Reusable Plastic Bags Are Worse Than the Single-Use Bags They Were Meant to Replace

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A reusable plastic bag is still a plastic bag. TooHotToHandle at English Wikipedia [CC BY-SA 3.0]/Wikimedia Commons

Reusable bags, sometimes called "bags for life," are all the rage these days for environmentally conscious consumers looking to cut down on their plastic waste. In certain grocery stores, these bags are even required unless you want to fork over a charge (or endure the judging snarls of others) for the single-use variety.

There's just one problem. Much of the time, those reusable bags are also made of plastic; thicker, denser plastic at that. And it turns out, people aren't really reusing them much.

In other words, it seems we've replaced our cheap single-use plastic bags with more expensive, thicker single-use plastic bags. It calms our conscience, but only makes our plastic pollution problem worse.

A report from the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) and Greenpeace looked at grocery stores in the United Kingdom and found that the top 10 stores reported selling 1.5 billion plastic reusable bags so far in 2019, which cashes out to roughly 54 “bags for life” per household. That's up significantly from the prior year, when the top eight grocers sold 959 million of these bags.

Remember, these statistics are annual numbers. So the bags aren't being used for life; they're getting replaced regularly, and at a pace that's increasingly approaching single use.

“Our survey reveals a huge rise in the sale of plastic ‘bags for life,’ demonstrating the inadequacy of the current policy which is clearly not providing a strong enough incentive for people to stop using ‘bags for life’ as a single-use option,” the report reads.

"We have replaced one problem with another," said Fiona Nicholls, one of the report's authors, to The New York Times. "Bags for life have become bags for a week."

Because the plastic in these reusable bags is thicker and sometimes woven with fine plastic fibers, using them only a few times actually adds more plastic overall to our landfills than if we just used cheap single-use bags every time. Furthermore, those fine fibers become microplastics that can eventually enter our food chain through bioaccumulation.

Part of the problem seems to be that these reusable plastic bags are still too cheap. They're easy to discard after a couple of uses for another reusable bag. One solution might be to simply make our reusable bags more expensive, so that people are more incentivized to keep using them again and again to avoid paying for a new bag.

Of course, the real solution ultimately needs to be to stop using plastic for our bags at all, no matter the number of uses it's intended for. If bags weren't made of plastic, then it wouldn't matter how often consumers reused them.

So if you really want to be an environmentally conscious shopper, bring your own reusable bags made of something other than plastic. And actually reuse them for as long as they last. A good rule of thumb is: if your bag is going to outlive you, it's probably the wrong choice. Choose a bag for life, not a bag for many lifetimes.