The Various Pros and Cons of Reusable Grocery Bags

One of the outcomes of 'going green' is the use of reusable grocery bags. A look into the pros and cons of these grocery bags will tell you how to make the most of these. Take a look.
With so many environmental issues plaguing the planet, the least we can do is make an effort to contribute our bit to making the world a better place to live in. Amidst all these environmental issues is the use of plastic and paper grocery bags to carry your groceries home. While we all know the repercussions of using plastic bags on the environment, you ought to know that using paper bags also doesn't cause any less damage. The number of trees that go into making a paper bag, and the amount of water involved to produce just one paper bag is simply unimaginable. Moreover, production of paper bags results in harmful toxic emissions which are unsafe for the environment. Are you causing lesser harm to the environment by using paper bags then? An alternative to both these varieties are reusable grocery bags, the use of which has been encouraged by governments worldwide, in an attempt to reduce the amount of plastic used. Also, plastic and paper bags have been banned in a lot of states for this purpose.

What are Reusable Grocery Bags Made Of?

Reusable grocery or shopping bags are simply made of material that allow the bag to be reused. These materials may include heavy duty plastic, canvas, or synthetic fibers. Some bags are also made from recycled materials, that make them friendlier to the environment than others. Some common materials used are:
  • Canvas
  • Hemp*
  • Jute
  • Polypropylene and polyethylene**
* Since production of hemp is avoided in the US, these bags are usually imported from China.
** Types of plastic made from recycled material. These can be recycled but are non-biodegradable.

Most such bags are lightweight, heavy duty, and are machine washable. This makes them easier to use. However, most people complain that they forget to carry these bags with them, which makes shopping a tedious experience. Let's put it this way - either you keep them in your car, or fold them up and put them in your bags so you are never without them. People also make these bags themselves as per their requirements and taste.

Advantages
  • Reusability:
    Obviously this is one of the biggest advantages. You can use them till they wear out and perhaps even repair the damage to a certain extent to continue using them.
  • Lesser Damage During Production:
    It is believed that lesser damage is caused to the environment during the production of reusable bags in comparison to plastic or paper bags. However, some reports suggest that the damage is greater, and that the bags will have to be used for longer amount of time in order to compensate for the damage.
  • Great for Multiple Items:
    Since they are heavy duty, these bags are great to carry multiple items. They also have handles that are soft on the hands and easy to carry.
  • Can be Made on Your Own:
    As mentioned earlier, you can make these bags on your own with durable material that you can find even at home. For instance, you can easily make your own canvas bag. Some people even suggest lining these bags with plastic so that they can be used for items such as vegetables and other wet items.
Disadvantages

Recent studies and media reports have shown that even 'environment-friendly' reusable grocery bags may pose a grave risk not only to the environment, but also to human health in the long run. There are three major concerns regarding the use of these bags.
  • Presence of Lead:
    A recent study has shown that reusable grocery bags contain lead, a potentially hazardous toxin to the environment. Also, bags that have prints on them are known to have larger amounts of lead than the unprinted variety. Upon discarding these bags, it is predicted that the lead will seep into groundwater and pose as a great risk to the environment. Another concern is that this paint that contains lead may begin to flake, and affect the food that is carried in the bags. If such food is consumed, it is likely to cause lead poisoning and affect human health. Studies and research are still being conducted into the amounts of lead in these bags, and how the potential harm can be curbed.
  • Presence of Bacteria:
    A common trend with these grocery bags is that people reuse them without washing them. Obviously, this is going to lead to the development of harmful bacteria and other microorganisms in the bag. Studies reveal that such bags are 'hubs' for the growth of a dangerous bacteria known as 'coliform'. However, there is a solution to dealing with this problem; washing the bags regularly.
  • Not suitable for Meat or Vegetables:
    While a lot of people disagree, personally I think such bags should be used only to carry dry, packaged items rather than greens and meats. This is because such food may be directly exposed to bacteria that the bags may harbor. In such cases, it would be safer to use biodegradable plastic bags.
How to Make the Most of Reusable Grocery Bags

It is important to understand how to use these bags so that you can make the most of them and reduce the damage caused to the environment.
  • Reusable grocery bags should be washed regularly and preferably sun-dried so that they are fresh; and you save some electricity in the dryer too.
  • Keep bags for groceries separate from those for other items. In simple terms, avoid carrying any items apart from groceries in these bags for safety.
  • Simply use bags made of recycled material, preferably in plain colors. As it has been found that the bags with paint and illustrations have higher amounts of lead, avoid using such bags to save yourself and the environment from any harm.
By following these measures, these grocery bags can be used safely, and their cons can be overcome.

Do not let the disadvantages of these bags prevent you from using them. If you take a little care, they will do you or the environment no harm. While paper is recyclable, plastic bags are usually left in landfills to degrade for years together. Very little plastic is actually recycled. Just educate yourself about these bags and you will be able to do your bit for the environment.
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