Reusable 'Sustainable' Shopping Bags Ain't All They're Cracked Up To Be

Amid the coronavirus precautions being taken by states, towns, schools, sports leagues, and places of employment making the pandemic real for many folks, it’s ironic that one of the virtue signalling activities so many have embraced may actually be helping spread the disease.

What am I talking about?

Reusable shopping bags.

The COVID-19 outbreak is giving new meaning to those “sustainable” shopping bags that politicians and environmentalists have been so eager to impose on the public. These reusable tote bags can sustain the COVID-19 and flu viruses—and spread the viruses throughout the store.

Researchers have been warning for years about the risks of these bags spreading deadly viral and bacterial diseases, but public officials have ignored their concerns, determined to eliminate single-use bags and other plastic products despite their obvious advantages in reducing the spread of pathogens. In New York State, a new law took effect this month banning single-use plastic bags in most retail businesses, and this week Democratic state legislators advanced a bill that would force coffee shops to accept consumers’ reusable cups—a practice that Starbucks and other chains have wisely suspended to avoid spreading the COVID-19 virus.


The COVID-19 virus is just one of many pathogens that shoppers can spread unless they wash the bags regularly, which few people bother to do. Viruses and bacteria can survive in the tote bags up to nine days, according to one study of coronaviruses.

I have heard so many make the claim that the sustainable bags are better for the environment and save money, but being the engineering type that I am, I find the claim to be dubious because the numbers don’t seem to add up.

A 2000-bag pack of plastic ‘single-use’ shopping bags available from places like Staples cost about 1¢ a piece. In the volumes most supermarkets use bags the cost per bag is closer to 0.2¢ a piece. What does a ‘sustainable’ shopping bag cost? My mother has three that she bought for $2 per bag (a special price through her church). That means each one of those sustainable bags wouldn’t reach the break even point in cost until they had replaced 1000 plastic bags.

Assuming the folks using the sustainable bags never wash their bags, and the average number of plastic bags used a week for shopping is 8 bags, and the number of sustainable bags used for the same amount goods bought is two, it would take 500 shopping trips to reach the break even point. If one further assumes one grocery shopping trip per week, that works out almost 9.5 years to reach that point.

If they do wash their bags, then one has to add the cost of washing them to the total cost of ownership and is likely to add a few years to the break even point.

This begs the question: How long do these reusable bags last?

Somehow I doubt anyone will keep their bags for ten years. As such, the break even period is never.

Between the extra energy and materials needed to manufacture the ‘sustainable’ bags, their propensity to spread disease if not regularly washed, and their cost, the sustainable bags aren’t looking all that sustainable. On top of that, many of those single-use plastic bags aren’t used only once. I know I don’t as I use them to line wastebaskets or dispose of cat poop from the litter boxes of the feline contingent here at The Gulch. Many other people do the same kind of thing. And of any of those bags left over, they end up in the big shopping bag recycling barrel at the entrance of our local supermarket.