Cloth Bags vs. Plastic Bags: Which One To Use?

We have been told for several years now to recycle our plastic bags or avoid using them altogether. Many people take reusable bags when they go shopping, while many stores no longer automatically supply plastic shopping bags.

Are we being more environmentally friendly by avoiding plastic bags and are we saving money by doing so?

Remember when we used strong paper bags to take the grocery shopping home? Then the early environmentalists said we shouldn’t cut down trees to make paper products and scientists responded by developing the cheap and convenient plastic bag. They actually used less energy to produce than the paper bags and considerably less water, as well as being stronger, so they were deemed a great environmental alternative. We learned to reuse and recycle them after we got the shopping home but eventually, every plastic shopping bag would end up in landfill.

Plastic bags start life as a petrochemical derivative. These are converted to resins which are then heated, extruded, stretched and flattened before being made into plastic bags. The fact that they come from oil initially means that they are made from a non-renewable source which will eventually run out.

The use of a non-renewable resource isn’t the only environmental issue; plastics of all kinds have a huge negative impact on the planet’s natural environment and bags are possibly the worst offenders. Plastic bags never completely break down so they are a major polluter of land and waterways. They strangle birds, animals and fish. In fact, the natural environment has nothing good to say about the plastic bag.

Many governments have recognized the potential hazards associated with plastic bags and have taken steps to reduce their numbers. In some countries they are banned; in others they cost the consumers who want to continue to use them or there has been a tax applied to them. Many countries only allow bags that are made out of recycled plastics.

For some years, environmentally-conscious shoppers have been using shop-branded reusable shopping bags as an alternative. We have felt good about protecting the environment. Unfortunately, these bags are generally made from non-woven polypropylene which is also made from petrochemicals. These bags are strong enough to be used multiple times but they do wear out with constant use and then, like the plastic bag, fail to break down completely in landfill.

Several studies have been carried out in different countries regarding the environmental damage done by both these types of bags. However, the results have to be tempered with the knowledge that they were mainly conducted by scientists working within the plastics industry. Most findings show that a reusable polypropylene bag has a lower environmental impact than the plastic grocery bag, mainly because of the number of times it can be reused.

Defenders of the plastic grocery bag say that many people reuse the bags after they have carried the shopping home, bringing them back in line with the reusable bags. Some say that without them they would have to buy more plastic bags for the same purposes, like trash bags, storages bags and reused grocery and carry bags. They claim that they are actually saving the environment from more plastic waste by reusing the humble grocery bag.

There is also the polyester shopping bag, those lightweight bags that fold into a small package and can be taken with you in handbag or on your belt. Polyester is also made from petrochemicals but its ability to stand up to multiple uses makes it a viable option.

So much for the plastics; what about cloth shopping bags?

More reusable cloth shopping bags are coming onto the market in response to growing consumer demand. These are made from various plant fibers, including cotton, hemp, bamboo and jute. When these fibers are grown organically and sustainably, the bags are a good environmentally-friendly alternative to the different types of plastic shopping bags. They are strong, sturdy and long-lasting, able to be used over and over again. When they do have to be thrown away, the fibers are biodegradable and therefore safer for the environment while they break down.

The main disadvantage of these bags is the initial cost; you may need to pay between $5 and $10 each. The thousands of times you will be able to use each bag, plus the convenience of being able to buy bags of different sizes to accommodate various types of shopping, seems to justify the cost price. If we are going to be asked to pay for plastic grocery bags at the checkout, in some places up to a dollar each, it won’t be long before we would have paid for the cloth bag. This means they’re a green option that also saves money.

The cheapest option is the free plastic bag that is still available at some stores but this is possibly the worst green option. The best way to go green with shopping bags are cloth bags made from organic, sustainable plant fibers. This is also the most expensive to buy but is very cost-effective because of the multiple uses it will be able to give you. If you have to use other options, make sure you reuse them as much as possible before they go into the trash.

So, what kind do you use and why?


18 thoughts on “Cloth Bags vs. Plastic Bags: Which One To Use?

  1. The store I shop at makes their reusable bags out of recycled plastic bottles. Not sure how they eventually break down after they wear out, but I’ve been using the same bags every week for well over a year now and they show no signs of needing to be replaced so far!

  2. Plastic in general is spoken of as something ‘bad’ for the environment, but Polypropylene being 100 percent recyclable and because of this, the plastic can be recycled and re-used for new products many times, which makes it an even more attractive choice.The Polypropylene bags are not only useful and ‘green’ but they are cost effective.

  3. Pingback: Connellymailbox » Blog Archive » Why Do We Have To Recycle?
    1. #1 tip to solve the forgetting problem – keep the bags in your car trunk (assuming you drive to the store) or near the front door if you walk / cycle. Mine hang on a hanger in the coat closet near the door.

      I only ‘forget’ them if I go shopping unexpectedly while out doing something else, and that’s usually just to buy one or two items which I carry in my hand. I can’t recall the last time I had to take a plastic bag.

  4. You make an assumtion that plastic bags will end up in landfill once they are worn out but they can be recycled and re-used to create other plastic products. This keeps the bags out of the landfill and lowers the amount of virgin plastic that needs to be created.
    Plastic bags can be recycled. If they are not being collected with your curb-side recycling contact your municipality. There are companies that will buy this material for recycling.

    1. You are right that some can be recycled but the portion of people bothering to recycle them vs throw them out is low. Majority of people just toss them with the trash. It also depends on where you live and what kind of recycling programs are available. I know where I live only certain types of plastics can be recycled. The rest are to go to the dump which is not a solution that I favour. I would much rather just use cloth and not participate in the equation.

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