The answer is YES AND NO. Reusable bags are not necessarily greener and better for the environment than conventional plastic shopping bags. They must be reused 100+ times, as intended, to be greener.
All bags have environmental impacts, so it depends on the type of bag, how it is used, and most importantly, how often it is used. Scientific study after scientific study shows that conventional plastic shopping bags are the best bag alternatives for the environment, particularly if reused more than once.
The most important points are:
- Reusables are not recycled because it is too expensive so they eventually will end up in landfill thrown out as waste. As multi-material bags, they must be disassembled into the different materials that make up the bag.
- Reusables can pose a public health risk as we discovered during COVID because users do not clean their bags regularly. A vast majority of users rarely clean their bags and they can become incubators and transmitters of various types of viruses, bacteria, mold and fungi.
- Reusables are not reused enough by users even though they are built to last for 125 reuses. A U.S. study found that reusable bags are reused on average only about 15 times.
On a life cycle basis, stronger, heavier bags made to last longer – no matter what material they are made from – will have a greater environmental impact because they use more resources in their production and produce more carbon and other greenhouse gases.
And some natural materials like cotton/canvas, for example, require excessive pesticide use and water in the growing process which have negative environmental impacts.
A 2011 UK Government Life Cycle Assessment comparing supermarket bags shows, for example, that a cotton reusable bag must be reused 131 times to match the lower environmental impact of a conventional plastic shopping bag used just once.
The Quebec Government Life Cycle Assessment found that reusable bags must be reused between 35 to 75 times in order for their environmental impact to equal to a conventional plastic shopping bags used just once.
All Bags are Reusable
It is important to understand that all carry bags are reusable. Even the conventional plastic shopping bag which is a multi-purpose bag is also a multi-use bag. It has a high reuse rate of 77% in Quebec; 60% in Ontario; and 91% in Manitoba.
The question is whether reusable bags are a viable substitute for conventional plastic bags. The answer is “no”. And are they better for the environment and do they protect our health?
The answer is that reusable bags can be a good alternative if reused enough; if they are reused 125 times; if they are washed after every use; and most important in terms of their environmental impact, if they are made in such a way that allows them to recycled right here in Canada.
The current stable of reusables could be made to be a lot greener.
A viable substitute, a new and improved reusable bag, is needed to address reusable bag failings. It is already being used in some states in the U.S. like California. The new and improved reusable is very thick, is 100% recyclable, contains 25%+ recycled content, and can withstand 100+ reuses. And because the improved bag is made of polyethylene, it is easy to keep clean after every use. Just rinse it with water and hang it up to dry.
Are Reusable Bags a Viable Substitute for Supposed Single-Use Plastic Shopping Bags? Yes and No.
Limitations of Reusable Bags
1. Reusable bags are not reused enough
Reusable bags according to the Quebec Government LCA need to be reused 35 to 75 times to equal the impact of a plastic shopping bags used just once.
« À titre d’indicateur et sur la base d’une utilisation par semaine, les sacs réutilisables doivent être utilisés minimalement entre 35 et 75 fois pour que leurs impacts sur les indicateurs environnementaux du cycle de vie soient équivalents ou meilleurs à ceux d’un sac en plastique conventionnel. »
Reusable bags are heavy-duty bags constructed for usually 100 reuses. However, generally, reusable bags are not reused enough by consumers to justify the resources used to make them. Reuse rates of reusable bags tend to be much below the 100 reuses intended; closer to 15 reuses per bag. Reusable Bag Study – SlideShare.
2. Reusable Bags Can Pose a Public Health Risk
The concern with reusable bags is their potential public health impact. The bags if not washed or cleaned after every use can become breeding grounds for viruses, bacteria, mold and fungi which can cross-contaminate groceries and cause foodborne illness. Some 11,000 Canadians are hospitalized each year from foodborne illness.
There are multiple scientific studies that show that reusable bags can incubate pathogens like e-Coli, salmonella, listeria. (Sporometrics -A Microbiological Study of Reusable Bags and`First or single-use’ Plastic Bags
Concern about the public health “disbenefits” of reusable bags was reinforced during the COVID-19 pandemic. Reusable bags were banned because scientists said that the bags could transmit the coronavirus on their surface and become a super spreader. The New England Journal of Medicine – Aerosol and Surface Stability of SARS-CoV-2 as Compared with SARS-CoV-1
Conventional plastic shopping bags as first use bags became the go-to public health tool to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
The problem is that very few users clean their reusable bags ever. A recent survey of Canadians found that 55% of users rarely clean their reusable bags. http://allaboutreusablebags.ca/#polls Reusable bags if cleaned after every shopping do not pose a health risk.
3. Reusable bags as they are made now are Not Recyclable and Not Recycled in Canada
Reusable bags are not recyclable in Canada, which weakens their environmental effectiveness. Currently, there are no recyclers in Canada who recycle reusable bags.
The recycling of reusable bags is complex and cost prohibitive. Because reusables are made using different materials to add strength and durability, the bags must be deconstructed in the recycling process to sort the materials. This makes recycling time-intensive and cost-prohibitive. So, when the bags reach the end of their useful life, they are treated as waste and end up in landfill.
A New and Improved Reusable Bag is the Solution: A new and improved thicker 100% recyclable polyethylene reusable bag needs to be adopted by retailers. This bag using polyethylene can be recycled right here in Canada using the existing plastic bag recycling infrastructure.
Going forward, this new 100% recyclable reusable will be able to be recycled along with conventional plastic bags and other plastic films and remanufactured into new bags, plastic lumber, outdoor furniture, and office supplies.
Reusable Bags Help Reduce the Use of Plastic Bags
Reusable bags are designed to have a longer life, but have only one function as a carry bag. While they offer real potential to reduce demand for conventional plastic bags to carry groceries, they are too heavy and thick so they would never be used to manage household or pet waste.
Conventional plastic shopping bags, on the other hand, are multi-purpose/multi-use bags that meet many different requirements of daily life. They are a necessity for impulse purchases and to manage household waste, organics and pet waste.
Consumers would still have to supplement their use of reusables to manage household waste by purchasing plastic kitchen catchers which contain 76% more plastic.
A 2007 Decima Research study shows that 78% of Canadians would purchase kitchen catchers if plastic shopping bags are no longer available.
So, even if 100% of the population switched to reusable bags, there will still be plastics in the waste system.