Contact: Sue Vang, Policy Associate
The holidays are here, and if you unexpectedly need to get an extra reusable bag or two for your purchases, here are a few things to keep in mind while you peruse the selection of reusable bags.
As revealed in a 2011 study conducted by the California State University Chico Research Foundation, not all bags are created equally.
The study compared single-use plastic and paper bags typically used in grocery stores against two types of reusable bags—one made from non-woven polypropylene (PP) and the other from low density polyethylene (LLDPE). Non-woven PP is fabric-like material made from fibers bonded together and not woven or knit like traditional fabric; hand wipes are made from non-woven PP. LLDPE is plastic film (thicker than traditional plastic grocery bags) used in bags for retail stores such as Forever 21.
Researchers found that after 8 uses, a non-woven PP bag requires 33% more fresh water to produce and use when compared to a single-use plastic bag. However, that same reusable bag would have lower non-renewable energy use, greenhouse gas (ghg) emissions, and solid waste impacts.
Comparatively, a reusable bag made from 40% postconsumer (recycled content) LLDPE would have lower impacts than a single-use plastic bag in all four areas. Using recycled content instead of virgin LLDPE material lowers the overall impact of the reusable bag.
The California-based study did not include PP bags made with recycled content due to the lack of infrastructure and availability of reclaimed PP. Meanwhile, recycled LLDPE is locally abundant.
Ten different reusable bags were tested for levels of regulated heavy metals including lead and cadmium. None of the polyethylene bags (one single-use and two reusable bags) tested positive for metals. On the other hand, all seven reusable bags made with PP and imported from China tested at high levels. Cadmium was found in over a third of the non-woven PP bags, while lead was found in 20%.
When looking at the overall impacts of a reusable bag it’s also important to consider where the bags end up when no longer useful. While PP is not easily recyclable, there are several facilities in California that can recycle LLDPE into reusable bags. When an LLDPE reusable bag is no longer usable, it can be recycled into another product, thereby closing the loop.
Shoppers have many other choices for bagging their purchases, from bringing in their own bags to putting the items into a backpack or purse, or even going bagless. But if you do need a new reusable bag, ask yourself these questions first for maximum environmental benefits and to help promote green, local jobs: is this reusable bag made in California, recyclable, and containing recycled content like LLDPE?
And after you’ve made your choice and started putting your new bag to use, don’t forget to wash or wipe it down every now and then--but keep in mind reusable bags don’t pose any more of a health hazard than your shopping cart or kitchen counter.