Reusable Produce Bags
The waste from flimsy single-use plastic produce bags can add up quickly. We explore a convenient, sustainable alternative with a variety of uses.
How We Tested
Reusable produce bags are popular choices to reduce plastic waste and conveniently transport produce home from the grocery store or farmers’ market. In some cases, they can also be used to contain nuts, grains, and other items sold in the bulk bins at grocery stores. There are dozens of bags on the market, and many of them are seemingly identical. Seeking a set of bags that stood out, we assembled and tested a lineup of 10 sets—four cotton, three polyester, two nylon, and one recycled plastic—which ranged in price from about $0.60 to about $5.00 per bag. We used the largest bag from each set as our testing model. One of the cotton sets included two styles—tightly woven fabric and mesh—so we included one of each for a total of 11 bags. We looked at how much food each bag could comfortably hold, how easy the bag was to clean, and how well it held up to abuse testing meant to simulate months of use. While there is some discussion about whether the resources required to manufacture reusable produce bags might cancel out any environmental benefit the bags could contribute by reducing waste, they continue to be popular. We focused our attention on the bags’ performance and sturdiness to inform consumers looking to take advantage of their convenience and potential sustainability.
Capacity: Bigger and Stretchier Is Better
We wanted a bag that was both big and sturdy, so we filled each first with an oversize bunch of kale and then again with 5 pounds of russet potatoes to test their capacities. The bags didn’t vary much in width, ranging from 10.25 to 12.5 inches, but they varied considerably in length, from 13 to 20 inches. Predictably, the largest bags could hold more food. But we identified another important variable: how much a bag could stretch. Of the bags we tested, those made of cotton had more natural stretch than the bags made of synthetic materials. The mesh cotton bags had the most give of all, stretching around the bulky kale bunches and potatoes with ease. We liked the stretch of the cotton mesh bags and the dimensions of the largest bags, so we recommend both when it comes to capacity.
Was Closing a Cinch?
A reusable bag is only as useful as its ability to keep items contained during shopping or transport, and we identified a few key factors that set some bags apart. Every bag in our lineup was equipped with a drawstring, but only eight of those bags were also equipped with closure beads, which, once slid into place along the drawstrings, kept the bags closed. To close and then open the four bags without those beads, we had to tie knots in their drawstrings and then untie them—tedious extra steps when compared with the ease of using the other bags’ closure beads. Because the drawstrings or drawstring sleeves of most of the cotton bags and some of the synthetic bags were roughly textured or bulky, they bunched and blocked the beads’ paths, making it difficult to cinch these bags or wrench them open. The closure beads of some of the bags weren’t strong enough to hold bags shut when we jostled their contents. All in all, three bags stood out, striking a nice balance between smooth drawstrings and strong closure beads that kept contents contained.
Durability Is Essential
Since reusable bags should hold up over time, we were especially focused on testing durability. To see how easy the bags were to clean, we smashed a few raspberries in each bag and checked for stains as we washed and dried them 10 times according to manufacturers’ instructions. Nylon, polyester, and recycled plastic absorb less liquid than cotton, so the stains on bags made with these synthetic materials rinsed clean with one or two washes. It took at least three machine washes for the cotton bags to come clean, but the bags’ fabrics all held up in our washing tests.
Next, we ran a test to mimic the rigor of months of use by filling each bag with a pineapple and vigorously jostling it. Then we repeated that test with 10 pounds of dumbbells—the equivalent of a few dense butternut squashes. Six of the bags, including the three cotton mesh bags, the recycled plastic bag, and the two nylon bags, tore. Five of the bags, including the three polyester bags and the two tightly woven cotton bags, remained intact.
We were surprised to find that heavier bags or those made with sturdier fabrics weren’t always the most durable. The bags ranged in weight from 0.45 to 1.8 ounces, but some of the heaviest tore, while some of the lightest held strong. We noticed that polyester and tightly woven cotton bags were less likely to rip than their counterparts with looser weaves. There are two potential explanations. First, the wider gaps created more opportunities for the pineapple’s spines to gain purchase and poke holes. Second, those bags with wider mesh are made with fewer threads per inch than the more tightly woven bags, meaning that the contents’ weight is spread out across fewer fabric strands. More weight per thread increases the likelihood that threads will break and bags will tear.
The Best Reusable Produce Bag Set: purifyou Reusable Produce Bags
In the end, one bag aced all our tests. Based on its dimensions, the largest of the purifyou Reusable Produce Bags, Set of 9 bags, which is made from polyester, had the biggest capacity among all the bags we tested. It was easy to cinch, and its strong closure bead kept the drawstring tightly closed. Best of all, this bag came through our washing and abuse tests unscathed. We also wanted to see if our winner was able to hold bulk-bin mainstays such as grains and nuts, so we conducted a permeability test by filling it with items of decreasing size: dried cannellini beans, rice, coarsely ground grits, and all-purpose flour. The winning bag held everything but the flour, impressing us with its tightly woven mesh, which was sturdy and fairly impermeable but still allowed us to view the contents. The set comes with two small, five medium, and two large bags that are conveniently color coded and labeled with tare weights for cashiers to use when weighing produce. Costing roughly $1.00 per bag, this is an affordable and convenient set for your trips to the market.
- Test 11 bags from 10 bag sets, including five cotton, three polyester, two nylon, and one recycled plastic, priced from about $0.60 to roughly $5.00 per bag
- Fill each bag with one bunch of kale, then 5 pounds of russet potatoes, taking note of capacity, stretching, and how easy the bags are to cinch and to pull open
- Crush three raspberries into each bag, then wash the bags 10 times according to manufacturers’ instructions, observing how long it takes the stains to fade and whether the bags hold up to washings
- Fill each bag with a pineapple and jostle vigorously, taking note of any holes or rips
- Fill each bag with 10 pounds of dumbbells (the equivalent of about three dense squashes) and jostle vigorously, taking note of any holes or rips
- Fill winning bag with dry goods of various sizes (dried cannellini beans, rice, coarsely ground grits, and flour), observing which items spilled through the gaps in the bag’s mesh
Capacity: We rated the bags on the volume of produce they could hold.
Ease of Use: We evaluated how easy it was to open and close the bags and whether the bags’ fastenings kept items contained.
Durability: We observed how well models stood up to abuse testing meant to approximate months of use and how easy they were to keep clean.