Buying Guide: The Best Reusable Shopping Bags

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We all like to do our part to help protect the environment, so using one of the myriad of reusable shopping bags that are on the market seems like a no-brainer. But with all the choices out there, we often wondered: Does the right bag merely come down to a stylistic preference? Or is one material better than another? So we've talked to experts and put together a buying guide to help you find the right reusable shopping bag for your lifestyle. You can use them for years to come, they'll keep your food fresher and you won't miss those disposable plastic and paper bags one bit.

Why tote a reusable bag? Julie Zizka, owner and designer of The Tote Buddy, a case that holds several reusable bags, told us that using making the switch to these carryalls was "the simplest thing that I can do to help heal the planet." She's passionate about eliminating single-use items that are just tossed in the trash and assures us that making the switch is easy. Steven Apfelbaum, an ecologist and the founder of Applied Ecological Services, Inc., a leading ecological consulting firm says that he uses reusable bags not only for shopping, but also for tasks like gardening and toting pet supplies. He explained that the process of making traditional paper grocery bags includes over-harvesting our forests, chemical off-gassing and a lot of energy consumption. And don't even get him started on plastic bags. They blow all over the landscape, fill up our landfills and pose a hazard to wildlife. Plus, he says, "there is very little need for using air and water tight plastic bags. In fact, some air flow is better for produce and will prevent mold and mildew."

Choose A Style. You can find reusable shopping bags in all sorts of shapes and sizes, but those with similar dimensions to brown paper bags are Zizka's favorite type. She suggests the ones that have a flat bottom and can stand up themselves, because they are easy to pack up and load into your car. Alternatively, many companies make bags that can fold up very small so you can stash them in your purse or pocket. Also, you may want to consider the handle length when you choose a bag. While some are long so you can carry it over your shoulder, others have short handles and are carried like a traditional grocery bag. Other features, like insulation and internal pockets for your wallet and cell phone are also available. Bottom line: We tend to agree with Zizka and prefer the bags that resemble our old paper sacks. And although a long handle sounds convenient, when you are carrying more than one they can become cumbersome.

Choose The Material. If your reusable bags are made from a durable material, you should be able to use them for years. Apfelbaum suggested using a hand-knit bag, that you can find on Etsy for example, which is not only beautiful, but has the least environmental impact because very little energy is consumed in its creation. Or, cotton and canvas sacks have about the same eco-footprint as growing and harvesting cotton plants and they are washable and biodegradable. Polyester and synthetic reusable bags, which are the most common he explained, are derived from natural gas or oil and are not biodegradable. But Zizka prefers thick polypropylene bags because they don't tear and can be washed with cold water. Although this is a plastic, she's OK with investing in them because she won't be throwing them away anytime soon. And Apfelbaum agrees that even synthetic options are better for the environment than the traditional paper and plastic bags that have been used for years. Bottom line: 100% cotton or canvas bags are breathable and fold small, but they won't stand up on their own. We suggest investing in a well-made synthetic bag, and holding onto it for years to come.

Click through our slideshow to see some of the best reusable bags that are on the market now.

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The Best Reusable Grocery Bags
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