A culture of re-use is vital to environmental responsibility, but in some cases, it may not result in all the benefits we’re trying for.

Reduce, Re-use… and Re-use, and Re-use, and Re-use, and…

We all know that accumulating single-use items and tossing things as soon as we use them are both wasteful behaviours that ultimately cause harm to the environment. But when it comes to the reusable bags that are suddenly exploding in popularity across tons of markets, most of us won’t have a chance to use them enough times to make it worth their damaging environmental impact – not in one lifetime at least. So unless you’ve found a way to pass your grocery bags on to your next reincarnated self, there might be a better option for carrying things home responsibly without needing to practice any witchcraft (but don’t let us stop you from using your powers for good).

According to a 2018 study performed by the Ministry of Environment and Food of Denmark / Danish Environmental Protection Agency, in order for a single organic cotton reusable bag to just be equivalent to a single-use plastic bag in regard to its negative impact across all environmental indicators, you would have to reuse one bag 20,000 times. Similarly, a conventional cotton bag would have to be reused 7,100 times to have an equivalent environmental impact to single-use plastic. Even a simple composite bag would have to be reused 870 times for the same effect. This indicates that a reusable bag is worse for the environment than a single-use plastic bag, unless it is used 800-20,000 times, at which point, it would only be equivalent to traditional plastic… therefore no improvement whatsoever.

In theory, this amount of use almost seems plausible. However, in order to reach the mark for an organic cotton bag, you would have to reuse the same bag every single day for almost 55 years. Can’t use every one of the bags in your closet everyday? Ok, so let’s say you use this bag once a week, then you need to keep it and use it every week for 384.6 years. This is extremely unrealistic unless you plan to include it in your will – very few people would even own the same bag for 55 years, let alone use the exact same bag every single day for that entire time without it getting wrecked or misplaced. If you’re just using a simple composite reusable bag, you would have to use the same bag once a week for almost 17 years. Once a week is somewhat more reasonable to be reusing the same bag but it is extremely unlikely that someone would keep using it consistently for 17 years without it being broken or lost. In the Federal Government’s single-use plastic ban proposal, they anticipate that people will reuse their reusable bags 100 times, which even then falls short of the goal to make their environmental impact worth it. The government also recognizes that “reusable products may not be used to their fullest extent by consumers (e.g. 15 to 20 uses rather than 100 or more uses)”.

One study found, upon issuing a survey, that 67 people had a total of 479 reusable bags at home, only 10% of which were frequently used. To break this down, on average, each person had about 7-8 reusable bags at home and they only frequently used maybe one of those (if that). Since it has become a popular trend to give out reusable bags as free branding and to use them to package goods like shoes and gift shop items at no charge, people are finding themselves with more bags than ever, and certainly more than they can consistently use. This is resulting in plenty of reusable bags ending up in landfill, where they are even worse than single-use plastics for persisting in the environment and harming natural ecosystems. Not to mention, if plastic bags are bad for shorelines and marine life, can you just imagine what these reusable babies will do when they are littered and left in the natural environment? Which of course will happen despite our best efforts.

When considering the best option for an alternative to single-use plastic shopping bags, reusable bags are the most popular choice. When looking at the entire lifecycle of reusable bags, however, they tend to be even worse for the environment than plastic, and are almost never reused enough times to make it worth the damage. With their rise in popularity, far too many reusable bags are entering the waste stream and the natural environment, where they persist for a significantly longer time than even single-use plastic. The Federal Government has already recognized in their ban proposal that by removing single-use plastics out of circulation we will remove 1.6 million tonnes of waste from the waste stream, while potentially adding 3.2 million tonnes of waste from the proposed alternatives. How does this make sense? It is therefore more important than ever that consumers fight for the bag options they want from their retailers and from the government.

As a business and as a consumer, it’s very important to also understand the impact of the alternatives you choose to replace your single-use plastics. We understand the challenge of choosing the right option; however, you can make a move in the right direction that actually helps the environment and your bottom line when you decide to offer certified compostable bags to your customers.

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