Rethinking Sustainability Beyond Reusable Grocery Bags

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez 🇨🇦 / Unsplash

As we try to end our reliance on single-use plastics, many shoppers and brands have turned to reusable grocery bags. But just how sustainable are these reusable alternatives?

It’s no secret that the flimsy plastic bags many grocery store chains use aren’t good for the environment. After one use, many of them end up in landfills, where they can take 1,000 years to degrade. Those that don’t end up in landfills often get clogged in our waterways or snagged in tree branches, posing a threat to local wildlife.

To cut down on waste, some grocery store chains even offer shoppers reusable bags instead of plastic bags. But these reusable bags have a cost of their own.

Reusable bags are a relatively sustainable choice as long as you do just that: reuse them. The more you reuse your bags, the better for the environment they are. Thicker reusable bags made of polypropylene must be used an estimated 10 to 20 times for them to be more sustainable than single-use plastic bags, while thinner reusable bags made of polyethylene only need to be used five to 10 times. Cotton bags, meanwhile, must be used 50 to 150 times.

Original article by Jane Donohue. Updated on December 9, 2023. Research reveals the one major flaw with many reusable grocery bags: ‘We should try not [to] do that’.

As I glanced at the cluster of reusable bags hanging by my front door, a question nagged at me: How sustainable are they really? My daughters' lessons on environmental responsibility sparked my curiosity, prompting me to dig deeper into the complexities of sustainability. What I uncovered was a journey through the intricacies of behavior, action, and the undeniable truths that often lie beneath the surface.


With plastic bags being vilified in our conversations about sustainability, it seemed like a no-brainer to opt for reusable alternatives. However, as I pondered the stack of bags before me, I realized that the narrative is far from straightforward. While the estimated break-even point for the carbon footprint of reusable bags versus their plastic counterparts is around 100-150 uses, the reality is far more nuanced. The true impact of our choices extends beyond the materials themselves to how we consume and, more importantly, how often we reuse.

Tension Points:

In a world obsessed with simplicity, the complex truths behind sustainability often get lost in the noise. While plastic bags are easily identifiable as environmental villains, the reality is that our misuse of them strays far from their intended purpose.

Similarly, the eco-friendly facade of reusable bags crumbles when we consider their environmental impact, unless each bag sees a significant number of outings. The tension lies in reconciling our actions with their long-term implications—a challenge exacerbated by our desire for easy solutions in a complex world.

Action vs. Follow-through:

The gap between intention and action is where sustainable outcomes falter. While purchasing a reusable bag may feel like a step in the right direction, the true test lies in our commitment to using it repeatedly. Unlike quantifiable metrics like workout minutes on a fitness tracker, measuring the impact of our sustainable behaviors proves elusive. Yet, amidst a digital landscape where everything is trackable, we must find ways to bridge this gap and hold ourselves accountable for our environmental footprint.

So what's the takeaway?

For my daughters, the lessons are simple yet clear: Use what you have, and think critically about the choices you make. But beyond individual actions, there's a larger conversation to be had—one that extends to businesses grappling with excess and overstock inventory.

At Pollen, we're helping companies build new muscles and habits as it relates to unsold inventory and liquidation. By leveraging data and technology, we empower companies to reimagine their approach to surplus inventory, transforming a once haphazard process into a systematic journey toward sustainability. Because in a world where every action counts, it's time to embrace the true essence of sustainability: thoughtful, intentional, and enduring change.

If you’re interested in learning more about Pollen’s approach to sustainable liquidation, feel free to explore our website at

This article is featuring Michael Schindler’s observations related to dynamic pricing and sustainability. Michael Schindler (LinkedIn) is Pollen's Chief Operating Officer and has a long track record of leading teams, uncovering insights, and driving business results across the US, EMEA, and APAC. At Pollen, he’s leading our business teams as well as directing overall company strategy and operations.

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