Eco-friendly tote bags, Reusable tote bags, upcycled tote bags, recycled tote bags… There are countless names for eco-friendly bags, and even more types: Canvas bags, rPET bags, hemp bags, reusable paper bags. It can be overwhelming when deciding which is the best option for you in terms of sustainability, function, and style. That’s why I’ve decided to create a guide to help uncover the myths and truths about sustainable tote bags. Here, I will walk through the types of materials typically used for bag manufacturing, explain the nature of how they are processed, and talk about the environmental benefits of specific eco-friendly bags.
Note: This analysis is intended to give you an idea of what makes a bag more or less sustainable. It is not intended to be a comprehensive analysis of all bag types available on the market.
Disclaimer: The writer is an owner of Circular Blu LLC.
The Most Eco-Friendly Bag:
Winner: *Upcycled Non-woven Polypropylene Bags
Why? Upcycled bags require the least amount of inputs (i.e. energy, water, raw material) to manufacture, as you are essentially giving the material being used a “second life”. Secondly, non-woven polypropylene doesn’t require a significant amount of energy or water to manufacture in its first life, and it doesn’t biodegrade easily, so removing it from landfills/incineration provides an added benefit.
Sustainability of Eco-friendly Bags (Ranked Worst to Best)
7. Cotton Canvas Bags
These bags require four times the amount of water that hemp bags do. Cotton bags are usually bleached, which also contributes to eco-toxicity. While these bags are considerably durable, they can emit up to 600 lbs of CO2 per bag, and require a significant number of uses to compare to the impact of a single use plastic bag. Because the yield is 30% less, organic cotton requires 30% more resources to manufacture. This makes it the most resource-intensive and unsustainable “eco-friendly” bag option.
Uses required to equal single use plastic bag: 20,000 (organic)
Uses required to equal single use plastic bag: 7,000 (non-organic)
6. rPET Bags (Recycled Polyethylene Terephthalate)
rPET bags are typically made from recycled plastic bottles and food jars.
While these bags have benefits as far as the reduction of waste goes, the recycling process is environmentally costly. The recycling process increases the impact roughly 3 times as compared to virgin PET, virtually erasing the benefits of reducing waste. They emit roughly 0.79kg CO2/bag, and 0.37 gallons/bag.
Uses required to equal single use plastic bag: 84
5. Nonwoven Polypropylene Bags (NWPP)
Polypropylene is a thermoplastic, made with petroleum and natural gas. Raw material extraction is the heaviest environmental detriment involved in the manufacturing process, yielding 75% GWP of the overall bag from it. A single bag emits 47 lbs of CO2 and 0.18 gallons of water. The benefits of this bag type is that it’s highly recyclable, as it’s constituted from a monomer that can be melted back down and re-sprayed back into itself.
Uses required to equal single use plastic bag: 52
4. Paper Bags
Paper bags aren’t as sustainable as you might think. On the one hand, they are recyclable under the right conditions, however they require a lot of water to manufacture. A paper bag emits 0.051 lbs of CO2 from manufacturing and disposal, and requires a gallon of water per bag, or 25 times the amount of water than a single use plastic bag. The emissions pale in comparison when compared to canvas and polypropylene bags, however the water consumption is significantly higher.
Uses required to equal single use plastic bag: 43
3. Low Density Polyethylene Bags (LDPE)
LDPE or single use plastic bags are surprisingly one of less environmentally harmful options. The caveat is that they aren’t recyclable, which is a common misconception. Regardless of the recycle symbol you might find on a single use bag, they produce massive issues for recyclers. They act as a gum when they are processed through plastic pulverizers, so these bags ultimately end up in the landfill. In terms of their emissions, they only release 0.033 lbs of CO2e- per bag, which shouldn’t be a surprise as they are incredibly lightweight and use .04 gallons per bag.
Uses required to equal single use plastic bag: 1
2. Hemp Bags
Hemp is one of the most sustainable options, mainly due to the carbon footprint offsets that are realized through sequestration. Not taking these benefits into consideration, the emissions associated with harvesting and spinning are roughly 0.02 lbs CO2/bag (assuming a bag weighs 0.5 lbs). Hemp bags are durable, reusable, recyclable, and biodegradable making them a great option if you’re going to source an eco-friendly bag.
Uses required to equal single use plastic bag: N/A (data not available)
1. Upcycled Non-woven Polypropylene Bags
Statistically speaking, upcycled non-woven polypropylene bags do more for the environment than any other bag. Basically, when someone manufactures a polypropylene non-woven bag, they are emitting 47 lbs of CO2e- into the atmosphere. By upcycling material that exists already, such as hospital sterilization wrap, you are avoiding these emissions, reducing landfill space of the material that would have been discarded, and reducing the need for fossil-fuel based virgin bag creation. The only input is the energy required to sew the bag and the transportation emissions. In essence, you are turning waste into a usable product, which outweighs even the benefits of a bag made from hemp. While hemp is renewable, sustainable, and durable, it still requires inputs such as water, and more includes transportation emissions since it’s a heavier product.
An argument can be made to say that you could just discard a hemp bag and it would biodegrade over time, so you aren’t removing landfill space in this scenario. At the end of the day, it’s most sustainable to utilize negatively impactful materials to make your tote bag.
Now that we’ve identified the most sustainable options, let’s go into the details the explain WHY certain methods are more sustainable than others…
The Manufacturing Process
To start, it’s important to understand how an eco-friendly bag is derived. This is the most important aspect of sustainability when considering your bag purchase because this will determine how much energy/resources were used to manufacture the bag. The most popular sustainable framework, endorsed by the EPA, is reducing, reusing, and then recycling. Most eco-friendly bags will reduce waste by their reusability, but there are other considerations that are important to assess.
- Is the bag recyclable (is it a homogenous material)?
- Was the bag made with virgin material?
- How far will this bag travel to get to me, and by what mode of transportation?
A canvas bag for example, is generally made using virgin material and involves bleaching the material, which contributes to acidification and eco-toxicity. Because the raw material is virgin, its carbon footprint is considerable, involving the harvesting of cotton, processing, spinning, bleaching, and sewing.
Virgin vs Recycled vs Upcycled
Another big consideration to weigh before purchasing your bag is how it was processed. Virgin bags extract raw materials from the planet, ranging from petroleum to organic matter like plants. It’s debatable whether or not a recycled bag is more eco-friendly than a virgin bag. There’s a tradeoff – recycled bags require specialized processing that uses energy and water, which emits CO2. They also reduce the waste to landfill/incineration, which has less desirable long-term effects. Upcycled bags have the best environmental benefits, as they require minimal energy inputs and essentially erase the environmental impact of a bag regardless of its material type. This group includes bags made from scraps, or diverted waste streams.
Beyond the direct environmental impacts from bag production and disposal, there are pressing environmental issues that require more immediate attention.
- Carbon dioxide emission reduction is paramount as far as the most pressing/damaging short and long term climate change effects. Paired with population growth, climate change presents a harrowing array of devastating effects for the entire planet.
- Ocean plastics are another pressing issue for humans and the natural world. Oceanic life consumes 12,000 – 24,000 tons of plastic every year. This produces millions of deaths/year. If the plastic is metabolized by a fish for example and you consume it, the microplastics in the fish could break down your DNA.
- Water scarcity and the rapid diminution of safe drinking water affects developing and developed nations alike. Flint Michigan has been devastated by the effects of lead in their drinking water. Some island nations have to ration their drinking water throughout the year just to survive. While this isn’t at the top of the list currently, this will undoubtedly become more pressing in the years to come.
Ideally, if you can source a durable bag that will allow multiple uses that is made from upcycled material, this will offer the most environmentally preferable benefit/lowest impact. Reusing material that has already been manufactured and upcycling it into a useful product reduces waste and emissions, while limiting the amount of energy and water required to manufacture. If you are looking for a low-impact bag, hemp bags are a great second choice, as they don’t require a significant amount of resources to produce and biodegrade easily.
Which bags are the most environmentally friendly?
Upcycled tote bags are the most environmentally friendly bags. The trick is finding a safe, durable material stream that can be used as raw material to manufacture the bags. Here is a list of upcycled bag companies:
- Circular Blu (upcycled grocery bags)
- Mafia Bags (upcycled all-purpose bags)
- Rareform (upcycled fashion bags)
- Loopt Works (upcycled fashion bags)
- Mariclaro (upcycled all-purpose bags)
What is the best reusable bag?
The most effective bags are the most durable bags, which would be canvas, non-woven polypropylene, hemp and rPET bags. If sustainability is taken into consideration, the best reusable would be the upcycled variety of the bags mentioned above (excluding rPET).
Are cotton bags worse than plastic?
Yes. Cotton bags, whether they be organic or non-organic, are considerably worse for the environment than plastic, along the order of 7,000-20,000 times. If you went to the grocery store every week, it would take 134 years for your cotton bag to equal the environmental impact of a single-use bag. Unless your bag is considered a family heirloom, or the bag is upcycled, you should always steer clear of cotton tote bags.
Why are reusable bags better than plastic bags?
Reusable bags offer more durability, and therefore more uses. Plastic bags don’t have a large environmental impact if you are only looking at the inputs and outputs of an individual bag. If that bag were replaced by a reusable bag, even with a larger environmental impact, each reuse essentially lowers the impact of that bag, until it overtakes the impact of the single-use bag. This is why reusable bags are more beneficial than single-use. If the reusable bag is upcycled, then it is possible that its initial environmental footprint is already lower than a single-use bag, as the only inputs are the energy it takes to sew and transport the bag to the end customer. This drastically increases the environmental benefits of the bag, which in most cases is already reducing landfill waste due its upcycled nature.
How many times do you need to use a reusable shopping bag?
That depends on which reusable shopping bag is being used. This can range from 20,000 times to 1 time, depending on the bag type. Cotton bags require 7,000-20,000 uses, which represents the least sustainable option. An upcycled bag of any type would likely require a single use. Recycled bags often take anywhere from 1-15 uses if you’re taking into consideration water use. Virgin bags can take tens to thousands of uses depending on the type.
Why are tote bags bad?
Tote bags, like all physical products, require resources to manufacture. The tote bag industry at large manufactures virgin bags over recycled or upcycled bags. This emits hundreds of thousands of tons of CO2 into the atmosphere and creates new waste that can be difficult to recycle. If these bags were made from upcycled materials, of which are readily available and comparatively priced, this would greatly offset the negative environmental impacts of using new raw materials to manufacture these products.
What can I use instead of produce bags?
Looking for upcycled bags is the best option to replace produce bags. Reusable produce bags are a second option that would replace single-use produce bags, and would only require a few uses to equal the environmental footprint of a single-use produce bag. Here are some available options:
How can I make my own eco-friendly bag?
There are some great resources online for DIY tote bag designs. You can take any type of excess fabric you have that is strong enough to hold 20-30 lbs. I recommend polyester, cotton, or polypropylene. Check out these great videos to learn how to make your own eco-friendly tote bag: