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Making Sense & Cents of Alternatives to Plastic Bags

May 26, 2023May 26, 2023

Although there is currently no federal ban on plastic bags, states across the country are taking the initiative—New York, California and Hawaii are among the states that have already banned single-use plastic bags. The United States may actually be behind the curve: The European Union banned single-use plastic items such as straws, forks, knives and cotton buds in 2021, and China enacted their plan to ban non-degradable bags in all cities and towns in 2022.

More and more, single-use plastic bags—often called t-shirt bags—are being banned from use by businesses. We all know that plastic bags often end up as litter. People carelessly toss bags no longer needed on the ground, or a strong breeze lifts a discarded bag out of a garbage can or landfill and carries it off where it can end up in a tree or waterway. Americans use a staggering 100 billion plastic bags per year, and very few are recycled.

The trend has been building for a number of years, starting in coastal areas and spreading to cities across the country and beyond. Bag bans and eco-conscious consumers are impacting foodservice operators and retailers, and with that pressure many must rethink their packaging options. Eco-conscious customers may not want to support a business that still uses plastic bags; at the same time, we know that about 40% of shoppers forget to bring a reusable bag or don’t have one available. They are then forced to pay a fee or juggle their purchases and may leave the store annoyed.

In many ways the issue came to the forefront during or as a result of the Pandemic. The dramatic increase in takeout and delivery of food during the pandemic resulted in more bags being used to meet demand. Much of that increase in to-go sales of food and drinks remains. Consumers enjoy the convenience, and 3rd party delivery services and curbside pickup have made it easier than ever to order what they crave.

Take-out and delivery are here to stay, and with that comes the demand of various supply items that consumers expect such as cutlery, napkins, and straws. An easy way to decrease waste is to make those items optional or by request only; this way, operators can cut down on items that may go unused by takeout customers.

One of the more common options is a paper bag. To be accepted under most local legislation, paper bags must contain at least 40% post-consumer recycled content and cannot contain any old growth fiber.

Pros: They are reusable and recyclable.

Cons: Paper bags made from recycled fiber still require more fossil fuels to produce and manufacture than plastic bags. If they get wet, they lose strength and can tear. Paper bags are heavier than single-use plastic bags, so transportation costs, gas emissions, and waste disposal weight are higher.

We also see a move towards reusable plastic bags. They are typically produced from post-consumer recycled content or postindustrial content, and must be at least 2.25 mil thick.

Pros: Reusable plastic bags can be reused multiple times by the consumer.

Cons: Many consumers do not reuse the bag enough times to make up for the added plastic material. Plastic bags are recyclable, but they are not typically accepted by curbside recyclers.

Many operators have opted for cotton bags that can be made from traditional, organic, or recycled cotton.

Pros: Cotton bags are designed to be reused hundreds of times. Most cotton bags can be machine washed in cold water.

Cons: Cotton bags require more energy than single-use plastic bags to manufacture, impacting their environmental footprint. They are more expensive than paper or reusable plastic, and must be washed regularly.

We see many of our clients across the country opting for non-woven polypropylene bags made from virgin or recycled plastic.

Pros: These bags are extremely strong and durable and can be reused until they become damaged. Non-woven polypropylene bags can be recycled.

Cons: Consumers typically don’t wash non-woven bags and they can harbor bacteria in between uses and pose a health risk. They are also a more expensive option.

Finally, compostable bags are made from renewable raw materials. Look for certifications such as ASTM D6400 or BPI which certify the bag is compostable.

Pros: When composted property, these bags have a smaller environmental footprint. Soy-based inks can be used to print on the bag without compromising the composability of the bag.

Cons: Compostable bags have a limited shelf-life. They need to be stored in cool, dark, and dry places. They are often not composted and end up in the trash; they will not compost in a landfill.

Bags are set to become a larger expense to retailers and foodservice operators. While some grocery store customers may bring a reusable bag to shop, it is less likely that a consumer picking up lunch or dinner will have a bag handy. You can get the latest info on the plastic bag bans by state by visiting

If you’re looking to upgrade your bagging strategy, Imperial Dade offers hundreds of types of bags ranging in substrate, size, and weight. Our experts can recommend the best options based on sustainability goals, budget, and menu-driven specifications.

Whether your state has mandated that you make a change, or you see it coming, let’s look at four of the popular single-use plastic bag alternatives currently available. Each one has different attributes, environmental footprints, and price points: