Do reusable bags help the environment?

My husband and I are bagging groceries at our local Winco. Both of us are in a race against each other, trying to get as many items into our selected bags as possible before the other does. We are both in a race to save the environment, but we’re both using different kinds of bags. I am using reusable bags to keep plastic bags out of the ocean, and he is using single use plastic, for a lower carbon footprint.

We both believe firmly that our way is the kindest for the environment, but who’s right?

According to Dr. Rachel A. Meidl, Fellow in Energy and Environment, Center for Energy Studies, it’s a bit more complicated than just deciding between one or the other.

“Although your husband is correct that plastic bags have a much smaller environmental and carbon footprint (by a wide margin) across its entire lifecycle, you’re both doing the right thing by being conscious of use, reuse, and proper disposal,” she said in a recent e-mail conversation.

In fact, there’s a lot more to the story of grocery bags than meets the eye. In terms of reusable bags, you might need to use that organic cotton tote as much as 20,000 times to break even with the carbon footprint it left behind in the creation of it.

If you take into account the social ramifications of that same tote, such as food scarcity due to local food crops in undeveloped countries being replaced with cash crops, the impact grows even higher.

That doesn’t necessarily mean that reusable bags are a bad thing though. While single use plastic bags may have a smaller carbon footprint, they can also have a devastating impact on the environment in other ways. An estimated 100,000 sea animals are killed by plastic bags every year, ranging from sea birds all the way up to adult whales.

When you take into account the catastrophic effects of plastic pollution in terms of wildlife, even the thirstiest of cotton totes can seem relatively benign.

Plastic is a pervasive issue in the oceans, and it is compounded by the fact that plastic takes a very long time to degrade. The plastic used today may still be floating around in the ocean 500 years from now, leaching dangerous chemicals into the ocean and killing animals long after the grandchildren of the person who threw it away has died.

Every time you choose reusable bags over single use plastic, you are removing one more potential bag from entering the oceans. The average consumer uses about 1,500 single use plastic bags every year, so if these are replaced by reusable bags instead, it can make a significant difference to the health of the ocean.

If you want a bag that will not only keep plastic out of the ocean, but also upcycle old trash at the same time, feed bag totes are an option most people haven’t heard about. These totes are made out of feed bags that would ordinarily be used once and then thrown away, giving them a second life with almost no additional carbon footprint.

Sarah Price, an enterprising upcyler located in Lakewood ,Washington, creates reusable totes like these out of donated bags.

“If I did not collect [feed bags] from people, they would be thrown out and end up sitting in landfills unable to decompose. I feel I am decreasing the initial carbon footprint “value” of each bag by making it a useful item and delaying its disposal.”

Feedbag totes are expensive, often costing 10x more than a brand new tote at the grocery store, but the material is designed for heavy duty use, and they’re always handmade and small business.

Whether you bag using paper, plastics, or reusables, you will make a difference if you choose to be responsible with these items. If you choose to use a reusable bag, use them until they completely wear out. Bring your single use plastic bags back to your retailer to be recycled. Reuse paper bags, and recycle them in your recycling bin or at your closest recycling center.

No matter what type of bag you choose to use, your choices can make a difference. It’s high time we stop arguing about what is best, and start doing the best with what we have instead.


Meidl, Rachel A. LP.D., MEPM, M.Ed, CHMM, interview by e-mail with me on April 22nd, 2019.

Gall, S.C. And Thompson, R.C. “The Impact of Debris on Marine Life.” Marine Pollution Bulletin. 2014.

Price, Sarah. Interview by e-mail with me on April 27th, 2019.

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