As I’m writing this, many people are upset about the recently approved bill in Denver, Colorado, which will set a 10-cent fee on single-use bags from retail stores, taking effect in July of 2020. Many people are also celebrating this legislation. And there are many asking this question: Do reusable bags really help the environment? 

This topic, along with other environmental issues, has gained a lot of attention in the past decade, especially in 2019 with the increasingly raised awareness regarding our climate. Many cities across the United States, as well as entire countries, are banning or initiating fees for disposable bags — primarily when it comes to plastic. Alex Truelove, director of the U.S. PIRG’s (Public Interest Research Group) Zero Waste Campaign, described the need for stronger environmental solutions as such: 

“Our priority is to reduce as much plastic waste as possible. If the bathtub is overflowing, the first thing you do is shut off the faucet.”


But why turn off that faucet? Plastic bags can be collected in specific store bins and then recycled. Paper bags can also be recycled. So, is it really even a big deal?

Why Reusable Bags Make More Sense

plastic bag caught in a tree by a river

What if I told you the effects of single-use plastic are in your water, your food, your air, and are currently impacting your health? 

I’m not into using scare-tactics to get people to listen. I am, however, very much into combating ignorance with knowledge. Sometimes there’s nothing more jarring than simply stating the facts. 

So then, here are some facts on this matter: 

Over 370 autopsies have shown that 1 in 3 leatherback sea turtles has plastic stuck in their stomach, usually a plastic bag. (source)

Other animals that are most affected by plastic (bags and other debris): sea lions / seals, birds, fish, whales and dolphins. (source

Because plastic doesn’t biodegrade 100%, it breaks down into tiny microplastic fibers and emits toxic pollutants into our air in the process. These microplastic fibers also enter our water sources. So whether it’s through drinking contaminated water, eating the seafood that has ingested plastic, or just breathing polluted air, human health is being impacted. 

“These [plastic] toxins have also been found in many fish in the ocean, which is very dangerous for humans. Diethylhexyl phthalate (DEHP) contained in some plastics, is a toxic carcinogen. Other toxins in plastics are directly linked to cancers, birth defects, immune system problems, and childhood developmental issues.” 


To bring it all home, let’s mention one more simple fact. The average use of a plastic bag lasts for 12 minutes. (source

Twelve. Minutes. 

Most likely to carry groceries from the store into the car, and then from the car into the home. This includes the plastic grocery bags AND produce bags. Often, they’re tossed right into the trash. Sometimes they’re used again for picking up dog poop, carrying lunch to work, or something like that before being tossed. Sometimes they’re collected in a big pile until being dropped off at the collection bin in the store. But even if they’re recycled, plastic bags are given one more chance to be used again and then they’ve maximized their lifespan. So… still trash. Still polluting, contaminating, breaking down and ending up in places they should never be. 

But what about paper? you ask, hoping and assuming it must be better. 

Sadly, switching to paper may lessen the impact of plastic but it produces an entirely different set of environmental problems. This article highlights the “large amounts of water pollution and air pollution” and how “energy-intensive” the process is to make these paper bags. “The process often involves transportation for hundreds of miles — from the forest to the consumer — which has its own set of environmental implications, including air pollution and global warming by way of carbon dioxide emissions.” 

Although it takes energy and transportation with the production of reusable bags as well, the key word there is: reusable. It makes absolutely no sense to spend money and incredible amounts of resources to manufacture something that will be used for an average of 12 minutes before it becomes garbage. 

We are creating trash for the sake of convenience. 

The thing is, if you’re a person who eats, drinks, uses electricity, drives, works, or basically just lives, then you have a footprint on the planet. There’s no getting around it, especially with how far we’ve come in our technology and structures throughout the world. But you can choose how deep you want to impress that footprint on the environment. 

Reusable bags aren’t magically exempt from having any sort of toll on our resources. Using them again and again, however, makes so much more sense and lessens their overall impact. Plus, I’ve learned some tips that make these totes even more sustainable! 

Remembering Your Reusable Bags 

Bringing your own bag is literally one of the easiest zero waste steps you can take… as long as you remember! Here are some tried-and-true tips:

  • Put them next to the front door or on the handle 
  • Stash them in your car
  • Keep one or two in your purse for when you’re in a bind
  • Use them to carry important items, like your wallet or keys, so you create a habit of bringing them with you
  • And the most important piece of advice: as soon as you’re done unloading the bags, put them back wherever you’ve decided to store them so you don’t forget the next time!

Once you’ve gotten into the habit of bringing reusable bags with you, it becomes second nature. It won’t take long before you’re thinking of what else you can do in your zero waste journey. 

reusable bags hanging on hooks by door

So, You Want to Make an Even Bigger Impact with Reusable Bags? 

You can take these totes to the next level by sharing within your community! I got most of my reusable bags for free from events or as gifts, except I did invest in some reusable produce bags to make things a little easier for the cashiers at my grocery store. 

Being able to choose the types of bags I can bring with me is a privilege and is not always easy or available to everyone. Want to take this zero waste step a little deeper? Consider these ideas:

Give Extra Bags Away 

You may have acquired a bunch of reusable bags. If so, consider giving them to people you know who need them or donating them to a food bank, homeless shelter, or a thrift store. You could even fill them with food and other items (like sustainable water bottles, socks, soap, etc) to help those in need and give them away personally. 

reusable bags with clothes inside

Use Bags as Wrapping

When giving a birthday present or gift for the holidays, reusable bags are the perfect alternative to wrapping paper! They look cute and serve a purpose. I know many of my bags were gifted to me this way and it’s nice to think of the person who gave it to me whenever I use one.

Host a Fun DIY Event to Make Your Own Bags 

You know what’s even more sustainable than just plain reusable bags? Making your own out of materials that already exist! To be honest, I’m not that great at sewing (maybe one day), but I found this super easy way to turn old t-shirts into totes without sewing! Now you can make as many reusable bags as you want for free in just a little bit of time. You could totally do this on your own or you could invite friends over to raise awareness, build community engagement, and have fun. If everyone brought some old t-shirts (or spent a little money at a thrift store to get some), you could also make some extra bags to give away to others!

Donate Materials to People Who Will Upcycle Them into Bags

If you don’t have time to make your own bags but you have materials that you’re willing to donate, do a little digging and you may find some people who will upcycle them for you! For example, there’s an awesome store in Denver, CO called Slow Soul Life that specializes in “slow” fashion and sustainable clothing. They will collect your old t-shirts and turn them into reusable bags in place of single-use disposable ones within their store!

Start or Join a Bag-Share Program

Maybe you’ve got some time on your hands, would like to get more involved within your community, and you’re ready to take on a project. If that’s the case, consider starting (or joining) a bag-share program! Polly Barks, an advocate for sustainable living, has a great article on how to do this. Basically, you do everything mentioned above on a bigger scale and continue the cycle of sharing bags with others in your area. Check out her post for more details! 

reusable produce bag with apples inside

Inconvenience is a Small Price to Pay in the Long Run

So, back to our original question: do reusable bags really help the environment? 

When you’re committed to using them repeatedly: 

  • You save tons of resources from being expended just to end up polluting landfills, oceans, air, stomachs, and more. 
  • You reduce the 100 billion plastic bags a year that are only considered useful for about 12 minutes of their seemingly endless life (500+ years). 
  • You can provide others with resources they may have lacked and raise awareness about caring for our environment in the process. 
  • You present longevity in the face of unreasonable excess.

So, yes, I’d say reusable bags help the environment. 

Inconvenience is a small price to pay in the grand scheme of things. And honestly, it’s only inconvenient until you build the habit. What are you waiting for?

woman putting pineapple in bag at farmer's market
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