Rethinking reusable grocery bags

As cities ban single use light weight plastic grocery bags and cheap reusable ones flood the market, are we solving a problem or making it worse?  Let’s see.

How reusable grocery bags are made

Reusable grocery bags are usually made of non woven polypropylene, a plastic fiber pressed to look like woven fabric. The plastic itself comes from petroleum, a finite fossil fuel. The unit cost of these bags is less than 20 cents, so supermarkets make nice profits selling them at one to three dollars each. And most reusable grocery bags are made with a very thin mil thickness, so stores profit even more from their limited lifespan.

Reusable grocery bags

Most reusable grocery bags are polypropylene. They fall apart quickly and cannot be recycled.

Baggers hate reusable grocery bags

Polypropylene grocery bags are “hand wash, cold only.”  Cold water doesn’t kill bacteria, so consumers and grocery baggers are exposed to more food borne illness. Washing these bags in hot water kills bacteria, but causes them to fall apart faster. Baggers often complain that shoppers don’t wash their bags. Worse yet, the shapes and sizes of these bags make it hard to bag groceries efficiently.

Ecological results

In the US we import most of our reusable grocery bags from overseas. This makes a big carbon footprint even bigger. And unlike single use lightweight plastic bags, polypropylene reusable grocery bags are not welcome at recycling centers or composting facilities. According to Ned Thomas of MIT’s Department of Material Science and Engineering, these Reusable grocery bags end up in landfills where they will take much longer to degrade than the lighter plastic bags they replace.


Indiana grocery store thinks outside the bag: customers prefer CRESBI Crates over polypropylene reusable grocery bags

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Thinking outside the bag

The plastic bag problem is complex, and there is no simple answer. American cities of all sizes are limiting or banning single use plastic bags. Los Angeles and Seattle already have bag bans, and Chicago will follow suit in August 2015. While the effort to shrink the impact of plastic bags is laudable, consumers must find a better way to carry their purchases. Reusable grocery bags are clearly not the answer.

For many, the trick is to “think outside the bag.” CRESBI Crates are collapsible and dishwasher safe plastic totes sold in a variety of sizes and colors. For weekly family grocery trips, they fit open inside the shopping cart so shoppers can organize on the fly. And for shorter shopping trips, a CRESBI Crate is more convenient than carrying a store basket.

These grocery totes may seem costly at first. But in cities where stores have to charge five or ten cents per bag, long lasting and sanitary crates quickly pay for themselves. And as consumers get used to crating instead of bagging, reusable grocery bags are quickly becoming a thing of the past.