• Key to making a reusable bag an eco-friendly choice is to use it for as long as possible, says Erin Rhoades. (Gavin Green / Hardie Grant)Source: Gavin Green / Hardie Grant
What to use in place of plastic for your supermarket shop is not quite as straightforward as it might seem. #PlasticFreeJuly
Kylie Walker

29 Jun 2018 - 4:27 PM  UPDATED 25 Nov 2019 - 6:14 AM

With today's announcement that supermarket giant Woolworths is caving on their plastic bag ban – free reusable bags will be made available in stores in NSW, Queensland, Victoria and Western Australia until July 8 – that doesn't mean your individual motivation to reduce plastic bag consumption has to go out the window for now. (Coles is still set to phase out single-use plastic bags at the checkouts this weekend.) The plastic bag ban is coming, so here are the best alternatives to help you kick the habit.

We're not going to lie. It will be a big change for many of us – Australians use about 200 plastic bags each year. Those bags contribute to the six billion of plastic bags that is estimated to be handed out at checkouts every year. Most of them end up in landfill, or littering our landscapes and oceans.

But for those embracing the ban, the benefits can go beyond helping the planet, as the growth of the Boomerang Bags movement shows. Started in Burleigh Heads in Queensland in 2013, Boomerang Bags now has 745 communities in 20 countries, with groups of volunteers getting together to make re-usable shopping bags from recycled materials.

The Labrador group recently made up a batch of bags to give to a homework club held at a local school, to help explain what recycling is all about.

At the Boomerang Bags group, held twice a week at the Women’s Space in Labrador, 15 women from ten different countries are making bags and friends. It’s a project run by the Benevolent Society with support from the Gold Coast council and other community groups, which aims to give women from diverse backgrounds a place to come together.

“It’s amazing … the conversations around the table and the support and mentoring that they offer each other,” says Benevolent Society Gold Coast Volunteer Co-ordinator Kate Tuivasa (all of the classes at the Women’s Space, not only the bag groups but also sessions including yoga, are run by volunteers).

Boomerang Bags now has 745 communities in 20 countries, with groups of volunteers getting together to make re-usable shopping bags from recycled materials.

The participants, who range in age from 28 to 70-plus, have made around 200 bags since the Boomerang Bags group started in February. “And they’re supporting each other outside the Women’s Space, meeting up for coffee, and building friendships,” Tuivasa says.

Like other Boomerang Bag groups, the women give some of their bags away, and sell others for a small price, to cover the cost of sewing machine maintenance or to purchase sewing cotton.

Going plastic-free in July is easier than you think
Plastic Free July reminds us that the raging war on plastic can be as simple as starting with one habit at a time.

Boomerang Bags’ focus on recycled fabric helps offset some of the carbon resources used to make cotton, jute and other natural fabrics, which makes them an excellent eco-friendly choice. But what are your other options if you can’t get your hands on Boomerang Bags? What to use in place of plastic is not quite as straightforward as it might seem.

There are four main options for your supermarket shop

Reuseable plastic bags

Most supermarkets are now selling 15-cent thicker, re-usable plastic bags. They’re only a better alternative, though, if they’re actually used repeatedly. There’s always the risk that they will be discarded just like single-use bags – and these thicker bags take even longer to break down.

Reusable polypropelene bags

These are the wide, rectangular-based non-woven bags –  often green – sold by supermarkets and other retailers – OZHarvest, for example (bonus: every sale of one of these bright yellow bags helps to provide 8 meals).

The best bag is one that’ll you’ll use, and re-use.

Paper bags and carboard boxes

Some shops keep a supply of cardboard boxes. It might not be obvious, so it’s worth asking if a box is available.

Fabric and mesh bags

A big advantage of these types is that you can easily throw them in the wash. The Food Safety Information Council (FSIC) says that while the plastic ban is great for the environment, there are some food safety issues to keep in mind. They suggest using washable bags for most of your shopping. “Easily washable bags include cotton and even the nylon bags that fold into pockets,” the FSIC’s Lydia Buchtmann tells SBS. “The heavier PVC bags can be wiped out with warm water but if heavily contaminated with meat or chicken juices, would need to be discarded, so it’s best to ensure your meat or chicken is double wrapped.”

“Mesh bags can be a food safety risk for veggies and fruit that won’t be cooked, for example if you put the bags in the ground or in the boot of your car.” The FSIC also suggests that if you store your bags in your car, make sure they don’t come into contact with pets, sporting equipment or the like.

Your reusable shopping bags are teeming with bad bacteria
Unwashed totes run the risk of spreading E. coli and other pathogens that cause food-borne illnesses.

So what’s the best option?

If you’re looking for the most eco-friendly option, there are multiple factors to consider – what goes into making the bag, how much it’s used and what happens to it at the end of its life.

“While plastic bags have less of an impact in the production and manufacturing compared with cotton, plastic poses a greater threat to eco-systems as it can choke and strangle wildlife, will break up into smaller pieces, getting into the food chain, and could even end up on your plate,” says Melbourne-based eco-blogger and zero-waste consultant Erin Rhoads (pictured below), whose first book, Waste Not, is released July 1. The book, and her blog, The Rogue Ginger, are packed full of tips for people wanting to cut down on their waste.

While a cotton bag has a high life-cycle “cost”, using it 131 times will make it equivalent to a single-use plastic bag.

“I know from my own experience how hard the transition away from plastic bags can be,” says Rhoads, “especially when you are caught out because you forgot to take your own or purchased more food than intended.”

Rhoads, pictured below, says bags made of jute, canvas and cotton are good alternatives to plastic – the key to making them an eco-friendly choice is to use them for as long as possible.

A 2016 report on plastic shopping bags by the NSW Environment Protection Authority sums up research on the impact of different bags, including the fact that while a cotton bag has a high life-cycle “cost”, using it 131 times will make it equivalent to a single-use plastic bag.

Obviously, buying a bag made from recycled fabric makes it more eco-friendly. You could also sew your own (try the free pattern here for a bag that’s sturdy but small when folded up, or this one which fits Woolworths and Coles checkout set-ups.)

So what’s the best option? Everyone’s shopping habits and priorities are different. In the end, as Rhoads says on her blog, the best bag is one that’ll you’ll use, and re-use.

Get more ideas from Erin Rhoads on plastic bag alternatives – plus a printable door hanger reminder to take your bags with you – here.

Not-so-fantastic plastic
What to line your bin with instead of plastic bags
The bin liner dilemma: eco options for lining your garbage bin, including how to make your own origami newspaper bag. #PlasticFreeJuly
You’re eating microplastics in ways you don’t even realise
How these unwanted particles are ending up in your diet, from canned fish and mussels to sea salt and bottled water. But scientists are still unsure how harmful they could be.
This Australian campaign wants you to ditch your plastic straw in 2018
By changing how you order your drink, you could save marine life.
Plastic in drinking water: what are the risks to human health?
Recent research found tiny plastic fibres in drinking water in multiple locations around the world.