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Is your reusable shopping bag made from plastic?

  • 5 min read

Not all reusable grocery bags are created equal.  But what are the best reusable grocery bags? There are many choices when it comes to selecting the type of bag you want to use when you shop for groceries, each having their own benefits and drawbacks. The life and death of shopping bags is complex and it’s hard to make good choices without fully understanding the landscape. While it’s clear that the use of reusable grocery bags cuts down on the amount of litter on land and in the ocean, it’s not easy to identify genuinely eco-friendly reusable grocery bags.  Let’s review the available options for reusable grocery bags, including the source materials and production footprints, to ensure we are selecting the best reusable bags.

For reference, let’s review the two most common types of bags used for grocery shopping: single use plastic bags and paper bags:

 

Single Use Plastic Bags

Single use plastic bags are made from polyethylene (plastic), which consists of long chains of ethylene monomers. Ethylene is derived from natural gas and petroleum. Single use plastic bags were invented in the 1960s by Swedish engineer Sten Thulin. Plastic companies aggressively marketed the bags to supermarkets in the US as a cheaper alternative to paper bags and they achieved widespread adoption by the 1980’s. 

Note that Americans use 100 billion plastic bags a year, which require 12 million barrels of oil to manufacture.

Single use plastic bags can hold up to 17 pounds and can be used more than one time. However, they are not machine washable.  The end-of-life story for a single use plastic bag is grim.  They are difficult to recycle as many cities don't offer plastic bag recycling and the bags often get stuck in the processing machinery when they do make it to recycling centers.  Sadly, most end up as litter, eventually breaking down into micro plastics that pollute the earth.

 

 

Paper Bags

Paper bags are obviously made from paper, which is derived from wood.  The chopping down of trees and the manufacturing process are the downside of paper bags. They are resource heavy to produce: the manufacturing process requires four times the energy needed to produce a plastic bag, Chemicals and fertilizers are used in the production of paper bags, creating additional harm to the environment.  Furthermore, paper bags are not durable as they fall apart when wet and they tear with heavy loads.  However, the end-of-life story is better than that of plastic as paper is compostable and biodegradable.

In summary, neither of these “free” options that grocery stores readily hand out to customers are good choices. 

Now let’s take a look at some of the most common types of reusable grocery bags:

 

 

 

Cotton

Cotton totes are everywhere and generally thought of as a good alternative to single use plastic bags.  Unfortunately, looking deeper into the origin of the fiber, we see a different story.  Growing cotton depletes the soil of nutrients and pollutes the surrounding environment with chemicals from pesticides. Furthermore, it takes a lot of water to bring cotton to harvest, about 10,000 liters on average to produce one kilogram of cotton! Extensive irrigation of cotton potentially contributes to groundwater depletion, and if drainage isn't managed carefully, it can lead to a buildup of salt in freshwater sources. Then there's the use of synthetic fertilizer, runoff from which can contaminate surface and groundwater.

 While cotton is a natural fiber and can be composted at the end of its useful life, a special industrial facility is required for the composting.  You can’t just put a tote in a compost bin.  Finding a municipal compost that will accept it is quite difficult, if not impossible for most consumers. Only 15 percent of the 30 million tons of cotton produced every year makes its way to textile depositories. And once there, challenges remain. Even when a tote does make it to a treatment plant, most dyes used to print logos onto them are PVC-based and thus not recyclable; they’re extremely difficult to break down chemically. Printed patterns must be cut out of the cloth. Unfortunately, most cotton ends up in landfills.

 

Organic Cotton

Organic cotton is cotton that has been produced without the use of any toxic chemicals or harsh dyes. Organic cotton is non-GMO and contains fewer chemicals than its conventionally grown counterpart. Like conventional cotton, organic cotton is water-intensive to grow. Organic cotton, on the other hand, is grown without any chemical insecticides or synthetic fertilizers, meaning it's better for your health, and runoff won't have a negative impact on rivers and local water systems. Organic cotton is also better for farmers and factory workers than conventional cotton. One reason is that organic cotton is often hand-picked rather than harvested with machinery, which means workers avoid contact with potentially toxic chemicals. Unfortunately, the end-of-life story is the same as that of conventional cotton.  Difficult to compost.

 

Nylon

Nylon is a type of plastic derived from crude oil. This plastic is put through an intensive chemical process, resulting in the strong, stretchy fibers that make it useful as a fabric. More specifically, nylons are a family of materials called polyamides, made from reacting carbon-based chemicals found in coal and petroleum in a high-pressure, heated environment. This chemical reaction, known as condensation polymerization, forms a large polymer—in the form of a sheet of nylon. To make nylon fabric for apparel, this nylon sheet is then broken into chips, melted, and drawn through a mechanical spinneret to produce individual fibers that are woven into fabric. No form of nylon is biodegradable; so once you no longer have a need for your reusable nylon shopping bag, it sits in a landfill for hundreds of years.

 The manufacture of nylon has several other direct environmental impacts

  • Water: manufacturing nylon is a very thirsty process; large amounts of water are used for cooling the fibers, which can be a source of environmental contamination and pollution.
  • Energy: manufacturing nylon is a very energy-hungry process, which contributes to environmental degradation and global warming.
  • Greenhouse gases: producing nylon creates nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas that is 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

 

 

Cloth Shopping Bags (Polypropylene, aka Plastic)

It’s tempting to buy those cloth shopping bags in the checkout line for $0.99 but before you throw them on the conveyor and hand over your cash, consider what material they are made with. This “cloth” is polypropylene, which said another way is plastic.  Remember, plastic takes up to 1000 years to degrade.  In addition to the poor material, the design of cloth shopping bags is minimal with thin straps and no pockets for organization. They are also not washable.  If you do put them in your washing machine they will likely fall apart and will certainly release micro plastics into the water stream. 

Switching from single use bags to reusable bags is the right thing to do. But are there really any eco-friendly reusable grocery bags? When we compare the commonly available options on the market today, from cotton to polypropylene, we start to wonder if there is a solution? That’s where BRINGIT Bags comes in.  BRINGIT has designed ultra-eco-friendly reusable grocery bags Made from compostable tree fiber.  These supernatural bags have a zero-waste production process and leave no trace behind. After hundreds of uses and washes, these bags are home compostable and marine biodegradable. BRINGIT’s bags are designed for shopping. They have wide straps for comfort, pockets for organization.  Unforgettable. 

 

It's time to bring a better bag!