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How Do I Decide What Reusable Bag to Buy?

Veggies in Reusable Bag for Lunch

It’s finally happened!

In the decade plus since I’ve been raising children with a green and crunchy mindset, thinking almost as much about the environment and our long-term impact as about my short- and long-term parenting and my kids’ health, it has now gone mainstream.

Back when I started reviewing reusable bags, it was only a small challenge to review both the large brands on the market and at least one of every style. That way I could give constructive feedback on what you might want based on your family and your capacity for things like dishes and noise.

Now I’m overjoyed that hundreds if not thousands of companies are now onboard with reusable bags in the market. It is becoming commonplace to see them in big box stores. social media posts (even from accounts where natural living isn’t the focus), and perhaps even in places like mainstream network and streaming shows.

While I’m definitely applauding this trend for the earth, it means that my little review here is becoming less and less helpful. I’m choosing to make a great big update to help you, who might be trying just your first or second style of reusable bag, determine what will work best for your family before you make a financial investment in a bag that might be a bust for you.

I’ll honestly never be able to keep up in testing “all the bags,” but I have a lot of experience both in number of years using reusable bags and number of brands tried. I can help people rule out the losers and hopefully even predict which brands will have more longevity. You don’t need to gamble quite as much to find the winner as you make a purchase.

Of course all of my reviews are up-to-date and still apply to the brands we have tried, but if you are looking at a new brand that I haven’t gotten my little paws on yet, I’ve added a decision-making tutorial for you to use!

The Decision-Making Tutorial for Choosing a Reusable Bag

Q: What kind of noise can I tolerate my reusable bag making?

I learned quickly when opening hook-and-loop closure reusable snack bags in church that I much preferred silent bags.

Zippers would include both the traditional tooth zipper with a pull tab and the more newfangled zipper often found on silicone bags that are like the slide lock disposable zippered bags, or some that have a solid bar of plastic that slides along the entire top of the bag. If there are other closures that I haven’t seen yet, give me a holler in the comments because I want to know about them!

Lifestyle Dynamics reusable bag
Here’s an example of a bag with a separate slide lock piece.

Personally, when comparing toothed zippers and the small slider, like the slide that locks disposable zippered bags, I would go toothed 100% of the time.

We have found far too many sliders that either stop adhering together or completely lose the little slider tab, because it flies off the other end into the abyss of the world. We’ve had far too many bags rendered useless with this problem.

The full bar seal closure is better, and I haven’t had any of those die on me yet. However, if you’re going to ask children to use these bags, they probably won’t have the patience to put the slider back on at the end of lunch hour or snack time, and small children might actually lose the whole thing. (Parents of little ones know what I mean by “the abyss of the world” that eats random things never to have them return!)

It’s also more annoying and less efficient when washing any sort of two part bag. That means keeping track of the bar and the bag separately while being washed and dried and yet somehow miraculously getting them back together before filing them away in the appropriate drawer of your kitchen.

For this myriad of reasons, I would choose a toothed zippered bag every time.

Ecobagit reusable bag

If you don’t mind the noise, hook and loop can be a very good option but it does have two downfalls.

First, sometimes it loses its stick over time. This will be determined greatly on the quality of the product, which may be directly related to its price.

The other problem with hook-and-loop style closures is that if you choose to wash your reusable bags in with the laundry, things like sweaters and fancy fuzzy shirts don’t get along very well with those hooks and loops! You have to be very careful which load you put these bags in.

Q: What is the ease of washing for your reusable bags?

When it comes to washing reusable snack and sandwich bags, most brands and styles give you three options:

  • handwash
  • throw in the dishwasher
  • add to laundry with clothing

We typically hand wash them, because I know that’s the most gentle for longevity and there are some fundamental problems with the other options.

I’ve never liked putting reusable bags in the dishwasher, because they tend to come out with a minimum of two problems: often they don’t get all the way clean, and they tend to hold so much water that you have to practically dry them by hand and still lay them out to air dry.

I mentioned a problem with textile laundry above when hook-and-loop fasteners stick to sweaters. The other problem at least in my household is that it can take a long time for a laundry cycle to get through. If I put a soiled reusable bag into our regular laundry, it could be five to 20 days before the entire process of washing, hanging to dry, remembering to grab down, and folding the laundry gets my bag all the way back to my kitchen drawer.

When my kids were using bags on a daily basis for school, this was more of a hassle than it was a help!

On the other hand, with sealed reusable bags (not hook and loop), the laundry might be a great option. I’d highly recommend air drying every kind of bag for the sake of longevity.

Reusable bag

That also means ease of hand washing was one of my main factors for bags I love. When you are evaluating a bag of your own, try to ascertain the answers to these questions:

  • Can the bag be fully turned inside out?
  • Is the material slick and easy to wipe clean? For example, beeswax wraps (although the most natural by far since there’s no plastic or silicone) can be a pain to wash, because if you have to scrub anything sticky or juicy off of them the beeswax covering tends to begin to flake. You also can’t use hot water with beeswax wraps and bags, because it will melt the beeswax and cause it to come off. I love the idea of these things, but they don’t work well for my family in practice.
  • When turning inside out, what shape are the corners? Rounded corners are 100 times easier to clean than squared-off corners.
  • What will it feel like to hang the bags to dry? For example, I don’t have a clothesline in my kitchen where I can clip bags open side up. Therefore, I tend to really appreciate the bags that turn fully inside out and can sit upside down on top of a spoon that is drying; or the bags that have two layers, where I can pull one layer inside out from the other one and lay it on anything to dry. One example of two layered bags is EcoBagIt by Green City Living.
  • Searching online reviews for the words “clean” or “wash” is always a good idea, because then you know how this exact brand and style has worked in other people’s kitchens.

Q: How long will you leave food in the reusable snack or sandwich bag?

This is a big question, because something that not everyone understands about reusable bags is that they are not a one-to-one equivalent with traditional disposable plastic zippered bags.

Many of the reusable bags are not watertight, which means they’re also not airtight. Your sandwich might not even last overnight before turning into a crouton; and your chips, pretzels, or Goldfish crackers can go stale quickly as well.

Bags that fare worse on this question always include cloth bags, even when covered in beeswax, as well as many of the fliptop hook-and-loop bags, because there’s just so much room for air to get out the top.

Zippered bags, silicone bags with a good seal (i.e., not hook and loop), and any bag with double-layered material will fare better on this question.

Your best option if packing the night before or leaving leftovers or snacks in the bags for a few days is important to you is going to be any bag that claims to be watertight. Many of the long bar, slide lock, silicone bags are in this category. I would trust my sandwich to those any day.

lunch box stainless steel

A side note: When it comes to keeping food fresh longer, sometimes a reusable bag simply isn’t your best option. I would much rather use a stainless steel container with a silicone lid, like the ones that our family loves from ECOlunchbox. Those are going to be airtight every time, and they’re incredibly easy to wash in the dishwasher, so we lean toward them over reusable bags for most options.

The Biggest Q of All: How long will my investment in reusable bags last?

This might be the hardest one to figure out, because you could be relying on people who have had bags for a year or two to come back and leave their review, reporting on whether those bags are still working well for the family. That’s where my experience comes in handy.

When looking at any reusable bag as a new purchase, I would highly recommend searching reviews for words like “month,” “year,” “right away,” “fell apart,” “flake,” “fail,” and anything else that seems to fit a potential death knell for the style you are considering. I’ve already mentioned that the small slider zipper bags tend to have a very short lifespan.

Etee reusable bag

Other bags that have died too quickly for my liking, i.e. one to two years, include:

  • Lunchskins, because the inside surface of the bag began to flake off. I didn’t want that stuff in my kids food.
  • Anything made with beeswax and cloth for the aforementioned reasons.
  • Bags that had too many parts. For example, we had one brand that was opaque with a single clear window going across the middle. That clear window split from its opaque material almost immediately.
  • Some of the silicone bags that had weaknesses on their seams. This is where you might have to rely on others’ online reviews, but definitely try to ascertain if there are too many seams in a product that could come apart or if the material used seems more inflexible. To me that’s a red flag that it might pop at a corner or edge.
  • Some hook-and-loop bags if the closure peters out over time.
  • The final category is one that’s really hard to tell when looking at a new brand. Certain materials tend to soak up some color or food, especially if a child forgets something like orange slices for a day or two in their desk, locker, or backpack. This is really difficult to predict! But I can say that the shinier and more wipe-off-able the material looks, the better chance you’ll probably have of avoiding discoloration and questions of “is that mold or mildew, or just a small harmless discoloration?”

In my estimation, if I’m going to spend $5 to $15 per bag on something where I could spend $2 to $4 per box for disposable, I’d like them to last more than two years, preferably a decade.

Why not choose the best as long as we are trying to save both the earth and our kids’ health right?

In the decade and a half+ we have been using these bags–not just testing them but really running them through the gauntlet in a real family with four kids–we still tend to grab and enjoy the EcoBagIt bags from Green City Living most often. If you’re not sure what to buy, I would grab those.

EcoBagIt bags

Final Update Wrap-Up from Katie

It is my goal that this review post remains fluid, flexible, and as up-to-date as possible. If you’ve discovered a new style of reusable bag that I’ve never seen, please comment so that I can at least take a look online.

If you have realized that you have a question about a category or brand of bags that I didn’t address in this little decision-making tutorial, ask it in the comments. And if it makes sense to me, I can add it to the FAQs here.

Our family is here to help your family save the Earth, be a good steward of your budget, and protect your family’s health all at the same time!

What reusable bags do you like best?


Unless otherwise credited, photos are owned by the author or used with a license from Canva or Deposit Photos.
Category: Reducing Waste

4 thoughts on “How Do I Decide What Reusable Bag to Buy?”

    1. Carolyn @ Kitchen Stewardship

      This post has some tips and links for finding reusable grocery bags in it!

    1. Stashers are by far the best brand I’ve seen. Expensive but I’ve had some for 2 plus years already. We don’t use dishwasher but they stand easily to dry on the rack upside down and as we make pasta with olive oil, being easy to clean is a must. They still look and feel fresh every time and cleaning is a breeze.

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