Guest Post by Jemima Luscombe
These days, with so much over-consumption around the globe it can be difficult as individuals to find ways to make a positive impact on our environment. The climate crisis, textile waste, the exploitation of factory workers and single-use plastic production are just some of the major issues we and our planet are facing.
With these things in mind, many of us want to make more informed, eco-friendly decisions when it comes to the products we buy and consume.
But this well-meaning intention can be complicated by the fact that a lot of the materials used to make these sustainable products might actually be more harmful to the environment and the workers who make them than we realise.
We all know that reusing our products many times is much better for the environment than any single-use products. But when it comes to reusable bags, are some kinds better for the environment than others? Which materials might we want to opt for and what are their positives and negatives?
Here are a few of the most common reusable bags and a little about their environmental impact.
Lots of us have probably lost count of how many cotton tote bags we have accumulated at home. They’ve become a really popular choice and seem like they would be a great alternative to single-use plastic bags. They undoubtedly help to reduce the amount of plastic that’s ending up in our oceans and are produced from a renewable crop resource.
Cotton totes are made of natural plant fibres, they’re strong so are perfect for carrying heavy shopping, and they are resilient enough to be reused over and over again. But despite these positives, are they actually as sustainable as we might think? Should we be limiting how many cotton totes we own?
A recent study by the Ministry of Environment and Food of Denmark found that, when taking into account the effects on the ozone layer, you needed to reuse a cotton bag over 7,000 times to compensate for its environmental impact. This is partly due to their very high carbon footprint. Cotton is not only a high water-consumption crop, but the energy needed to manufacture it as well as the transportation involved means their carbon footprint is much higher than those of plastic bags.
Not to mention, research by Fashion Revolution has been done into the working conditions of textile mills in India and Taiwan where a huge amount of the world’s cotton is made. It found that many workers are being paid less than the local minimum wage, working extreme amounts of overtime, suffering threats and intimidation, and have unsafe living conditions. Alternative employment possibilities for many of these workers are also very limited, as they are often recruited from rural areas. This situation is not uncommon in textile mills.
These factors are well worth considering. On the one hand, cotton totes are undeniably better for the environment than single-use plastics so if you do opt for them as your reusable bag of choice, it seems the key is to reduce how many you buy and reuse those you do as much as possible. They should really be with you for the long-haul.
Another popular choice for reusable shopping bags are those made of polypropylene - perhaps better known as the material used for the supermarket ‘bags for life’. Polypropylene is a kind of plastic, and as reusable bags their relative low cost and great durability mean they are a pretty effective choice.
Unlike cotton totes with their large carbon footprint, the ‘bag for life’ is thought to need reusing around 52 times to combat its impact on the environment. On surface level, this sounds much more appealing.
Then again, since Polypropylene is a plastic and not a natural fibre it’s still contributing to the amount of plastics in circulation. Polypropylene can take up to 30 years to degrade. And, as it doesn’t decay naturally but releases harmful toxins when it does break down, it’s not a biodegradable product.
Talking of plastic circulation, research shows that around 1.5 billion ‘bags for life’ were sold in the UK in 2019. That was a 26% increase on the previous year. So despite their name, it seems consumers are buying new ‘bags for life’ almost at a similar rate to single-use plastic bags. If this continues, it would pretty much defeat their purpose completely.
If Polypropylene ‘bags for life’ are your choice for reusable shopping bags, then making sure they live up to their name by using them as frequently and for as long as possible is key.
Recycled plastic bags (Recycled PET)
Recycled PET bags are made from recycled post-consumer plastic bottles. Because of this, a really positive thing about them is that they’ve already been recycled from waste products before you’ve even used them once. They’re also designed to be reused countless more times and many of them to be fully recyclable once you can no longer use them. This makes them a really eco-friendly choice.
As plastic is strong and easy to clean, Recycled PET makes excellent reusable products generally. It takes two thirds less energy to produce than new plastics too, so as well as tackling plastic waste these bags also conserve non-renewable resources such as oil.
Not to mention, unlike the thousands of reuses thought necessary for cotton totes, to ease their environmental impact recycled plastic bags are thought to need reusing around only 2-3 times.
With plastic waste being such a major concern, it’s worth bearing in mind that of the 13 billion plastic bottles used every year in the UK alone, a government report found that 5.5 billion of these end up unrecycled – littered, incinerated or in landfill.
So, if you do decide to go for a recycled plastic bag, it’s a good feeling to know that it’s made from products that otherwise would have gone to waste and taken years and years to break down.
There’s no one straightforward answer to which reusable bag is 100% the best. And clearly, a lot of work needs to be done to make sure the products we use are safer for people and our planet.
But knowing a little more about the social and environmental impacts of the materials that our reusable bags are made from can help us to make better, more informed choices when we can.
Because ‘reduce, reuse and recycle’ is undeniably a great principle to begin with if you want to be more eco-friendly, supporting brands that are already helping us to reuse our products and who are transparent about how and in what conditions their products are manufactured is an excellent step.
Written by Jemima Luscombe