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Reusable Eco-Friendly Shopping Bag Types: The Ultimate Guide

Lidia Bertesteanu |

You have plenty of reusable bags options on the market. Now that more and more countries and states banned plastic grocery bags, reusable, and eco-friendly shopping bags become the norm. However, they differ among each other on several criteria. Their environmental footprint is just one of the many. Let’s discuss today the common reusable shopping bag types, materials, ecological impact, advantages, disadvantages, and more!

Fabric vs. Paper vs. Plastic Bags

Plastic bags are an immediate threat to our world. They litter and suffocate life wherever they are, flying in the streets, clogging up drainage systems, or accumulating in rivers, lakes, parks, and other natural settings.

They end up in landfills and do not biodegrade in the near future. Across the world, countries are implementing plastic bag bans, and the United States follows, with California, Oregon, and now New York carrying the flag.

In this context, we need to talk about fabric bags, paper bags, and some reusable plastic bags that seem eco-friendlier than most of their plastic peers. Here are some points to consider:

  • One of the first issues you have to grasp is that all bags of all types have their environmental impact. The purpose of reusable bags is for people to use them a sufficient number of times, so the products become beneficial for the environment.
  • When we discuss the eco-impact of a bag, we should not stop only at its end-of-life status (biodegradable, compostable, recyclable, etc.), but consider its entire lifecycle, starting with production, transport, and so on.
  • Another issue is that not all bags are recyclable, even if they come in eco-friendly materials. Some of them contain different types of materials, making their recycling costly, time-intensive, and industrially complicated.
  • The recycling performance of any item should consider the item’s deconstruction, as some of its components may still end up in a landfill.

A Danish study from 2018 found that you should reuse paper bags 43 times to consider them eco-friendly. Paper bags come with their environmental impact, and we should all be aware of it. From a reusable point of view, paper bags are not the first option. They wear and tear fast, and you may not reuse them at their full capacity.

So let us start discussing reusable shopping bags made of cotton, other natural fibers, and nonwoven polypropylene.

 1. Conventional Cotton and Canvas Bags

Some of the most popular reusable bags for shopping, leisure, and even sustainable & ethical fashion, cotton, and canvas bags come with a handful of advantages. Before we discuss them in detail, however, we should take a closer look at cotton, as it raises some environmental issues.

  • Cotton is a renewable crop and the most popular fabric in the world;
  • On the other hand, the cultivation, manufacture, and transportation of cotton make it one of the most controversial materials when it comes to reusable bags.
  • Cotton requires massive amounts of water: around 710 gallons (2,700 liters) for enough cotton to produce one T-shirt;
  • This renewable crop also needs pesticides to thrive. Some statistics say it is accountable for 16% of global pesticide use, with other estimates placing the number closer to 25%.
  • Studies have shown that to make a single reusable cotton shopping bag eco-friendly, you should use it more than 150 times to break even. In other words, a once-a-week use frequency makes your cotton/canvas shopping bag eco-friendly in about three years.

Cotton Bags versus Canvas Bags

Canvas is a fabric made of cotton. Because of its different weaving process and style, canvas fabric is sturdier than cotton, with a rougher texture, and more significant weight. We will discuss fabric weight in a moment. While we have talked about the difference between cotton totes and canvas totes, let’s resume things a little.

Canvas shopping bags feature a few advantages over traditional cotton ones:

  • You can reuse them more times than you can reuse cotton bags, thus lowering their environmental impact and making them entirely eco-friendly;
  • Since they support heavyweight items, you can rely on canvas bags for multiple purposes, not only grocery shopping. Canvas bags are the go-to trend when it comes to sustainable fashion trends, utility bags, laundry bags, gift bags, and more.

Benefits of Conventional Cotton/Canvas Reusable Bags

Conventional cotton/canvas tote bags for shopping or everyday use come with a handful of advantages:

  • It is a biodegradable plant fiber;
  • If untreated, you can compost worn and torn cotton bags;
  • You can also upcycle such items as cotton is a versatile fabric allowing for creativity;
  • Cotton represents a renewable resource;
  • The fibers are strong and durable, making it an ideal choice for reusable bags;
  • As we all know, we can easily wash cotton, even in the washing machine.

Disadvantages of Conventional Cotton/Canvas Reusable Bags

Before you start stocking on cotton or canvas bags, you should first understand that you should use them at all times. Many people forget their bags or do not take them on purpose (as they do not plan to go shopping on a particular day), ending up piling up plastic bags or polypropylene bags, which adds weight to the environmental burden. Here are some drawbacks of conventional cotton/canvas bags:

  • If untreated, cotton/canvas shopping bags do not resist moisture, dirt, stains, etc. Besides the dying industry, the chemical treatments of cotton items also take a toll on the environment;
  • You need to wash them often to sanitize them – but, on the other hand, you should sanitize all your shopping bags, no matter their material.

2. Organic Cotton Bags

We talked about organic cotton before, but in this context, we feel it is essential to mention some facts again. Certified organic cotton, while costing more to produce (as it needs more water), it is significantly eco-friendlier than its conventional peer. Organic cotton does not require pesticides, herbicides, or fertilizers to grow. Moreover, organic cotton depends on 80% on rainfall, and its production lowers the emission of CO2 by more than 40%.

Organic Cotton Advantages

  • Lower environmental footprint, primarily because farmers practice crop rotation, protecting the soil;
  • The fibers are strong and durable, making some of the best and sturdiest items in the world;
  • Cleaning and maintenance are strss-free; wash your organic cotton reusable bags as per manufacturer’s instructions, and everything should be fine (no shrinks and wrinkles);
  • Most organic cotton items (shopping bags included) have not gone through dying processes or chemical treatments, making them appropriate for people with sensitive skin or allergies;
  • Cultivating organic cotton is a globally certified practice aligning with sustainable and ethical agriculture and fashion principles, protecting the soil’s wellbeing as well as the farmers’ growing it.

Organic Cotton Disadvantages

As we said, organic cotton requires more water than the conventional one. Besides, you can find some drawbacks to organic cotton bags:

  • Since organic cotton comes from a handful of places around the world, the end price might be higher in comparison to its conventional counterpart;
  • The shopping bags and other organic cotton items are bulky and heavy, making their transportation expensive and energy-consuming.

3. Recycled Cotton Bags

Recycled cotton is probably the best idea the fashion and accessories industry had in the past years. This type of fabric comes from reclaimed organic cotton and traditional cotton scraps (that would usually end up in landfills) that the industry spins into new yarn. Let’s discuss some of their benefits!

Recycled Cotton Advantages

  • Recycled cotton shopping bags have a small ecological footprint when it comes to production, as they circumvent cultivation altogether;
  • They preserve all the sturdiness and resilience qualities of regular cotton;
  • You can use them, wash them, and maintain them just like you do with regular cotton items, as long as you follow the manufacturers’ instructions;
  • They keep cotton and polyester scraps out of landfills, lowering the products’ overall environmental burden.

Recycled Cotton Disadvantages

Current technologies do not allow manufacturers to produce 100% recycled cotton or canvas bags. It is one of the most noteworthy drawbacks of this otherwise great material.

  • The post-industrial recycled cotton goes in a mix with other materials (recycled polyester, for instance) to up the ante on resilience and yearlong reusability.

However, most recycled cotton and canvas bags are kinder with the environment than newly produced fabrics, even if they contain only 50% or less recycled natural fibers.

  • Moreover, recycled cotton and canvas bags have higher reusability levels than conventional cotton as they present a mix of sturdy fibers and reinforced stress points.

Do Size and Weight Matter When You Choose Cotton/Canvas Bags?

Size and weight matter when you choose any type of bag, but in the case of canvas and cotton shopping/fashion bags, the industry advanced more than in other situations. Reusable bags usually come in three main dimensions:

  • Large (about 22"W x 15"H x 8"D). As you can imagine, they make perfect grocery bags, beach & pool bags, overnight bags, and more. They can carry heavy loads, but it all depends on their weight as well.
  • Medium (about 16"W x 15"H x 5"D). This size is the most popular, as it makes a bag more versatile than others are. You can carry it in a purse or backpack and use it for shopping for clothes, groceries, carrying personal items (in case one uses it instead of a purse). These bags are usually popular among students who carry books or laptops, etc.
  • Small (about 12"W x 13"H x 4"D). While large enough to carry a few small personal items, these bags make the go-to gift and promotional bags. However, in the world of plastic bags’ bans, small bags and pouches are now a crowd-favorite when it comes to shopping in bulk and from the bins. You can use them for storage in the pantry or fridge as well.

The weight of a bag is also crucial when you pick the best bags for your shopping needs. When it comes to weight, we discuss it in terms of one square yard of material in ounces. In this guideline, we present you with the most popular cotton and canvas bags weights.

  • For reusable shopping bags, we recommend 10 oz. and 12 oz. cotton or canvas shopping bags.
  • They are perfect for carrying heavy loads, resisting wear and tear, going through a significant number of washing and cleaning procedures, and so on.
  • When you look for reusable cotton & canvas shopping bags for daily use, you should also consider their construction.
  • While the presence of gussets and reinforcement points is crucial to all bags, no matter their material, when it comes to cotton and canvas, such criteria become even more critical.

What is a Gusset on a Cotton/Canvas Bag?

Gusset bags are bags with improved and expanded volume capacity. In other words, bags with gussets can carry larger (and heavier) items without breaking. These extra plates of added material can be rectangular or square and allow the presence of welding or bolts to offer extra reinforcement to the bags.

You will also see gussets on jute bags and polypropylene bags for durability and volume. In the same vein of conferring longevity to a bag, you will also find reusable shopping bags using reinforced handles.

What Cotton and Canvas Bags to Choose for Your Shopping Needs?

Keep in mind that cotton and canvas bags can play a different number of roles in your life. Pick the right tote bag size and style for you, depending on what you need from it. The same goes for the jute tote bags we will discuss in a minute. However, here are some of the best reusable shopping bags tips, and products to consider:

  • Wear a foldable cotton tote bag that you keep in a purse, backpack, car, office drawer, etc. Foldable cotton shopping bags come in their pouch for space-saving. When you fill the bag with groceries at its full capacity, use the pouch for cash, cards, car keys, or even phone.
  • Pick a large, solid canvas bag with a flat bottom and gusset for heavy grocery shopping with your family. They are also great when you carry shopping items from one neighborhood to the next traveling by bus or subway.
  • Heavy canvas zippered tote bags for shopping double as day bags, beach bags, and even overnight bags. They are sturdy and safe, offering enough space and versatility for all your shopping needs.

4. Jute Shopping Bags

Jute is probably one of the eco-friendliest natural crops out there that we can turn into the fabric for a significant number of purposes, shopping bags included. More sustainable than cotton and featuring a smaller environmental footprint, jute is now present in many applications:

  • Bags, sacks, even high-end purses;
  • Bundle clothes;
  • Rope, twine, strings, etc.;
  • Home furnishing, tapestry, upholstery, even furniture pieces, etc.;
  • Outdoor landscaping applications;
  • Decorations, storage solutions, gifts, and promotional bags and baskets, etc.

Jute Advantages

As we said on a previous occasion, jute is an eco-friendly crop that grows in high rainfall areas and requires no pesticides to thrive. You know this fabric under the name of hessian in Europe or burlap in North America. Here are the essential benefits of using reusable jute bags:

  • Jute is a natural and renewable resource;
  • Jute items are compostable and biodegradable;
  • The fabric industry can spin jute in coarse, rough fibers or thin, resilient, silk-like fibers for high-fashion items and accessories;
  • The fabric is resistant and durable against wear and tear;
  • The jute fabric makes such bags ideal for storing dry foods, beans, nuts, seeds, herbs and spices, and even fresh fruit and vegetables.
  • Jute as a raw material is affordable.

Jute Disadvantages

While jute items and reusable shopping bags come with their fair share of benefits, they also present some disadvantages:

  • Supply is relatively scarce, as jute grows only in some parts of the world;
  • Jute items do not resist moisture very well, so they need chemical treatments;
  • Just like all shopping bags, you need to wash jute bags often to prevent food cross-contamination;
  • Some countries do not recycle jute items;
  • Their texture makes them harder to brand and print;
  • The jute products may be more expensive than cotton or canvas, as the fabric is bulky and heavy, and its transportation comes with high costs.

What Jute Bags to Choose for Your Shopping Needs?

When it comes to reusable shopping bags, burlap jute tote bags and pouches are ideal solutions for all your shopping needs.

  • Pick conventional jute tote bags for your everyday shopping needs; keep a jute tote bag in a purse or backpack, at the office, in the car, or at the gym and forget about plastic shopping bags altogether!
  • Large jute bags with gussets are the ideal choice when you have to carry heavy loads with the car, by hand, or by other means of transportation. While larger and bulkier, jute bags with gusset are your best friend for grocery shopping.
  • Natural burlap/jute pouches make the best gift-wraps, but in the context of eliminating plastic bags from our lives, they are the most popular option when it comes to bin/bulk buying and storing.

5. Polypropylene Bags

Nonwoven polypropylene bags are a type of reusable shopping bags made of plastic (in fact, a flexible resin polymer). They are popular as they are incredibly durable, easy to clean, and, surprisingly, sustainable.

According to some studies, you need to reuse a nonwoven polypropylene bag only 14-15 times, so it becomes eco-friendly. We have talked about the differences between polyethylene and polypropylene bags before, but let’s now list nonwoven polypropylene bags’ advantages for a richer view on the situation.

Nonwoven Polypropylene Advantages

  • As plastic materials go, this one produces less solid waste and fewer CO2 equivalents in comparison to PET, PS, or PVC.
  • The fabric is extremely flexible and lightweight, meaning we can tailor it in a significant number of shapes and items;
  • The material is resilient to wear, tear, fatigue, the elements, oils, solvents, mold, bacteria, etc.;
  • You can clean it effortlessly and reuse it for years with no interventions or fixes;
  • In some countries, they recycle such items.

Nonwoven Polypropylene Disadvantages

While more sustainable than other types of plastics, this material is a plastic nonetheless, meaning it is not compostable or biodegradable. Moreover, some countries do not recycle items made of this material. Here are some other disadvantages:

  • Nonwoven polypropylene items are made from a non-renewable resource;
  • If they end up in landfills, they behave just like any other plastic;
  • You cannot wash such things in the washing machine;
  • However, bags coming in nonwoven polypropylene need constant maintenance and cleaning to prevent bacterial cross contaminations;
  • You should never forget your nonwoven polypropylene bag at home when you go out, as you need to use and reuse it a high number of times to make it sustainable and avoid buying new ones from the supermarket.

What Polypropylene Bags to Choose for Your Shopping Needs?

If you are among the ones encouraging single-use plastic bags’ bans but still understanding the benefits of plastic use (with moderation and keeping sustainability in mind), then you need to consider the following suggestions when picking the best polypropylene bags:

How Do You Choose the Best Reusable Shopping Bags?

One key takeaway of this guide on reusable shopping bags is to use any type of bag mindfully. The more times you use one, no matter its material, the more sustainable it becomes.

Keep one on you at all times and avoid buying new ones. Some reusable bags are eco-friendlier than others, but each comes with its fair share of advantages and disadvantages. Choose the best type that meets your needs.

When it comes to biodegradation and low environmental impact, jute bags are probably the best option so far, followed by cotton and canvas bags. However, the latter takes some ecological toll.

Polypropylene bags become sustainable fast, but make sure you don’t accumulate them and don’t let them end up in landfills.

What are your favorite types of reusable shopping bags by material, construction, and size? Use the comment section to let us know what you use the most!