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What's the deal with Target's new, trendy reusable shopping bag?

Many brands and retailers make reusable shopping bags, but what's the impact on the environment?
The reusable shopping bags have become a popular accessory in areas with bans on plastic shopping bags.
The reusable shopping bags have become a popular accessory in areas with bans on plastic shopping bags.TODAY Illustration
/ Source: TODAY

As more states and cities enact bans on single-use plastic bags, reusable totes have become go-to accessories for many people, and Target's getting in on the trend with a new gray and red shopping bag that seems to be everywhere lately.

In New York City, TODAY.com editors have spotted them in the subway, delis and slung over friends' shoulders. On social media, Target shoppers have sang the bags' praises — they're machine-washable and can be used at least 125 times, according to a label on the bag — while others have joked about their ubiquity. "Next year’s Met Gala theme is 'Reusable Target Tote Bag,'" quipped one Twitter user.

The bags are available in markets where single-use plastic bags are banned, such as New York, and are a reflection of Target's Forward initiative, focused on sustainability, a company spokesperson told TODAY. Since July 2020, Target has been a member of the Consortium to Reinvent the Retail Bag, whose goal is to implement alternative designs for single-use retail bags.

But do Target's reusable shopping bags actually help the environment? Cotton totes specifically are creating a crisis of their own because they require so much water to produce, The New York Times reported last month. To offset this, one cotton tote needs to be used 20,000 times, a 2018 study found, according to the Times.

Similarly, one of Target's reusable bags would need to be used 30 to 40 times to have a positive impact, Bob Kimmel, director of Clemson University's packaging science program, estimated. Kimmel authored a study in 2014 that found nonwoven polypropylene bags needed to be used at least 30 times to have a lower average negative impact than a lightweight, single-use plastic bag.

That's why the positive impact of one of these Target bags will depend on how sturdy it is and how well it's taken care of, Kimmel told TODAY. The more times a person uses a reusable bag, the better for the environment, so try to find one that's washable, like Target's, and protect it from food contamination.

However, a shopper who would buy the Target bag, use it a handful of times and throw it away might better serve the environment by not buying it and taking single-use plastic instead. In fact, single-use paper bags are seven times worse for the environment than single-use, lightweight plastic bags, according to Kimmel.

"People don't realize that traditional plastic grocery bags are fully recyclable and made from a byproduct of natural gas production that has to be removed from the natural gas stream in order to use natural gas as fuel," Kimmel explained. "As long as we're relying on natural gas as fuel, we're going to have raw materials to make those bags."

Only about 10% of plastic bags are recycled, though, so Kimmel recommends that people help boost this number after deciding to use single-use plastic bags by recycling them. Even just repurposing them as trash can liners or to pick up a dog's business is better than using it once and throwing it out, he said. Many grocery stores have a bin for recycling plastic bags.

In some places, nonwoven polypropylene bags are also recyclable, Kimmel added. Dropping them off with regular recycling isn't a likely option, so searching online to see if and where a town recycles polypropylene bags is recommended. Target stores where the bags are offered also have kiosks available to recycle them, a spokesperson said.

"Reusable bags are the best solution if you're committed to using them enough times and to really manage your use," Kimmel stressed. "If you're going to continually buy new ones, you're not accomplishing anything."

CLARIFICATION (Sept. 23, 2021, 1:57 p.m.): An earlier version of this article said the Target bags are available in the U.S. states where single-use plastic bags are banned. This story has been updated to reflect that California, which has a statewide ban, is not included.