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Is There a “Best” Kind of Reusable Bag?

With more and more councils, states and countries around the world introducing plastic bag bans, the conversation is finally moving towards reusable bag options. Not a moment too soon, either!

Yet as with all things, there’s plenty of different options out there, and the choice can be overwhelming.

Different people have different opinions about what’s best. Whether that’s upcycled or Fair Trade, recycled, organic or vegan, or what the energy footprint is, we all have different priorities in our quest to live a little lighter.

So no, I don”t think there’s one “best” option. But I do think there are lots of “good” and “better” options when it comes to ditching the single-use disposables with something a little more environmentally friendly.

Reusable Shopping Bags: Zero Waste and Plastic-Free Alternatives to the Plastic Shopping Bag

I’ve highlighted some of my favourite options below, along with a couple more I think are best avoided.

Reusable Shopping Bags – Using What We Have

It goes without saying that the most environmentally friendly option is using the thing that we already have. Most of us have reusable shopping bags.

If we don’t, we’ve probably got old plastic bags from previous shopping trips. Don’t forget about backpacks, holdalls or other bags we might own.

Reusable shopping bags do not need to have been purpose-designed for that specific task. If it has handles and a compartment for shopping, it’s likely good enough.

Reusable Shopping Bags – Borrowing (Boomerang Bags and Mors Bags)

You know those times when we find ourselves at the shops unexpectedly? Or we arrive with a list and then remember we need a few more things? Those times when we either don’t have a reusable bag, or don’t have enough?

Schemes like Boomerang Bags and Mors bags tackle exactly that problem. They recognise that most of us have reusable bags, but we also forget them sometimes. So they provide bags for us to borrow.

These schemes run on the power of community: to source second-hand fabric, sew into bags and leave in strategic locations where shoppers might need to borrow bags. The idea is that shoppers borrow bags, use them, and then return them ready for the next person.

No money is exchanged for the borrowing, although bags can sometimes be purchased to help cover expenses (such as screen-printing labels and providing cups of tea to volunteers).

(If sewing is your thing and you’ve been wondering how you can increase your impact, these groups are always on the look out for enthusiastic new volunteers!)

Reusable Shopping Bags – Upcycled Options

Shopping bags made out of repurposed fabric (think tablecloths, sheets, coffee sacks) is a great low-waste option that makes something good out of something that already exists.

Local markets are a great place to find creative craftspeople in your local area who make and sell reusable bags. If this isn’t an option for you, online marketplace Etsy is a great way to connect with sellers a little further afield. There’s plenty of options in terms of material, shape and size.

Reusable Shopping Bags – Recycled PET

Buying shopping bags made out of plastic can seem a little contradictory for anyone pursuing the plastic-free lifestyle. However, there’s a big difference between making bags with brand new virgin plastic and making bags with recycled PET plastic.

PET is the plastic that drinks bottles are made of. Even if we stopped making plastic drinks bottles tomorrow, there’s a heck of a lot of those plastic bottles already in existence in the world.

Recycling this plastic into a usable (and reusable) product seems a better solution that letting it languish in stockpiles all over the world. PET is also the most recyclable plastic there is.

From a lifecycle analysis point of view, these plastic bags have the lowest footprint of all reusable bags. They don’t demand new resources. Being plastic, they are also lightweight, hard-wearing and incredibly strong.

This (extremely well used and hence rather crumpled) recycled PET Onya bag is over 5 years old. It fits into a tiny stuff sack (you can see what it looks like packed down on the left – that’s a second bag).

From a waste perspective, yes they are still plastic. They can’t be composted at the end of their lives.

As much as I’m a fan of natural materials, I also know that our plastic legacy is something we need to deal with. Recycling PET plastic into reusable bags seems to be a good way to make good of a material already in existence.

In a perfect world we wouldn’t be having this conversation. But alas, the world isn’t perfect. The road to zero waste is full of compromise.

Reusable Shopping Bags – Cotton/Calico, Hemp and Jute

Natural fibres are a popular choice for reusable bags. They are typically hard-wearing and can be composted at the end of their useful lives. You’ll never see a reusable cotton shopping bag stuck up a tree as you might a plastic bag.

Of the three commonly used natural fibres, cotton is the most water- and chemical-intensive crop to grow. Organic cotton has a smaller eco footprint than regular cotton. For a lightweight, fold-up bag that fits in a handbag, cotton bags tend to be the most practical.

Jute and hemp are both considered more environmentally friendly than cotton, but the bags tend to be bulkier.

There’s a billion places to buy these kinds of bags. The supermarket would be my last choice. I’d much rather support a charity doing great work with my purchase. Or a small business. Or an independent chain. We vote with our dollars, so choose well.

(If you’d like to support independent eco-conscious businesses, here’s my list of worldwide online stores.)

Reusable Shopping Bags – The Ones to Avoid

With so many great options out there, there are a number of less-than-great options that are better avoided. Sometimes we end up with these things before we realise there are better options. Emergencies happen. If that’s you, don’t despair.

Use what you have, and next time, you can choose better.

Reusable Bags to Avoid – Thicker Plastic Bags

Some stores are replacing single-use plastic bags with reusable thicker plastic bags (usually polyethylene), often for a small charge.

These bags are made either partly or wholly of brand new, virgin plastic. They may contain some recycled material – if so, the bag should specify the amount.

These are heavier duty, but despite often being called “Bags for Life” they are estimated to be used an average of 5 times. Not single-use, but not much of an improvement. They are prone to splitting, and the handles also stretch when the contents are heavy.

These bags still present a litter problem when they inevitably end up in the environment.

Reusable Bags to Avoid – Non-Woven Plastic “Green” Bags

These bags are commonly sold in supermarkets and are called “green” bags more because they tend to be the colour green rather than because there is anything environmentally friendly about them. Although they appear to be made of fabric, they are actually made of plastic. Polypropylene (plastic number 5), to be specific.

They are much thicker than single-use plastic bags, and consequently need to be used many more times to be beneficial to the environment. In fact, a study suggested they need to be used 104 times to be environmentally positive. Truthfully, they tend to fall apart long before they are used that much. They are also bulky and cumbersome.

If you already have these bags, use them as long as you can. When they reach the end of their life, consider replacing with something better.

There’s plenty of reusable options when it comes to shopping bags, but the main consideration is whether it will work for you. There’s never one right choice. Sometimes, it’s different choices for different situations.

Regardless of material, the best reusable is always the one that actually gets reused.

Now I’d love to hear from you! What is your favourite type of reusable bag? Do you have a preference for different materials? Is there an product or brand not mentioned that you’d recommend? Anything else to add? Please share your thoughts in the comments below!

(Disclaimer – I’m an affiliate for Onya, which means if you click the link and choose to make a purchase, I may be compensated a small amount at no extra cost to you. I have been using their products since 2012: I’d only ever recommend something I have tried myself or that has been recommended to me by you, my readers. As always, my first suggestion is to use what you have or choose second-hand before buying anything new.)

Plastic Free and Taking the Challenge One Step Further

For most of us, living with less waste begins as a personal journey. As we start to discover more about the issues caused by waste, particularly plastic, and the options and alternatives, most of us begin wondering how we can get others involved. Whether it’s our families, our friends, our colleagues, the local school, the local cafes or shops, we want to spread the message and bring others with us on the journey.

Today’s post is about what you can do to take that step: to take the ‘living with less waste’ message out of our homes and into the community.

Host a Movie Screening

A movie screening is a great way to get people together to raise awareness of the issues, and start a discussion about solutions and alternatives.

One of the first things I did after signing up to Plastic Free July for the first time back in 2012 was attend a community screening of the plastic documentary Bag It. Even more than signing up to the challenge, that documentary changed my life. In a little over an hour I’d gone from feeling fairly relaxed about my plastic use to realizing that plastic was a huge problem but with so many solutions – and something that I could do so much about.

Movie screenings can be as big or as small as you like. Anything from:

  • borrowing a DVD from the library and showing it to a few friends and family;
  • Getting a community screening license from a distributor to show a movie in a public place such as a community hall or function room;
  • Using community screening platforms such as Tugg, which allows you screen documentaries in cinemas, through selling tickets in advance. The model works a little like crowdfunding – if not enough tickets are sold, the screening is cancelled.

If you’d like some inspiration for a good documentary to show, my top 10 list of documentaries might be a useful starting point.

Host a Plastic-Free Morning Tea or Supper

Invite others in your local community, workplace or school to attend a waste-free morning tea or supper, where all of the food has been purchased and prepared without single-use packaging.

You can invite community members to accept the challenge and bring a dish without packaging, or you can prepare or source it all yourself to ensure no sneaky plastic makes its way in.

Inviting someone to speak is a great way to engage the group with some of the solutions. Here’s some ideas:

  • Invite a local organisation to talk about the great waste reducing initiatives they’ve adopted;
  • Invite a local eco store to attend to talk about some of the products they sell and their benefits;
  • Invite someone who lives in the in the local area to share the story of how they reduced their own waste.

Set a table with some reusable alternatives to talk about, and give everyone the chance to share their ideas and ask questions. The idea is to get everyone thinking, and talking…and then acting!

Host a Litter Pick-Up or Beach Clean-Up

A litter pick-up is a powerful way to get others fired up to take action. Connecting others to places where litter ends up brings attention to the scale of the problem, and taking action by removing the litter goes a huge way towards protecting the ocean. Removing litter from the environment is also a positive reinforcement of the impact we can have when we work together.

To organise a litter pick up, set a date and time, gather necessary equipment (gloves, tongs, buckets, bags or old pillowcases to collect the litter) and start promoting it to your community. Offering a (plastic-free) morning tea is a great way to reward those who turn out to help and another way to continue to conversation.

Join (or Start) a Local Boomerang Bags Group

In an ideal world we’d all remember our reusable bags – but everyone forgets sometimes, right? Boomerang Bags was set up to reduce plastic bags by providing free bags for shoppers to borrow and bring back. But even better than providing bags, Boomerang Bags is all about communities getting together to volunteer to sew their bags, out of freely donated old fabric.

Before a group launches, they need to make 500 bags. (Nobody wants to launch and then run out of bags in the first weekend!) Boomerang Bag depositories are placed in shopping centres, and then the public are free to take and then return as required.

You can find out more about Boomerang Bags here, including where the current groups are and how to start your own group.

Get your Local Cafe (or Business) Involved

If your local cafe doesn’t give a discount for reusable coffee cups, your local store insists on giving plastic bags to everyone, or your local bar dishes out plastic straws with every drink, have a chat to them to see if they are willing to do something about it. You never know if you don’t ask!

Asking a local cafe, store or business to take part in Plastic Free July is a great way for them to be part of a global challenge and test customers’ receptiveness to charges or discounts, no longer offering single-use items and other initiatives.

Find out if there are other local initiatives that they can be a part of. Responsible Cafes is an Australian volunteer-run organisation which supports cafes who offer a discount to customers who use reusable cups. They have posters for display, and information that cafes can share with their customers. Plus all cafes that sign up are placed on a map, allowing locals to support the cafes near them who are doing the right thing.

Now I’d love to hear from you! Have you taken zero waste or plastic-free living into your community, and if so, how? Have you been to any great community events? Are there any other ideas you’d like to add to this list? Any of these you’re planning to adopt? Please tell me your thoughts in the comments below!

A Plastic-Free Future? It’s Already Happening (Here’s Proof)

When we think about the kind of world we want to live in, and then look around us in the present, the difference can feel worlds apart. It can seem impossible to imagine how we will ever make progress, from where we are to where we want to be.

Yet when we start to look closely, we discover that these new ways of thinking are being acted out, all around us. There are groups, businesses and organizations changing the old story by doing things a different way. They are visions, or “pockets” of the future” except they are happening now, in the present.

These “pockets of the future” remind us that change is possible, and that it is already taking place. These examples provide a framework for others to follow, and take the next steps.

When we talk about plastic-free or zero waste living, and the circular economy, we can see plenty of gaps in the system.

We might take our own bags – but what about all the produce arriving in the store in single use packaging? What about those of us who don’t live near bulk stores? What about convenience?

These are simply missed opportunities, and innovative people are plugging those gaps with solutions. I wanted to share a few ideas to give you hope that momentum is building. Change is coming.

How Stores are Addressing Single-Use Packaging

I’ve had this conversation more times than I care to remember when talking about zero waste or plastic-free living. Someone asks: what about the fact that most bulk stores receive goods in packaging, and that packaging the stores receive isn’t reusable?

Whilst that’s mostly true, a huge amount of waste eliminated when stores buy in bulk and allow customers to use their own containers.

Now, stores and businesses are stepping up to the challenge and trying to implement reusable and returnable options for their suppliers.

The Source Whole Foods Victoria Park (WA) – Kombucha

My local bulk store The Source Whole Foods (in Victoria Park, WA) recently started selling kombucha on tap. I’m not really a kombucha drinker, but I love the story behind this product. They have three flavours, which are delivered in stainless steel drums by a local producer in the south-west. Once empty, the drums and switched with full ones, and the empties are returned for cleaning and refilling. Zero disposable packaging.

Not all items that get delivered to bulk stores come packaging free. Many products get delivered in big 20kg sacks or drums, but these cannot be returned to suppliers for refilling. However, many bulk stores that care about zero waste are now starting to have these conversations with their suppliers, to see what options there are to reduce waste at the level upstream.

It’s beginning to happen.

Dunn & Walton Doubleview (WA) – Milk

Dunn & Walton is an organic store in Doubleview, Perth with an excellent cafe and deli. They receive their milk in bulk from Margaret River, and decant into glass bottles which their baristas use. They have saved more than 5,000 plastic bottles from landfill by doing this.

Coffee culture is a big deal in Australia, but almost every cafe uses plastic bottles and tetra paks. For plant-based milks, there’s the DIY approach which cafes are increasingly adopting. The Raw Kitchen in Fremantle is one of a growing number of cafes here in WA offering homemade non-dairy nut milk instead of the carton tetra-paks which typically end up in landfill.

Dunn & Walton Doubleview (WA) – Takeaway

Dunn & Walton also run a tiffin night on Thursday evenings, with gluten-free, vegan Indian takeaway food made by the supremely talented Arti of Arti’s Traditionals. Tiffins are stainless steel, stackable lunchboxes suitable for transporting hot food, typically Indian food.

At Dunn & Walton, customers can buy a reusable stainless steel tiffin on the night, or they can bring their own reusable containers from home, but there is no single-use disposable packaging available as an alternative.

More and more takeaway shops are willing to let customers bring their own containers, but most customers still have the option. Tiffins are not a new idea – millions of people use them every day in India. But they are not commonly seen in Australia… yet.

Coffee Cups to Go (and Come Back)

Reusable coffee cups aren’t new, although they are definitely becoming more mainstream. However, reusable coffee cups rely on us remembering to bring them – what if we forget? What about those people who like to text their coffee order ahead? Having a reusable cup doesn’t work in that instance.

Well, people are beginning to think about ways to get round that.

The Freiburg Cup (Germany) – Borrow and Return


I first read about the Freiburg (it’s in Germany) reusable coffee cup scheme earlier this year. When a customer buys a coffee from one of the 72 registered outlets, they can choose a reusable cup (made of dishwasher-proof plastic) by paying a small deposit. This reusable cup can be returned to any of the outlets for washing and reusing.

Go2Cup (Perth) – Reusable Coffee Cups to Borrow

When I read about the German scheme, I thought it sounded great. I wondered how we could introduce it here. Then I discovered that somebody (Daniel Grosso of Go2cup) is already getting out there and starting it, right here in Perth :)

Go2cup is slightly different to the Freiburg system, and in my view, slightly better. The Freiburg Cup still has a disposable lid, and the scheme is limited to cafes. Go2cup uses fully reusable cups (the lids are also reusable), and has expanded beyond the cafe market. It is also working with events, Farmers Markets, and businesses.

Cups are provided for patrons to use, and these are returned for washing.

Schemes like this allow people to forget their reusables and still refuse the single-use option. I’m sure these ideas will be adopted more widely in the future.

Reusable Bags (to Borrow and Bring Back)

People forget their reusable bags sometimes. Or they pick up more than they intended, and don’t have enough reusables to manage. Rather than resort to picking up plastic bags, there’s another solution – borrowing bags.

Boomerang Bags and Morsbags (Worldwide)

Boomerang bags are reusable shopping bags made by members of local communities, using donated and second-hand materials. Once a stash has been sewn, these are deposited outside stores for anyone to borrow, and bring back.

Forgotten your reusable bags? No problem!

Boomerang Bags started in Queensland, Australia, but have spread across the globe. Morsbags is another reusable bag initiative, founded by Claire Morsman (hence the name) with a similar ethos, in the UK. Before I moved from the UK to Perth in 2011, I worked in a building that had Morsbags hanging in the hallway for anyone to borrow at lunchtime.

Returnable and Refillable Packaging from Online Sellers

There are countless companies out there selling products in recyclable packaging. What is better than recyclable, though, is reusable. That’s where the zero waste movement wants us to head.

Obviously, taking our own containers to bulk stores means refillables. But not everyone lives close to bulk stores. And not all bulk stores sell the whole range of products.

Plaine Products (US)

Plaine products are a US company doing things a little differently. They sell shampoo, conditioner and body wash in recyclable aluminium bottles. Better than simply offering recyclable bottles, they offer a full ‘return and refill’ scheme.

Other companies allow customers to return bottles for recycling. But returning them for refilling is pretty new.

When you receive your order you also receive a return shipping label. When the product’s empty, the pumped is switched with a refill cap, the label is placed on the original box and the product is shipped back – and Plaine Products covers the shipping fee.

I’m lucky enough to have access to plenty of bulk stores, and I prefer to shop local over shopping online. But I do live in a city with plenty of options. For those people who rely on online shopping, this is a much more sustainable option than single-use packaging.

We don’t have a zero waste or circular economy – yet. But innovation is happening all the time, and good ideas are being spread. Schemes like this give me hope for a world without waste.

Now I’d love to hear from you! Were any of these new to you? Do have experiences with using any of these – good or bad? Do you know of any other innovative ideas tackling waste upstream? Any other initiatives you’d love to see happening? Any other thoughts? Please share below in the comments!

(Disclaimer – I am an affiliate for Plaine Products, meaning if you click a link and choose to make a purchase, I may be compensated a small amount at no extra cost to you. I only ever share organisations and businesses whose commitment to creating zero waste and plastic-free solutions I believe in.)