By now, just about everyone is familiar with the fact that plastic bags are generally pretty terrible. Plastic is bad for the environment across the board, but at least many modern use cases are either meant for long-term non-disposable use, are recyclable, or are made of newly-developed biodegradable plastics.
Still, plastic bags show up a lot in commerce. Grocery stores, in general, still often provide them for bagging and carrying groceries, and the push to make them more eco-friendly has only resulted in thinner, weaker bags that then require more bags to be used to carry the same groceries. Meanwhile, many products shipped around the world use plastic in their packaging to hold individual components, for individual wrappers of food products, and more.
So, how do we best address the environmental impact of bags? Let’s dive deeper into this issue.
The Best Way to Make Bags Eco-Friendly
One of the prevailing misconceptions regarding environmental conservation is the material of a product.
While the material is undeniably significant, its life cycle and re-use frequency are often of even greater importance. This principle is especially relevant in the debate surrounding the environmental impact of bags, whether made of plastic, cotton, or any other material.
The most beneficial action for the environment, surpassing even the type of material used for a bag, is to maximize its use. It’s a common belief that a cotton bag, given its natural origin, is more eco-friendly than a plastic counterpart. However, the initial production of cotton bags is much more energy-intensive and has a significantly larger carbon footprint.
A widely-cited study covered by The Verge in 2018 highlights this surprising fact. The research indicates that an individual would need to re-use a single cotton tote bag thousands of times to equate to the environmental footprint of a single-use lightweight plastic bag.
The key takeaway is not necessarily the material choice but the emphasis on reusing the bags we already own. Before acquiring a new bag, evaluate its necessity and ensure its long-term use.
Frequently buying reusable bags will offset their environmental advantages, sometimes making them worse for your carbon footprint than using single-use plastic bags. That defeats the purpose, doesn’t it?
For a genuine reduction in environmental impact, focus on reusing bags. High-quality, reusable bags yield the best results when bought less frequently and used for longer durations.
Alternatives to Plastic Bags
Plastic is one of many materials we’ve discovered throughout history that have near-miraculous properties and downsides that aren’t felt until years or decades later. Plastics are light, strong, and durable, but they take forever to break down, and when they do, they end up as dangerous microplastics in the water, food, and even our blood.
It really increasingly feels similar to an earlier “miracle” material: a lightweight, thin, incredibly good thermal insulator that was both very durable and impossible to burn. It was great and used everywhere! And then that material, asbestos, was discovered to break down into tiny invisible particles that cause horrible health problems like a variety of deadly cancers.
Finding alternatives to plastic today largely comes down to three things.
- Replacing unnecessary packaging and bagging whenever possible to eliminate the need for any material at all.
- Finding alternative, more eco-friendly, and sustainable materials for places where consumable plastics would normally be used.
- Making it easier, more convenient, and more reliable to gather and recycle the plastics that can’t be replaced.
At Ethix, we aren’t materials engineers or recycling facilities, so we can’t necessarily help with the third one, and we aren’t developing new materials. What we can do, though, is help encourage the use of alternative materials, whether it’s for things like packaging, grocery shopping bags, or disposable items. So, let’s talk about the alternatives that exist and what their pros and cons are.
Cotton bags, used for carrying groceries and other items or just hauling anything you want from point A to point B, are one of the most common alternatives to plastic bags currently available. They’re used primarily as an alternative to one of the largest places plastic bags are used, which is in stores as a way to carry out your purchase.
Cotton is a tricky material. It’s a natural plant fiber, so it’s relatively eco-friendly and sustainable. However, cotton itself has potential issues. It’s a very thirsty crop, so it needs to be grown in locations where it isn’t an undue burden on the ecosystem. The process of harvesting it, ginning it, and turning it into fabric is also far too frequently abusive in terms of human rights and labor violations. There’s a reason “picking cotton” is an archetypal reference to slavery in the American past, after all.
Fortunately, these problems, while not solved on a global scale, are at least avoidable. Whenever you buy a cotton product, make sure you’re getting it from a reputable source. Cotton canvas is hardy, durable, and sustainable as a bag solution, so it’s quite common.
In the world of eco-friendly alternatives, bamboo bags are emerging as a stellar contender against traditional materials. Bamboo demands little water and generally grows pesticide-free, and it’s known for its swift growth and minimal care requirements. This environmental conscientiousness extends to the production of bamboo bags, which transform bamboo fibers into a durable weave, crafting sturdy and reliable bags. From daily shopping totes to elegant handbags, bamboo bags showcase versatile functionality.
Bamboo’s innate antimicrobial traits further set it apart, a boon in the current global health-conscious climate. While its manufacturing process involves certain steps, it generally remains more energy-conservative and less polluting compared to other materials, reinforcing its green appeal. The biodegradable essence of bamboo bags completes their eco-friendly narrative, promising a minimized contribution to the ongoing waste dilemma.
Despite the multitude of benefits, the market for bamboo bags is only in its infancy, hinting at a ripe potential for a broad array of innovative bamboo-centric products in the days to come. We may see more of these in the future, but for now, these are tougher to find and to mass produce.
Recycled Material Bags
Highlighting a key shift towards more eco-friendly consumer products, bags made from recycled materials are making a name for themselves. These bags are a clear example of practical resourcefulness, being made from a range of recycled items, including plastics pulled from the ocean or other used plastic waste. This imaginative process turns waste, which would otherwise end up in landfills and oceans, into useful and often stylish bags.
Beyond just being useful, bags made from recycled materials have a clear positive impact on the environment, significantly helping to reduce the amount of plastic waste. They represent the cycle of using and reusing materials, showing a shared dedication to a more sustainable and environmentally friendly way of consuming products.
Even with the challenges, such as the energy used and potential emissions in the recycling process, making bags from recycled materials shows a dedication to ongoing innovation and improvement in this area.
Non-Woven Polypropylene Bags
Another common option is non-woven polypropylene. Polypropylene is a kind of plastic polymer, but it’s better than your average plastic bag for a few different reasons.
- It’s a lot more durable. Plastic bags rip and fall apart very easily, but NWP is more durable than fabric. Being able to reuse one of these bags hundreds of times – and even repair it like fabric – makes it extremely long-lived.
- It’s water- and chemical-resistant, making it ideal for commonly used fabrics like medical gowns, shopping bags, packaging, and upholstery.
- It’s recyclable. NWP is made by taking beads or shreds of polypropylene and melting them, extruding them, and blowing them into a fabric-like layer, which is then bonded and finished. While newly-produced polypropylene can be used, the process works just fine with recycled polypropylene as well.
Overall, polypropylene is still a non-biodegradable plastic, so it’s not entirely eco-friendly. But, the reusable and recyclable nature of the material, combined with the ability to produce it in ethical ways (even including previously discarded recyclable materials), makes it better than single-use plastic bags by a large margin.
Many of our reusable tote bags are made from this material and are made ethically in the USA. At Ethix, transparency in the entire process of production is part of our ethos, so if you have any questions or concerns, we’re more than happy to talk about the entire process, from the sourcing of materials to the production of the totes and other products. Just drop us a line!
Plant Fabric Bags
Like cotton, there are a handful of other plants that can be turned into fabrics. These various fabrics are all natural and biodegradable while still being durable and reusable. Some of those materials include:
Jute. Jute is a plant that is primarily found in India, and Jute fabric is also commonly known as burlap or Hessian Fabric. It’s a coarse, woven fabric and is commonly found as an organic and sustainable way to ship organic materials like coffee beans or rooibos tea. Treated burlap can be very water-resistant as well and is even used in temporary shelters and other kinds of possibilities.
Hemp. Hemp is a fast-growing plant capable of producing a huge volume of fabric. That fabric is breathable, durable, has a very high tensile strength, and is quite cost-effective as well. It’s actually quite close to being another “miracle” material like plastic. So what’s the drawback keeping it from common use?
Well, as many of you likely know, hemp is derived from the same plant as marijuana, the cannabis sativa plant. Modern-day cannabis plants have been bred into different cultivars, and the hemp used for fabric is bred to grow large stalks and produce a lot of material while also cutting down or eliminating the psychoactive compounds. However, decades of anti-drug laws and regulations have caught the plant in the crossfire, so the challenges to producing help tend to be quite high, and relatively few people do it as a result.
Luckily, public opinion and scientific study are leaning in the direction of broad legalization, which will open up hemp production to a much greater audience, so you can likely look forward to more hemp fabrics being produced and refined in the future.
Paper. Third on the list is paper products. Paper runs a huge array of different kinds, with everything from paper produced by clear-cutting endangered forests all the way to sustainably harvested trees and even recycled paper products. Paper is among the most frequently recycled materials, and it can biodegrade quite quickly or be recycled into new paper products with ease.
Paper isn’t a very durable material, especially compared to most of the other items on this list. While that’s a bad thing if you’re thinking in terms of long-term reusable materials, paper isn’t meant for that. Instead, all of those one-time-use bags you use – for product packaging, for shipping materials, for grocery bags, for trash bags – can be made of paper products and discarded or recycled free of the concerns that come with other materials. In fact, paper is arguably one of the most common materials you encounter in the form of cardboard.
Polyethylene is one of the primary plastics used for producing, well, practically everything made of plastic these days. It’s not biodegradable, and it’s not eco-friendly, but various studies and advancements in materials science have developed a “green” version of polyethylene that is slowly picking up steam.
Green PE, or Bio-PE, is a form of polyethylene that is produced from sugarcane. Instead of using petroleum to create polyethylene, sugarcane is used to create a form of ethanol that is then turned into polyethylene.
This material has a few benefits, even as a plastic:
- It’s a renewable resource. Sugarcane can be grown ethically, though it faces the same challenges as cotton in terms of being a high-water plant that requires labor to harvest.
- Sugarcane actually absorbs and stores CO2, making Bio-PE a more sustainable plastic material with a lower carbon footprint than other plastics.
- It’s entirely recyclable.
- It can replace standard polyethylene; since it has the same properties and can be processed in the same ways, no new machines or tools are necessary to produce bags and other items with it.
Bio-PE hasn’t picked up momentum as a full replacement for standard polyethylene yet, but it’s getting more and more traction. And, since it offers the same material properties as polyethylene, it doesn’t require giving up the benefits of plastic.
The one downside is that it’s not biodegradable any more than standard PE; after all, it has the same material properties. That said, there are ongoing experiments on ways to solve the problem, with options like D2W additives or even bacteria potentially facilitating the breakdown of the plastics.
Leather was a very common material centuries ago, but the advent of newer materials like plastics meant that leather fell somewhat by the wayside. Making leather, and then making leather goods, is generally a labor-intensive process that requires skill and time. It’s not something that can be easily mass-produced to the same degree as cotton or plastic products.
As such, leather has spent years as a luxury material, used in either high-end products or as extremely durable goods. We only have a couple of leather products because the bar is high for producing it, especially when you take labor rights and the ethics of the material’s creation into account.
Leather is a very good material for long-term durable goods like the above-linked computer bag. It’s extremely durable and, with proper care, can last decades. It’s also environmentally friendly (as long as the source of the hide used to make the leather is itself environmentally friendly, of course). Leather production requires the use of some potentially hazardous chemicals, but they’re tightly controlled for as minimal possible impact.
Another benefit of leather is that the hides used to produce it are a byproduct of the food industry. If not for the production of leather, those hides would themselves just end up in landfills. That’s not as bad as it could be – animals are obviously biodegradable – but it’s still a way to use more and waste less.
Polyester is a tricky material to classify. It’s another petroleum plastic, which means the production of the material is not very eco-friendly, and it takes an incredibly long time to break down. However, it’s a very durable and lightweight material, so products made out of it use comparatively less material than they would when produced with another kind of plastic. Moreover, that durability means they can last a very long time in active service. It’s less useful for clothing, where people may discard them for fashion or fit reasons, but for uses like bags, it’s a lot more acceptable.
So, some people argue that polyester is better for the environment than disposable plastics and plastics that take more resources and emit more greenhouse gasses to produce. Others argue that even the best plastic is still plastic and thus is terrible compared to just about everything else listed above.
At the very least, you can make sure to shop for polyester bags that are ethically made in the USA and adhere to good labor practices and human rights.
Finding the Right Bag for Your Needs
Whatever kind of bag you need, whether it’s a tote for grocery shopping, a durable bag for carrying a computer or other important items, or just something you can fold up and keep with you, we have something for you.
We strive to carry only the most ethical products, made with sustainable materials in eco-friendly ways, produced with union labor, or made in the USA. Every product is different and will meet different standards, so if you have any questions about any of our products, feel free to reach out.
As mentioned above, transparency is a key tenet of our ethos, and we’re more than happy to discuss the details until you’re satisfied.
Feel unsure about what alternative will work best for you? You don’t have to navigate these waters alone. We can help explore different materials, sizes, and customization options, ensuring that the end product matches what you envisioned. We offer a wide array of alternatives that do not compromise on quality, durability, aesthetics, or ethics. Reach out to us! We are here to answer any questions and guide you in making an informed decision.
Daniel Cardozo, CEO of Ethix Merch, is a passionate advocate for ethical promotional products. With a mission to transform global supply chains, he serves on the Labor 411 Foundation and Advertising Specialty Institute’s Promo for the Planet Advisory Board. Daniel is dedicated to empowering socially and environmentally-conscious consumers.