Sustainable living

In the bag: the best alternatives to single-use plastic bags

Not all ‘green’ bags are created equal. We rank reusable alternatives based on their environmental impact.

Canvas bags

Many supermarkets in NSW have now banned single-use plastic shopping bags.

The City of Sydney wants to leave nothing to waste. We’re excited that major grocery chains have finally moved away from single-use plastic shopping bags.

For many consumers, the ban has meant having to think about what bags they’ll bring when they shop.

Before you buy up a heap of the polypropylene reusable green bags you find at checkouts, you should know they are not necessarily as green as you think.

The best alternative to plastic green bags

The most important thing that will make a bag a better option is using it more than once.

But there are some other things that can make it a more sustainable choice too.

Every material has a different footprint when it comes to energy and water consumption, litter impacts and recyclability. Some are better than others.

Here’s the low down on reusable shopping bags, rated from best to worst.

Jute or hessian

Jute or hessian bags are absolutely the best option. They are made from durable and naturally biodegradable vegetable fibres. Jute is also a renewable resource and the plants sequester carbon.

When a jute bag comes to the end of its life, add it to the compost heap, where it will eventually break down. Alternatively, make sure you recycle it with textiles to maximise usage.

Canvas or calico

Cotton bags can be used hundreds of times. They're washable, and biodegradable – you can even cut them up and add them to your compost.

When buying a canvas or calico bag look for organic cotton options. Cotton farming can have a large water footprint so to offset this you also want to make sure your product is made to last.

Reusable paper

Paper bags can be recycled or composted but they generally only last a few shopping trips so they aren’t that reusable.

To minimise the environmental footprint of paper bags, consider whether it’s made from recycled content and printed with environmentally-friendly dyes.

Polypropylene ‘green’ bag

These bags are not as innocent as you might think. Made from polypropylene, a by-product of oil refining, this is a fossil fuel-based plastic and therefore made from a non-renewable resource. Green bags are used for 2 years on average. When it comes to end of life, you should know that they can be recycled with other soft plastics at a REDcycle bin.

Embedded content:

Help! I keep forgetting my bags

You have your bags – but now you need to make sure you use them!

It may seem simple but it can be easy to forget in the first few weeks until you make a new habit. If you forget your bags, you do have options. You could always look for a cardboard box, place items in your backpack or carry with your hands if you’re only buying a few things. You’ll be surprised how resourceful you can be!

If you forget your bag, you might be lucky enough to have a Boomerang Bag box at your local store. It lets you borrow a bag made from recycled materials by local volunteers. Don’t have one at your local store? Check out the Boomerang Bag community at Newtown for tips on how to start your own.

Tips to remember your reusable bag

Have a few bags in convenient places such as your handbag, the back of the door, in the boot of your car, and fold one up to stash in your drawer at work. The first item on your shopping list could be “Bring shopping bags”, as a reminder before you arrive at the shops. Talking about this change with your community will help you reinforce the habit.

You may want to start saying “no bag, thanks” when you shop at other stores too.

Now that you’ve mastered shopping without plastic bags, take the next step and rid your life of another ubiquitous source of plastic at home: bin liners. We’ve looked into the alternatives.

Published 26 July 2018, updated 6 November 2018