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Reusable Shopping Bags – Your Ultimate Guide

Reusable Shopping Bags

From July 1 2018, single use plastic bags will no longer be used in the major supermarket and grocery chains in Australia. As we enter this new era, it is a good time to re-think how you will now carry your grocery items home from your weekly, monthly or daily shopping trips.

According to Psychology Today, it can take over 21 days to break a habit (depending on the habit itself, it could take 6-8 weeks!). That is going to mean a few supermarket trips in the weeks and months ahead where you kick yourself for not remembering to bring your reusable bags from home.

Whilst spending 15 cents here and there is not the end of the world, you may want to think about some longer term, sustainable bag solutions for your groceries.

Need some sustainable shopping bag ideas?

We have you covered. Here we outline a range of options to consider now that single use plastic bags have been banned.

We are working on the basic assumption here that you do not need a reminder about why single use plastic bags are well…bad.

reusable shopping bags

Plastic bags are bad for the environment and harmful and dangerous for wildlife. They also pollute our planet. We could go on. But we won’t. Let’s focus on finding some alternatives to single use plastic bags for your grocery shopping.

So now that major supermarket and grocery store chains have fallen in line with legislation that bans single use plastic bags, we as consumers, now need to make some new choices about the bags we choose to use moving forward.

But not all bag choices are equal. In fact you will still be offered some other types of plastic bags in store at major grocery chains. They are not single use plastic bags – but many of them do still have an impact on our environment.

Some facts about grocery bag options (other than single use plastic bags)

A 2016 report by the NSW Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) found a cotton bag had to be used 131 times to equal the environmental impact of those single-use plastic supermarket bags used just once. Wow. Bet not many people are across that little piece of helpful information (you are welcome!).

Clean Up Australia has recommended jute bags because they are made from a sustainable fibre that doesn’t require much water to produce.

If you have to use a bag at least 100 times to equal the environmental impact of using a disposable plastic bag once, it’s very important that it works for you.

So this takes us to an in-depth look at the different shopping and grocery bag options to consider:

Heavy duty bags

Woolworths Plastic Shopping Bag

Major supermarket chains such as Coles, Woolworths and Aldi will continue to offer plastic bags. They are not single use plastic bags, rather thicker plastic bags that can be reused.

FACT: the types of heavy duty bags that the major supermarket changes will start to use typically need to be used 4 times to recoup the extra energy required to make them (according to a British lifecycle assessment)

FACT: heavy duty bags can take longer to break down and if they hit the oceans, as single use plastic bags have in the past, they will also have a detrimental effect on the oceans and other animal habitats

Using these thicker plastic bags just once and then using them as a bin liner is going to create further environment havoc. If you plan to buy these bags in store, make sure you DO use them more than once.

Can I put heavy duty bags in the washing machine?

It is not advisable to put heavy duty plastic bags in your washing machine. Instead most thick plastic bags should be wiped down and aired. Authorities suggest that you don’t leave these bags in your car as they can be compromised by extended heat exposure.

Canvas shopping bags

Traditionally canvas reusable bags have been made with hemp but these days you are more likely to find they are made with cotton. Most canvas bags need to be used around 100 times before they are “ahead” of single use plastic bags.

In saying this, you should be able to find canvas bags that are strong enough to withstand significantly more use than a thin single use plastic bag.

What about cotton canvas bags?

The research shows that canvas bags can actually require lots of raw material to make, more energy and create more global warming gasses than NWPP green bags.

The biggest issue with canvas bags has been that they can add up in cost if you are going to use them as your grocery shopping bags. This is because each bag might be say $3 to $10 dollars. So if you need say 5 or 6 for your average weekly shop, buying multiple bags is going to cost you quite a lot of money .

FACT: According to one Australian government report, “around 10% of the world’s pesticides and 25% of the world’s insecticides are used to grow cotton.”

Potentially unfavourable labour conditions used to grow cotton and the difficulty of recycling cotton are other factors that were considered.

Keep these things in mind when you are sourcing cotton bags. You may need to do a little bit of research to make sure you are finding a sustainable bag winner.

Can I put cotton bags in the washing machine?

Yep. Throw them in.

Hemp Shopping Bags

Hemp is a usable fibre that comes from the stem of the plant and is resistant to pests. Hemp reusable bags use less water in the bag’s production in comparison to cotton reusable bags.
BUT hemp is often grown overseas which means that there is cost to transport hemp reusable bags to Australia.

If you can find hemp bags that are produced in Australia you are on to a sustainable shopping bag winner. Just like cotton bags, hemp bags are not going to be cheap if you need to buy quite a few of them for your weekly shop.

That means that cost is probably the main con when considering using hemp bags as your main supply of reusable and sustainable bags for your grocery shopping.

Can I put my hemp bags into the washing machine?

For delicate hemp products, it is usually recommended to pop them in a lingerie bag before you put them in the wash.
We are not too sure what the definition of “delicate” is and encourage you to use your discretion. Usually you can wash hemp bags at any temperature.

Jute Bags

Jute is the second most important vegetable fiber after cotton due to its versatility. Jute is used chiefly to make cloth for wrapping bales of raw cotton, and to make sacks and coarse cloth.

Jute Bags
Jute Bag offered by Coles

Jute bags are made from a heavy weight fabric and can often bear heavy product loads (of up to 50kg). Now we know that you are not going to lug around a grocery bag with 50kg of groceries in them but you get the general idea – jute bags can hold a lot of weight.

Jute bags have numerous uses and are strong, reusable, long lasting, breathable and biodegradable.

The other great news about jute bags is that they don’t take as much water to produce as cotton bags. It can be grown very quickly and harvested quickly.

According to Wikipedia, “Jute is one of the most affordable natural fibers and it is second only to cotton in amount produced and variety of uses of vegetable fibers.” This makes them one of the most sustainable elements to turn into bags (alongside bamboo).

The catch with these bags is that jute is mostly grown overseas. So there is a carbon cost to transporting it to Australia.

If you are looking to purchase jute bags inquire where the bags have been manufacturered and where their jute is grown and sourced. This will help you decide whether specific hemp bags are for you.

Can I put my jute shopping bag in the washing machine?

We don’t recommend that you throw your jute bags in the washing machine. If you must wash your jute bags, hand wash them separately in cool water using a mild soap. Don’t wring or trist the wet fabric.

Green Bags

There are SOOOOO many green bags on the market. Check out our specific article on Green Bags by clicking here.

Can I put my green bags in the washing machine?

If you purchase a green bag made with NWPP, it is not recommended that you frequently put them in your washing machine.

This will add extra wear and tear on your bag and guess what, that means it will not last very long. So the occasional machine wash is fine but not too often. Do not put your NWPP bags in the dryer.

NWPP does not stain or absorb moisture and odours which is good news.

Trolley Bags – 4 Bag System

Check out our detailed article about using trolley bags to make your grocery shopping a breeze. In a nutshell, trolley bag systems are bags that you can put into your trolley at the supermarket. You can then re pack your groceries back into these bags at the checkout.

When you purchase a quality trolley bag system (be careful as there are a lot of copy cat products out there), your shopping experience will most certainly be transformed. Given single use plastic bags have been banned in supermarket and grocery stores, this trolley system concept is a great option to consider.

Can I put my trolley bags into the washing machine?

Trolley Bags are best wiped down.

Insulated grocery bags

Insulated shopping bags present a great option to keep your refrigerated and frozen grocery products cool and get them home  safely.

Reusable Chiller Bag
Chiller Bag that is offered by Woolworths

A lesser known fact is that insulated shopping bags are also able to safely transport your hot food from the supermarket to your home.

Look for insulated bags that are waterproof, washable and sturdy (look for double stitching and sturdy straps).

Can I put my insulated bag into my washing machine?

Most insulated bags are best wiped down inside and out rather than putting them in your washing machine. In saying that, we are sure that some brands will come out with machine washable reusable chiller bag options.

Sustainable Bamboo Bags

Bamboo bags are made from sustainable, renewable bamboo fibre. Bamboo is plantation grown, pesticide and fertilizer free, and biodegradable.

Bamboo is not sourced from a food source plantation. So it is definiltey worth considering using bamboo bags as your reusable bags when you are shopping.

What is so great about sustainable bamboo?

There are over 1000 species of bamboo. This amazing plant grows in tropical and temperate environments and is very hardy, not needing pesticides or herbicides to grow well.
Bamboo is often labelled ‘the world’s most renewable material’ and is the fastest growing woody plant in the world. It can grow up to four feet in one day, and absorbs five times more carbon dioxide and produces 35% more oxygen than a similar group of trees.


There is a lot to love about  reusable shopping bags made with bamboo:

  • Grown without pesticides or chemical fertilisers
  • Requires no irrigation
  • Rarely needs replanting
  • Grows rapidly and can be harvested in 3-5 years
  • Produces 35% more oxygen that an equivalent stand of trees
  • It sequesters carbon dioxide and is carbon neutral
  • It’s a critical element in the balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the atmosphere
  • Grows in a wide range of environments
  • It’s production into fibres has lower environmental impact than other forms of fibre, especially synthetic ones

Not all bamboo products are eco-friendly though. Chemically produced bamboo fabric commonly comes in the form of viscose rayon (to make it soft and plush).

For bamboo to be turned into rayon, it is first dissolved in harsh chemicals and fed through a spinneret so the strands can solidify to make a fibre. 

Because of the growing demand for bamboo fabric to be soft and wearable, these chemicals continue to endanger factory workers, pollute the air, and infect water systems.

The ‘better’ version of bamboo fabric is bamboo lyocell (TENCEL). Lyocell is usually made from eucalyptus trees, but bamboo is so similar that it can be made into lyocell too.

Lyocell involves a closed loop cycle, meaning the water and chemicals involved in making the fabric are recycled. They never get the chance to escape into the environment.

As we’ve said above, bamboo can be grown without any chemical fertilisers or pesticides. This doesn’t mean that it always is. Make sure you do a little more research before jumping on board with bamboo bags as your sustainable bag of choice.

Recycled Paper Bags Recycled PET Bags

RPET is recycled PET from post industrial fiber waste and post consumer plastic (mainly from plastic bottles), through combining and fixing the fiber nets, thread layers and assembled substances into a non woven structure.

RPET reusable bags are a great eco friendly alternative to single use shopping bags.

LOOK OUT FOR THIS: sometimes 100% recyclable PET Bags contain a separate PVC pad liner (not recycled) that is included to provide strength and increase the reusable life of this shopping bag.

String Bags

100% cotton string shopping bags offer an exceptional value, high quality shopping bag option. They are eco friendly and inexpensive.  Of course there are some grocery items that you cannot put in a string bag.

Look for string bags that are biodegradable and preferably made locally.

Can I put my string grocery bag in my washing machine?

Yes, most string grocery bags can be put in the washing machine. It is probably best to put them into a lingerie bag before washing.

OK. That’s a great list of sustainable bag options to consider. BUT which bag is best for the environment?

The Choice website has some reputable content about finding the best sustainable bag for you. Peter Allan, Principal Consultant at Hyder Consulting, authored numerous studies for the government on the impact of plastic bags, including reports advising which system would be kindest to the environment.

This research involved a lifecycle assessment of bag options, including energy and water use, materials consumption, litter and marine impacts across the life of a bag.

The analysis found that:

  • Overall, a reusable bag is a better option for the environment than bags with between one and three typical uses. “Given the popularity of the green bags, we needed to test whether reusable was better for the environment and this was comprehensively proven – but only so long as you use it repeatedly over a long period,” says Allan
  • A green bag has to be used more than 23 times before it becomes a better option than single-use bags
  • Of the range of reusable bag types tested, the most environmentally-friendly option was the 100% recycled content PET reusable bag, closely followed by the reusable green bag
  • Calico bags aren’t recommended, because of the amount of water used to make them

Know your sustainable bags

This section is not designed to bamboozle you. But it is important that you understand the difference between bags offered to you in store at supermarkets.


These bags are made from plastic that meets the Australian Standard for biodegradability, and breaks down or composts into carbon dioxide, methane, biomass and water.

They’re generally made of corn starch or other plant material. We are not aware of any bags offered by Coles, Woolworths, IGA, Target or any other grocery chains in Australia that offer a fully biodegradable bag.

We welcome any feedback to the contrary, so please leave a comment in the section below if you have found a biodegradable bag offered by any of the leading supermarket chains in Australia.


Petroleum-based plastic is used to make these bags. They break down into small pieces when exposed to oxygen or sunlight.

HDPE (high-density polyethylene):

This is a lightweight plastic that the vast majority of single-use plastic bags are made from. You are unlikely to see many of these bags moving forward as they have been banned from supermarkets in Australia.

LDPE (low-density polyethylene):

Thicker plastic like this is often used to make customised boutique bags for higher-end shops.

We are tipping that you are not going to commit these definitions to memory. But as we all start navigating doing our grocery shopping without single use plastic bags, we may pay a little more attention to the alternative grocery bags we are going to use.

Further Reading



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