The sea is full of them. Our drainage systems get clogged by them. They kill wildlife, who die terrible and unnecessary deaths. That’s plastic bags for you: a hundred billion a year in the US. Manufacturers make a lot of money about them, but there’s a payback for the free plastic bag from your local supermarket.

It doesn’t ha ve to be this way. Reusable shopping bags are the way forward – and several countries have already banned those cheap plastic bags to make sure we get to where we need to go. Reusable bags are no hassle and you’ll soon get into the habit of having one handy. You’ll even have a choice. But which type is best?

An obvious alternative to the flimsy carrier bag is the heavy duty plastic bag that can be used, re-used and even washed. It’s always handy to have a couple, since they fold or roll up very small and a couple of them are easily stowed in a purse, work bag or car glove compartment, for when you go shopping.

There is an argument against them, which is that they take even longer to decay than the standard thin, throwaway kind. But if you’re a responsible citizen of the planet, this isn’t a big problem. As long as you buy a bag made of recyclable plastic, and make sure it gets recycled, strong plastic carrier bags have a role to play. The real problem is that we don’t recycle enough of them, thick or thin. The current recycling figures are a feeble 3-5%.

The bulkier, but longer-term alternative to the strong plastic carrier bag is the recyclable fabric bag. Jute and hemp bags are environmentally friendly every step of the way. Hemp, for example, is a very sustainable agricultural product that requires very little in the way of herbicides and pesticides. Hemp, jute and cotton are tough and potentially long-lasting, but if the bag does get tatty or soiled it’s easily to recycle. You can even put it in your home compost bin.

The brown paper grocery bag is a classic that still has an important place in our everyday lives. Its one drawback is that, though surprisingly strong, it isn’t waterproof. But that’s not going to be a problem all the time, even in rainy places. For dry climates, the plain paper bag is perhaps the most eco-friendly option around, because it’s so easy to recycle and is made from renewable resources.

Most people who are aware of the problems of lightweight carrier bags (and are doing something about it) will find that having a couple of each type of alternative bag will cover most eventualities. Whichever you favour, there’s just one thing to remember, and that’s to make sure they really do get recycled when you’re finished with them.

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