Are Reusable Bags Actually Better for the Environment?

Reusable bags are already a common staple among most households and this isn’t going to change anytime soon. With single use plastic bags being phased out by many retailers and an increasing number of states and cities, it is now becoming impossible to shop without bringing or purchasing reusable bags.

Plastic Bags

Australian supermarket giants Coles and Woolworths are examples of retailers who have chosen to ban single use plastic bags from their stores while one of the largest cities in the world, Mumbai, also recently made the choice to ban single use plastic bags. Mumbai has gone to great lengths to ensure that the single use ban is upheld with residents who are caught using single use plastic bags facing the harsh prospect of jail time and fines.

There is no doubting the increasing public spotlight on reducing or banning the use of single use plastic bags. However, are reusable bags actually better for the environment than single use plastic bags?

The short answer is yes and no.

The answer lies in the level of use which your reusable bags receive. Probably an obvious answer really. Some studies have been conducted into this and the results are quite interesting.

Although there have been quite a few studies conducted into the impact of each type of bag, there are two studies in particular that this articles focuses on.

The first is a report published back in 2006 by the Environment Agency, a leading public body protecting and improving the environment in England.

When focusing only on the impacts of greenhouse gas emissions or the total levels of carbon dioxide produced, these are the results:

- A paper bag needs to be used three times to achieve the same output of a single use plastic bag.

- The thicker reusable plastic bags which are now commonly found in supermarkets need to be reused four times.

- Polypropylene bags which tend to be those green bags at supermarkets need to be reused at least 11 times.

- Cotton bags need to be used at least 131 times.

These estimates do not take into account that single use plastic bags could be reused, for example as a bin liner. When these estimates do take a factor such as this into account, the level of reuse for each type of bag increases substantially.

The second study that I would like to focus on is a 2018 publication by the Ministry of Environment and Food of Denmark.

They conducted a similar study to the English publication by calculating the amount of times a bag needs to be reused relative to the level of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions produced.

They also calculated a secondary set of numbers for the total number of reuses for a bag when all resources and other impacts such as water use are taken into account. Here are their results:

- Paper bags need to be used at least once in CO2 terms or 43 times when considering all factors.

- Polypropylene bags need to be used at least six times in CO2 terms or 53 times when considering all factors.

- Cotton bags need to be used at least 52 times in CO2 terms or an astonishing 7,100 times when considering all factors.

From the two studies, the level of reuse required from each type of bag is not insurmountable to outweigh the environmental impacts of their creation, except perhaps in the case of cotton bags, which requires hundreds to thousands of uses to negate its overall environmental impact.

So what does that mean for us? These two studies alone do not paint the perfect picture on how bags can affect our environment. However, these studies do point us in the right direction towards make an informed decision on how we can act as sustainably as possible.

Hence, it is quite evident that the key takeaway to reducing the environmental impact of bag use in general is as simple as reusing and reducing consumption as much as possible.

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