Cotton, plastic, woven, paper: what reusable shopping bag material is the most eco-friendly?

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Imagine you are at the grocery store, running a quick last-minute errand. When it is your turn to pay, you realize you have forgotten to take your reusable shopping bag along. Not only that, but it so happens that you will not be able to carry your purchases without a bag either.

You are given 3 choices by the clerk:

N°1: A most common plastic bag;

N°2: A paper bag;

 N°3: Getting yourself a cotton-based bag.

While you know plastic bags are contributors to environmental pollution, you also know that paper bags are recyclable, and know as well that cotton ones – like the bag you left at home – are reusable. Which one do you pick? And do you sincerely know which of the three is the most eco-friendly?

What are eco-friendly tote bags? 

« Environmentally-friendly » is a term that encompasses a large number of contributing factors. Sure, CO2 emissions are a problem, but so are pesticides, phosphates, and other tiny synthetic polluting particles. Actually, the less impactful the production and use of a manufactured good is on ecosystems and human health, the more eco-friendly said product is.

Between plastic, paper, fabric, or cotton-made bags, which one is the least eco-friendly, then?

Why are plastic bags bad for the environment? 

Well, when you only look at the 10 grams of CO2 emissions required to manufacture a plastic bag and compare it to the 12 grams needed to produce a paper bag, you would think that it is the latter that is least eco-friendly, and you would not be wrong. 

But again, when it comes to determining the environmental impact of a product, CO2 emissions are only one of many factors. If we were to look closer at the biodegradation index of the two, we would see that plastic takes much longer to decompose (you will be shocked!) than paper does, which takes about a month or so. 

Based on that factor alone, plastic consumption has been either drastically reduced or is subject to increasing socio-political pressure globally. While Western nations are working toward banning single-use plastic altogether, last April 2022, Thailand, for example, officially announced the ban on single-use plastic in all of its national parks.

More on why plastic bags are not so great 

While they are, indeed, more cost-effective than any other bags, plastic bags are above all:

  • Non-biodegradable:

  It can take up to 1’000 years for a plastic bag to decompose in nature but not even entirely, as microparticles can still linger afterward if not remain in the environment forever. 

  • Composed of bisphenol A:

  A chemical compound found in most plastic-based products, BPA can penetrate the soil, contaminate rivers, and finally make its way into the oceans and pollute them on a large scale.

Are paper bags more sustainable? 

The question may overlook an even more central question: what is the real determining factor when it comes to sustainability. We saw that CO2 alone is not enough of a convincing argument to prefer one material over another, for example. What truly helps distinguish unsustainability from environmental friendliness is the reusability potential of materials. 

 Take paper: a bag made of recycled paper can be reused, on average, 43 times before being thrown away. Cotton-based bags, however, could be reused over 170 times before showing signs of wear and tear.

 Based on that criterion alone – reusability -, cotton bags win hands down over recycled paper ones. But again, when one looks at the carbon footprint generated by the production of a single cotton bag, 2’000 grams do not look all too good, do they? However, given they offer better durability, one is less likely to part ways with it as soon as they would with a more fragile bag.  

What are PP-woven bags, and are they eco-friendly? 

Yet again, the question should be rephrased as follows: are PP woven bags more durable than other bags? Yes, they are! Woven polypropylene is, along with cotton, the most prevalent material composing today’s reusable bags on the market. Not only are they durable, but they are moreover washable, making them the perfect reusable bag solution out there! 

Now, instead of scratching your head as to which material is best for the environment, start practicing the best possible predictor for environmental safeguarding: do not buy other bags and use the one you have as long as it lasts! 
We, at BK Bags, have a wide variety of sturdy, reusable, and eco-friendly cotton, paper, polyester, non-woven, and woven PP shopping bags at the ready. Feel free to take a look!

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