Every day, people are becoming more aware of how the products they use impact the environment. You’ve probably heard paper bags are more efficient for sustainability than plastic bags, but what about plastic bags vs. reusable bags?
There are positives and negatives to all three types of bags, and there isn’t just one correct answer. There are several different types of plastic bags, using different materials and production methods. The same is true for reusable bags. Trying to compare them to one another means considering numerous ecological factors.
Looking closely at some of the main pros and cons of plastic bags, paper bags, and reusable bags can help us better understand how we can truly make a difference—and the answer might surprise you.
There are three main types of plastic bags, each with a unique purpose and level of impact on the environment:
1. Low-Density Polyethylene (LDPE)
LDPEs can be extremely lightweight. They’re used for everything from light grocery bags to trash bags, meaning their use is widespread, and their impact on the environment is undeniable.
2. High-Density Polyethylene Bags (HDPE)
HDPEs are by far the most commonly used. They’re denser and more durable than LDPEs, making them useful for heavier loads, like large garbage bags. When considering every impact of production, disposable HDPEs have the smallest ecological footprint.
3. Linear Low-Density Polyethylene Bags (LLDPE)
LLDPEs are more durable than LDPEs, using less material to gain the same strength. LLDPEs are promising as the most environmentally friendly form of plastic bags. But that requires comparing the strength in material and the lowest footprint of the HDPEs.
Plastic bags are difficult to recycle, and their debris can devastate wildlife and the ocean’s ecosystem. But, if people can take on the challenge of reusing them, it’s possible to reduce their impact.
We think of paper bags as the solution to using fewer plastic disposables, but the truth is paper bags have problems as well. Producing paper bags generates 70% more air pollutants and 50 times as many water pollutants as plastics. While paper bags are much easier to recycle than plastics (in part because it can be challenging to find a place to recycle plastic bags since they tend to jam the machines), they require 91% more energy to recycle.
The good news—paper bags are biodegradable. They can be composted and recycled easily. They can be reused for bagging lunches and making crafts and can be repurposed for a variety of uses.
There are two main types of plastic bags that most people use—totes, made of woven cotton, and polypropylene plastic.
Over time, reusable plastic bags break down through photodegradation, turning into toxic chemicals called microplastics that pollute our oceans.
How Reusable Bags Help the Environment
On the positive side, reusable bags appeal to people who are conscientious about the environment. They tend to be keenly aware of the impact of disposable bags, which can encourage manufacturers to incorporate recyclable materials into production.
If manufacturers focus more on sustainable practices, they can potentially reduce the ecological damage from production. They can also enjoy the advantage of making it a marketable trend for the better. If more manufacturers compete for the attention of users who want to make a change, they’re likely to find more solutions to reduce pollution and waste.
Even though reusable bags are the most resource-heavy to produce, they provide the best opportunity to reduce that footprint and eventually cut down on the capacity needed to create them. Perhaps an even better idea than reusable bags is looking around the house at what you already have—what can you repurpose a container for another use?
Following the Lifecycle of Just 1 Bag
One effective method to compare the overall environmental impact of different bags is to look at the entire life of a single bag, from production to disposal. From there, you can factor in how often bags are used and other variables that could influence a change in attitudes toward sustainability.
- Plastic bags: You might find it surprising, but the lowest environmental impact from the production of one bag is actually from disposable plastic bags using HDPE materials. The real issue is the quantity produced and thrown away, because the average person uses hundreds of plastic bags every year.
- Paper bags: Paper bags are relatively low in their environmental impact, but compared to disposable HDPEs, you’d have to reuse them four times to reduce their impact to the same level.
- Reusable plastic bags: Reusable plastic bags have to be used 14 times to reduce their impact to that of a disposable plastic bag. Surprisingly, reusable cotton bags, or totes, have to be used 173 times before reducing their impact to the same as a disposable HDPE.
Looking at the comparison of plastic bags vs. reusable bags, you may be shocked that disposable plastic bags have any potential to improve sustainability. But when all things are considered, there’s a positive bottom line: Reusing bags is always an improvement over waste.
If you’re dedicated to green living, the surprising truth is reusable plastic bags start having a less negative impact on the environment after using them 14 times (although they still break down into harmful microplastics).
Make a Difference by Living a More Sustainable Life
Reusable bags may not be the perfect solution for environmentally friendly production, but in use, they’re pointing us toward the right solution. The biggest impact on the environment comes from changing habits and rethinking how you use any kind of bag—regardless of the materials.
Every time you reuse a bag, it’s one more step in the right direction, reducing its negative environmental impact.
Here are some other great ideas to help you live more sustainably beyond just comparing plastic bags vs. reusable bags.
Just like reusing bags can make a substantial difference, reducing your reliance on energy is a big step toward greener living.
- Turning your lights off when they’re not in use is a great way to use less electricity throughout the year. You can make this even easier by letting more natural light in.
- Hanging your clothes out to dry instead of using the dryer is a big energy saver.
- Using LED light bulbs means using 90% less energy than traditional bulbs.
- Clean your AC filters regularly. When your filters are clean, the improved airflow helps your AC run more efficiently.
- Look for places around your home to recaulk to keep the cold winter air from creeping in.
Instead of throwing away all your old food waste, learn how to compost and turn it into valuable soil-enriching fertilizer.
Finding creative ways to reuse items can lead to fun hobbies and educational projects around your home, deepening your appreciation for the usefulness of common household items. You’ll start looking at the world in a new way once you get bitten by the repurposing bug.
- Try repurposing glass jars as artsy gift containers. You could also use them to store food or organize pens and pencils.
- Use old newspapers and magazines to start a fire, wrap gifts, and line the cat’s litter box.
- Create sandwich wraps by cutting up plastic bags.
- Use your old clothes as cleaning rags.
Take the Next Step Toward Sustainability
Now that you have a better idea about how plastic bags stack up vs. reusable bags, learn how you can make other small life changes on your path to a more sustainable lifestyle.