The 9 Best Reusable Grocery Bags—And How Many Is Too Many
Pockets are a bonus.
Published Dec 21, 2021 2:00 PM
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While working at a produce shop in Paris several years ago, Adrianna Fie was just as interested in what the shoppers brought with them as what they left with. “I spent most of my time working at the register and loved the variety of bags and baskets that shoppers brought to carry home their beautiful produce,” she says. She later cofounded Flotsam + Fork and stocked a style of the bag she’d seen years before (more on that in a bit).
As consumer options for reusable bags have grown and the choice is no longer limited to paper or plastic, there’s a lot to consider. Whether you want a flat-bottom tote, a foldable one that fits in a tiny pouch, a shoulder strap, or leather handles, we’ve pulled the nine best reusable grocery bags in a number of styles. We also tapped some experts to answer all your questions about materials, how many bags are too many, and the accessory you might need if you’re grocery shopping sans car.
- The one with pockets: Steele Canvas Utility Tote
- The stash and go: Baggu Reusable Shopping Bag
- The nylon one: Hay Six-Colour Bags
- The basic one: Organic Cotton Mart Store Canvas Grocery Bag
- The string one: Flotsam and Fork Filt French Market Tote
- The classic one: L.L. Bean Boat and Tote
- The French one: Medina Mercantile French Market Basket
- The one for produce: Public Goods Reusable Mesh Grocery Bags
- The one for keeping cool: Hightide Cooler Cargo Bag
The One With Pockets: Steele Canvas Utility Tote
Size: 12-by-8-by-12 inches| Over-shoulder strap: Yes | Pockets: 9 | Material: Canvas
What we like:
- Made in the USA
- Full-grain U.S. cattle-hide hand grips
- Thick, durable canvas that isn’t too heavy
- Made to order, so it takes two to four weeks to ship
- Short return window
Why we chose it: A bag from a heritage brand with as many pockets as you’ll need…and then some.
Founded in 1921, Steele Canvas Basket made canvas goods for the coal and textile industry in New England. These days industrial-edged goods from this family-owned business have made it into the laundry rooms of homes and apartments across the country. This market bag came out of asking “gardeners, craftsmen, and just about anyone else who has visited our shop what would make their ideal go-to bag,” according to the brand’s website.
The answers—tons of pockets, comfy handles, and a shoulder strap, plus something that looks good but can get dirty—are put into practice in this bag. There are nine (!) pockets, mostly on the outside, so produce doesn’t get crushed or jumbled. “I like having a sturdy handle on a cloth bag,” says Gay Browne, founder, and CEO of eco-living source Greenopia. “If it’s too wide, it won’t throw over your shoulder well, and if it’s too narrow, it will cut into your shoulder as you walk or carry your heavier items home.”
The Stash and Go: Baggu Reusable Shopping Bag
Size: 25 ½-by-15 ½-by-6 inches | Over-shoulder strap: Yes | Pockets: No | Material: Recycled ripstop nylon
What we like:
- There’s a pattern or color for everyone
- Comes with a storage pouch so you can easily keep one tucked in your purse
- Holds up to 50 pounds of groceries
- Only 40 percent recycled nylon
Why we chose it: With their cute patterns and vibrant colors, you won’t forget these bags when dashing out the door. And they fold down small enough that it’s not a pain to keep empty ones on you.
Solid colors, maritime stripes, leopard print, and a checkered pattern are a few of the many options Baggu bags offer. If you’re someone who often forgets to bring a reusable bag, a bright color will better catch your eye. They’re sold individually or in sets of three, and each bag comes with a tiny storage pouch so you can easily keep one in your purse or backpack.
The Nylon One: Hay Six-Colour Bags
Size: 28-by-14.75 inches | Over-shoulder strap: No | Pockets: No | Material: Nylon
What we like:
- Can hold 44 pounds
- Unique color-blocking
- Good size
- Not made of recycled nylon
- Not all the color options are available
Why we chose it: An elevated yet durable option you won’t mind toting around.
Danish design house Hay is focused on making daily rituals a little more beautiful. “We pay attention to the small moments that make up our daily lives and develop new takes on designs to support them,” states the company’s website. “No object is too common, no detail too minute.” A reimagined grocery bag is perfectly in line with that mission. The design-forward bag is made of lightweight nylon and put together in appealing color combinations. It’s so good-looking you might find yourself making extra trips to the grocery store just to use it.
The Basic One: Organic Cotton Mart Store Canvas Grocery Bag
Size: 14.5-by-13-by-8 inches | Over-shoulder strap: Yes | Pockets: No | Material: Organic cotton
What we like:
- Undyed, organic cotton material meets standards for environmental and social responsibility
- Great price point and available as a single bag or a set of two or three
- Simple design
- While washable, the brand notes that after the first few washes, it may be shrunken or super-wrinkly, so stretch while wet and lay flat to dry
Why we chose it: An affordable organic cotton tote modeled on a large paper grocery bag that you can use again and again, then toss in the wash.
It may look simple, but this tote is well constructed. Designed to match the size of a standard grocery store paper bag, it has handles (extra-wide to reduce pressure) and a shoulder strap, plus six interior bottle sleeves (so a bottle of olive oil isn’t banging against wine on the way home). For inevitable spills and stains, this bag is also machine washable, which gives it a longer life span.
The String One: Flotsam + Fork Filt French Market Tote
Size: 15.75-by-15.75 inches with a 10.5-inch handle | Over-shoulder strap: Yes | Pockets: No | Material: Cotton
What we like:
- Made in France
- Comes in lots of colors, including a bright yellow, dusty blue, cheerful green, and pale gray
- Lightweight and folds down
- Because it’s netted, it can’t be used for very small items
Why we chose it: A super-lightweight and compact bag that’s expandable, so you have no excuse not to bring it with you.
The Filt is one of the bags that Fie, cofounder of Flotsam + Fork, noticed years ago in Paris. When she opened her own shop, she stocked the brand. “The totes are small and lightweight and just keep expanding to hold more and more,” she says of the classic design. “The fact that they’re open-weave means they’re not perfect for everything, but this also prevents them from getting as dirty when carrying produce.” The bags are long-lasting, and with a traditional design, you won’t get sick of them.
The Classic One: L.L. Bean Boat and Tote
Size: 12-by-13-by-6 inches, also available in three other sizes | Over-shoulder strap: Optional | Pockets: No | Material: Canvas
What we like:
- Zip-top keeps groceries secure even if the bag tips
- Meant for heavy lifting, with handles tested to hold up to 500 pounds
- Classic New England look in a durable material
- If you want it monogrammed, your order will likely be back-ordered
- Returns are not free
Why we chose it: A durable, utilitarian option with a flat bottom from Maine.
Introduced in 1944 as Bean’s Ice Carrier, this old-school tote is made of thick, durable canvas originally meant for hauling blocks of ice from a car to an ice chest. Thankfully ice isn’t really on our grocery lists anymore, but L.L. Bean’s Boat and Tote has earned a spot in many American households. The zip-top version will prevent spillage, and the bags are still ready to do the heavy lifting, as they’re able to hold up to 500 pounds. (According to the company: “It will carry more than you can carry. We promise.”) The designs are also highly customizable: They come in multiple sizes, different strap lengths, with and without zippers, and a number of color options, and can be monogrammed.
Browne generally prefers a long-handle reusable bag, but the only exception is a sturdy, short-handle bag that can be tossed in the back of the car or used for weekend trips. “I have one ancient tote from L.L. Bean from 1982 when I was in college and we did tailgating parties,” she says. A tote that lasts for years, let alone decades, is a great choice in terms of sustainability.
The French One: Medina Mercantile French Market Basket
Size: 18-by-9-by-12 inches | Over-shoulder strap: No, consider the version with longer straps | Pockets: No | Material: Palm leaves and leather
What we like:
- Woven palm leaf basket pairs nicely with leather handles
- Spacious interior
- Chic look
- To clean this bag, you’ll need to wash it with a mix of vinegar and water
Why we chose it: The flat-bottom, open-top combo is ideal for a farmers’ market haul.
As good-looking as it is functional, this is a bag we wouldn’t mind hanging by the front door on full display. The wide mouth is great for the farmers’ market or produce pickups, as it reduces the likelihood of delicate fruits and veggies getting squeezed. If you want the option to carry it over your shoulder rather than by hand, there’s also a version with longer straps.
When artist, cook, and author Julia Sherman is going to the farmers’ market or grocery store, she says, “I like to bring a wide-bottom woven basket bag so everything doesn’t get piled on top of one another.” The author of Arty Parties: An Entertaining Cookbook, Sherman also saves old quart containers and clamshells to transport delicate produce like berries and tomatoes home without them getting bruised or squished.
The One for Produce: Public Goods Reusable Mesh Grocery Bags
Size: 11-by-13.8 inches | Material: Organic cotton
What we like:
- 100 percent organic cotton
- Large enough for kale, lettuce, and other big produce
- No bleaches, dyes, or synthetic materials included
- It’s hard to scan vegetable labels through the mesh
Why we chose it: An easy swap for those thin plastic bags you use for wrapping dripping greens and corralling baby potatoes.
An eco-tote for getting groceries home isn’t the only way to reduce plastic. Grab a few of these reusable mesh grocery bags and you won’t have to use the store’s thin plastic bags to load up on produce. The drawstring on each organic cotton bag makes it easy to reuse, and mesh is more breathable than plastic, so it’s better for fresh fruits and vegetables.
The One for Keeping Cool: Hightide Cooler Cargo Bag
Size: 17.7-by-12.2-by-11 inches, also available in small and medium | Over-shoulder strap: Yes, adjustable | Pockets: No | Material: Polyester
What we like:
- Can hold 57 pounds or nine large half-quart bottles
- Folds flat
- Durable polyester exterior
- It is insulated, but you should add cold packs to lengthen the life of perishables for longer trips
Why we chose it: This flat-folding insulated cooler bag is perfect for grocery runs and weekend getaways.
If the idea that a cooler bag could be chic never crossed your mind, you don’t know the Japanese brand Hightide. Founded in the mid-’90s, it opened a Los Angeles outpost in 2017; non-Californians can shop online. Unlike the hard-sided plastic coolers of yore, this one folds completely flat so you can store it in the back of your car without taking up much space, then pull it out at the butcher shop or grocery store as needed. It’s also great for day trips to the beach, picnics, or camping getaways. Hightide also has a non-cooler version.
How We Chose These Products
To find the best market bags, we asked editors what they’re using and researched materials, price, brand reputation, and sustainability. We focused on bags that don’t just look good but are also easy to use for quick jaunts to the corner store and for bigger hauls. We highlighted a variety of styles to accommodate personal preference and shopping style, whether you’re using a car or walking to your local farmers’ market.
Our Shopping Checklist
“People should get whatever bag they like the most, because then they’ll get a lot of use out of it,” says Alden Wicker, a sustainable fashion expert, journalist, and the founder of EcoCult.com. If you’re often shopping on foot, something that folds down easily is key, whereas if you do most of your shopping by car, a bag that fits in a teeny pouch isn’t as important. Flat-bottom bags will stand independently, which makes transport and unloading easier. And if remembering to bring your reusable bags to the store is an issue, look for a brightly colored bag you’re likely to notice in the hall closet as you grab a coat.
Browne avoids plastic, even the recycled varieties. She finds cotton and linens preferable to other natural textiles, as they tend to be quite soft. “Regular cotton has a higher water footprint and uses pesticides that are harmful to you and the planet,” she says. “Organic cotton reportedly uses 91 percent less water.” Wicker notes that her reusable cotton totes have lasted years; a long-lasting product means you won’t have to replace it as frequently. For some shoppers, having a supersmall, lightweight nylon bag that can fit in their purse is the best way to avoid single-use plastics. Being realistic about your preferences will help you find a bag you’ll actually use.
Capacity and Weight Limit
Some retailers list the weight limit their bag can hold, which is often a sign of a durable, well-made bag meant to handle heavy groceries (think: bottles, cans, and bulk items). If you don’t see the weight limit listed, you can always reach out to the brand before purchasing to see if they have this information.
Cleaning and Maintenance
A bag that is easy to wash will last longer, and many brands list whether their bags can go in the washing machine. A thick strap and/or one made from a durable material like leather or heavy-duty canvas is less likely to break, reducing the need for repair. “Almost everything, even natural materials, is resource-intensive to produce,” says Fie. “Well-made pieces develop a patina, while lower-quality items just seem to break and end up in the back of a drawer. What I love most about natural materials is that they get better with wear and can be repaired.”
Q: How many reusable grocery bags do I need?
“There are life cycle analyses (LCAs) that purport to tell you how many times you need to use a cotton bag in order to bring its impact down to that of a disposable plastic bag,” says Wicker, citing a study that suggests it’s likely about 150 times. “In the end, the answer is always: ‘Say no to unnecessary bags,’ whether they are cotton, paper, plastic, or polyester. You probably only need six reusable grocery bags at the most. Anything beyond that is increasing your impact.”
Q: Should I replace my reusable bags with ones that are made of natural materials?
No, says Browne. “Despite the number of options around reusable grocery bags, in my opinion, the absolute best choice is the one you have previously used, irrespective of whether it’s plastic, paper, hemp, canvas, or another material,” she explains. So if you have reusable bags that work, great. If you need to add produce bags or a reusable bag with a shoulder strap for hauling heavy goods, go for it, but don’t feel like you need to swap out bags that work well for you just because they’re plastic.
Q: Can I make reusable grocery bags?
Yes! The Spruce Crafts has a great tutorial for making your own reusable grocery bags. You’ll need an intermediate skill level to get it done.
Q: I’m trying to use my car less for grocery shopping, but I buy too much to carry in bags. What should I do?
Browne has stored her reusable bags in wicker baskets in the back of her car, but since moving to a more walkable city where she’s significantly cut back on driving, she brings a pull cart to the store and farmers’ market, loading her groceries in reusable bags in the cart. This cart is foldable for small spaces (like apartments), and this one is specifically designed for climbing stairs.
Q: What pantry staples should I stock up on for last-minute entertaining to avoid extra trips to the store?
Sherman has a great list of items that will spruce up a Tuesday dinner or make an impromptu gathering feel more festive: “Fancy dates, expensive sardines or tinned smoked mussels, preserved lemon (serve with the tinned fish), and popcorn (I like to make fancy spiced popcorn or kettle corn),” she says. Her book Arty Parties has a great popcorn recipe, too.
The Last Word
Reusable bags make shopping more seamless and less cumbersome, all while reducing your reliance on single-use bags. The best ones are as good-looking as they are functional—after all, there’s no reason why a utilitarian item shouldn’t be visually appealing, too.