But, like disposable bags, reusable bags still require resources to produce, and may ultimately end up in a landfill.
The only way for reusable bags to be a truly sustainable alternative to paper and plastic is to commit to using them on regular basis.
That means not just using them at the grocery store, but at the hardware store, the wholesale club, and wherever else we shop and carry out items.
The Environmental Protection Agency says that using a reusable bag just 11 times can have less of an environmental impact than using eleven plastic bags, despite the energy it takes to manufacture it.
However, the energy required to make the various types of reusable bags differs depending on the material used.
Essentially, the number of uses it takes to cancel out the environmental impact of disposable bags varies according to what the manufacturing process is.
The Wall Street Journal reported that many of the inexpensive polypropylene bags offered by retailers require a staggering 28 times more energy to produce than the typical disposable polyethylene handle bag.
Therefore, polypropylene bags need to be used at least 28 times to cancel out the impact of one disposable polyethylene bag.
That bag will have to be used about twice per week for 3-1/2 months in order for it to pay off for the environment.
Reusable bags can found in natural materials such as cotton, canvas, hemp, linen, and bamboo.
They are also available in various plastics and nylon.
More and more, bags made of recycled materials are coming onto the market.
Choosing a bag made of natural materials means that it will biodegrade more rapidly at the end of its life, creating less of a problem than its synthetic counterparts.
Bear in mind, however, that natural materials such as cotton can still be resource-intensive, and may involve the use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, bleaching agents, as well as synthetic dyes.
However, consumers can "opt out" of those practices by choosing natural-colored organic cotton.
As with cotton, most other textiles are produced with the use of chemicals at some point.
Many of the chemicals can cause harmful emissions into air and water, and may present health risks.
The wet processing of textiles can now be done in low-impact ways, using alternatives such as peroxide for bleaching, and natural dyes.
Phthalate-free printing is also an option today.
In order to meet the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) organic fibers must be composed of at least 95% chemical-free raw materials, and must be processed without the use of certain prohibited chemicals such as formaldehyde and those containing heavy metals.
Finding a reusable bag that meets the GOTS standards is a way to be sure your choice is an ecologically sound one.
With regard to synthetic bags, one disadvantage is that they will take as long to biodegrade as disposable plastic bags (meaning hundreds of years.
) They are also made from fossil fuels, which are clearly non-renewable.
On the plus side, some synthetic bags have incorporated recycled plastics, keeping them out of the waste stream for a time.
Synthetic bags can also be more durable and stain-resistant than those made of natural fibers, which means the consumer may hold onto them a bit longer.
One last option consumers have, which may be the best of all of them, is to make or find a reusable bag that re-purposes materials such as fabric mill waste, former rice bags, burlap coffee sacks, and the like.
Even an old pair of jeans, worn-out sweater, out-of-style skirt, or mismatched pillowcase can easily be turned into a unique replacement for disposable bags with the artful use of scissors and basic sewing skills.
Whatever kind of reusable bag you choose, the important thing is that you have made a conscious decision to make the world a better place.
The next step is to make using the bag a habit, just like grabbing your keys as you leave the house, so that you can say "no" to disposable bags forever.