From New York to Sydney and everywhere in between, people are carrying reusable bags.
Not surprisingly, large corporations and retailers have jumped on the bandwagon, offering cheap or free reusable shopping bags as a badge of being green.
Unfortunately, these cheap reusable shopping bags are often more of a marketing ploy than a great choice for the environment. To be effective in reducing waste, reusable bags must be able to be reused time and again, and therefore must be extremely durable. Polypropylene bags will decompose after exposure to UV light – below is an example of the affect UV light has on the tensile strength of a polypropylene bag when left in sunlight for 6 months.
Do not be fooled into thinking that polypropylene is an environmentally sound alternative. You may even find the term “biodegradable” on some of these bags (see below), but the standards for use of this term is that the bag must be biodegradable in a ‘commercially managed compost environment’. This unfortunately has little to do with the reality of biodegradability; in real world disposal scenarios, without the controlled conditions specified in these standards, the bags will not break down and biodegrade in a reasonable amount of time and will not decompose to organic material that can be put to use by other micro-organisms, as the term ‘biodegradable’ suggests.
Vincent Cobb (founder of reusablebags.com) recently discussed the futility of reusable bags that aren’t made to last (here). When asked if the solution is becoming a part of the problem, he didn’t hesitate a moment – “Absolutely,” he said, explaining that some are made so cheaply they fall apart after a few uses. “They are becoming more of the junk.”
A cheap non-woven polypropylene bag must be made inexpensively. The construction and material of the bag are of poor quality and they have a tendency to give way after loading them with groceries only a handful of times. Ironically, the ‘reusable’ bags themselves end up in the garbage can.
As a consumer, an additional concern is where and by whom are these bags being made? For the retail price of a “reusable bag” to be $1, the labour and distribution costs must be extremely low. At this price is it possible to ensure all employees and suppliers are treated fairly and in adherence to Fair Trade guidelines?
Using an alternative material such as polyester (which has far better tensile strength properties than polypropylene), printed with the process of sublimation, will yield a more durable bag in which the color will not fade.
Digging a little deeper reveals that many reusable bags are nothing more than another example of green-washing.