Fiction: Reusable bags are better for the environment.
Fact: Not necessarily. All bags have environmental impacts, so it depends on the bag, how it is used, and most importantly, how often it is used. Conventional plastic shopping bags are one of the best bag alternatives for the environment, particularly if reused more than once.
The "Catch 22” of Reusable Bags
- A switch to reusable bags does not eliminate the need for shorter life bags to manage pet and household waste because of their heavier material content and they are quite costly compared to the conventional plastic shopping bag.
- This means that householders have to supplement their use of reusable bags with a paper or store-bought plastic bag if conventional plastic shopping bags are not available.
- This supplemental purchase of the plastic kitchen catcher bags is the “Catch 22” for reusable bags. They contain 76% more plastic and per the 2007 Canadian Decima Report, 78% of Canadians (76% of Ontarians) would supplement their use of reusable bags with the purchase of plastic kitchen catchers. So, even if 100% of the population switched to reusables, there will still be plastics in the waste system.
Environmental Impact of Heavier Reusable Bags
Reusables are being Adopted by Canadians
- In Canada, reusable bags have been widely embraced by consumers, Recyc Québec reported 13.5 million reusable bags in circulation in the province of Quebec as of January 20112.
- A study by the Silverhill Institute for Environmental Research of Toronto residents in 2012 showed that 58% of respondents use reusable bags.3
- Further evidence that reusable bags appear to have been highly effective in displacing conventional plastic shopping bags as carry bags comes from Quebec. In 2012, the Quebec provincial government reported a 52% voluntary decline in the number of conventional plastic shopping bags handed out at retail because of large conversion to reusable bags.4
Reusable Bags Compared to Conventional Plastic Bags—The Science
- A 2011 study by the U.K. Environment Agency “A Life Cycle Assessment of Supermarket Carrier Bags” compared the environmental impacts of lightweight conventional plastic grocery bags (High Density Polyethylene- HDPE) with a number of longer life bags, like cotton, non-woven polypropylene, and low density polyethylene bags-for-life.5
- The U.K. Study found that the conventional plastic shopping bag, even if used only once, out-performed all alternatives on environmental performance—what the study describes as global warming potential (GWP).
- Long-life bags have to be reused many times if they are to be a better option environmentally.
- Cotton reusable bags have to be reused 131 times to match the environmental performance of conventional plastic shopping bags. The LDPE bag has to be reused three times and the non-woven polypropylene bag has to be reused 11 times.
Amount of Primary Use Required for Reusable Bags to Match Environmental
Performance of Conventional Plastic Shopping Bag*
Type of Carrier Bag
HDPE Bag (No Secondary ReUse)
HDPE Bag (40.3% reused as bin liners)
HDPE Bag (100% reused as bin liners)
HDPE Bag (reused 3 times)
Non-woven PP Bag
Graphic Look at the UK 2011 Life Cycle Assessment of Supermarket Bags (including reusables)
(Source: BBC Magazine http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-17027990)
1 Decima Televox National Telephone Omnibus, Consumer Opinions on Plastic Bag Use, April 25th, 2007.
2 Le Journal de Montreal Analysis – Recyc-Quebec January 2011
3 SilverHill Institute for Environmental Research and Conservation, The Grocery Bag Controversy, February 2012. page 2
5 http://www.scotland.gov.uk/Resource/Doc/57346/0016899.pdf, page 18