint in mind the next time you’re offered a paper bag as a ‘greener’ alternative.

Where to buy the best reusable grocery bags, and reusable tote bags, reusable produce bags, and reusable bags for travel

There are many choices above, and, coincidentally, a natural and synthetic option in many cases. Buying what is available to you locally will also save on carbon emissions, but if other issues are important to you (like ethical production or buying a lifetime product) then buying online might be a better option.

In that case, see if others you know might also like to order from that store, as combining the weight of your order generates fewer emissions than separate ones do.

The supermarket isn’t the best place to buy reusable bags if you care about purchasing ethically. They don’t provide information about their sources, and in my experience, the bags are of a lesser quality than the bags I have purchased elsewhere. They are also often coated in plastic and/or combined with cotton and are usually heavily printed too, which makes them harder to recycle or compost.

Inside my jute/cotton composite bag.

Inside my jute/cotton composite bag from a major supermarket.

However, if you’re at the supermarket and in need of a bag, I think a jute bag blended only with cotton and with minimal printing would be the best choice, or if you can’t find one of those, a polyester or NWPP bag.

And as we discussed above, fibres like jute, bamboo, and other natural weaving materials can be produced in ways that take advantage of workers, or even harm them. If you’d like to support long-lasting and fully compostable bags then please support ethical manufacturers by seeking fair-trade certified or trustworthy suppliers.

The polyester bags I have had for a decade were also not from a supermarket, but from a company which is committed to making quality products, with non-toxic dyes and production methods, and takes responsibility for recycling them at the end of their life.

I have no hesitation recommending Envirosax (and other ethical manufacturers of polyester bags such as Loqi and Chicobag) to you even though they use virgin materials for their bags.

Quick links for your reference:

Buy the best in Reusable Grocery BagsHemp bags from Hemp Go GreenEthically-made 100% Jute bag by Bang (the same as mine)Bamboo canvas tote bag by Robin Polsley
Buy the best lightweight reusable bags for travel and handbagsRoll up bags by EnvirosaxRoll up bags by Loqi and ChicobagLightweight, foldable travel daypack: Onya's RPET backpack (the same as mine)
Buy the best shopping bags made from recycled materialsOnya's RPET shopping bagsBiome's RPET foldable shopping bagUpcycled bags on Etsy:
Recycled bird feed bags by SiansYarns
Repurposed packaging bag from ShabbySheUK
Buy ethical woven bags from natural fibresEthically-made open-weave seagrass bag Community-cooperative coconut string bagEthically made woven palm leaf bag
Buy the best reusable produce bags, bread bags, and bulk food bagsHemp produce bag (for buying & storage)Onya's RPET bread bags, produce bags and bulk food bagsMy Last Bag's hemp bulk food bag with removable plastic

So there you have it! A whole lot of research and information about reusable bags, which has taken me a very long time to write, and which I hope helps you with your shopping needs!

Love to hear your feedback: are the results what you expected? What experiences have you had with different types of bags? Let us know below in the comments, and please share this post if you found it helpful.

Pin this post for later:

I compared 11 types of reusable bags for their sustainability profile, durability, ease of washing, and impact after their useful life. It's a big list with lots of information to help you find the bags that are right for you, that will last! #reusable #ecofriendly #sustainable #reusablebag #bags #shopping

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2 Responses

  1. This is so interesting and a subject I have been giving thought to recently. France hasn’t given plastic bags out at supermarkets for many years and when we first started coming to France over 20 years ago the reusable plastic bags shops sold lasted AGES. I had a particular pink one for years and then downgraded it to a garden bag and it was only recently it finally fell apart. However, now the bags they sell seem to fall apart after such a short period of time so I am definitely looking for alternatives once my current ones become unusable. I will be referring back to this article for detailed info when I am looking. I’ll also be scouring charity shops when we head to Ireland – there are almost no charity shops in France although there are lots of car boot sales but I don’t generally have the time to go to many.

    A brilliant post to add to #GoingGreen – thank you. Will share on social media.

    • Emma says:

      Thanks so much Rosie! Glad it will be helpful when you need to buy some new ones. I hadn’t been able to find any post or article to compare all of the types of bags available, so as they say, gotta do it yourself!