With the recent surge in anti-plastic bag sentiments, a lot of folks are jumping on the reusable bags bandwagon. I think it’s great that people are starting to give a thought to the bags that they use to carry their purchases home. But not all bags are created equal, and I wish more people would think about the type of reusable bag they choose, rather than rashly purchasing the cutest thing they see in another expression of thoughtless consumption.
I’ve been thinking about the issue of reusable bags for some time, but I am moved to sit down and actually write this out tonight after reading a review of Reisenthel’s nylon shopping bags on SustainLane.com. The reviewer says that she was glad to find the compact, foldable Reisenthel bags, made by a German company, because she sometimes forgets to take her large Trader Joe’s tote bag with her and ends up with a collection of new plastic bags from the store. With the Reisenthel nylon bags in her purse, she is never caught without a container for her groceries and doesn’t have to take home new plastic bags.
Sound good? Let me put this a different way. This person said she has a collection of plastic bags. Get it? SHE ALREADY HAS A COLLECTION OF PLASTIC BAGS. Why does she need to spend money on virgin petroleum-based bags shipped from Germany to carry her groceries? She has plastic bags! Plastic bags are easy to fold up and keep in your purse or backpack. They’re just not as cute as hip nylon bags and they don’t scream “Environmentalist” when you carry your groceries down the street. So you want people to know you reuse your bags? Turn them inside out and write “Reusable Bag” on the outside. You could even make a tally of the number of times the bag has been used just to prove it.
Okay, so plastic grocery bags are not trendy or elegant, and they may even scream “Bag Lady” as you pull them out of your purse. If that’s your hang up, there are other options for reusable bags that don’t require virgin petroleum to produce. First, as one reader commented, many people have a closet full of bags (promotional tote bags, etc.) that need a home. Try and find a bag on Freecycle or Craigslist or in a thrift store. You can even buy a synthetic bag this way with a clear conscience, knowing that you are both saving this one from a landfill and not causing any new synthetic bags to be born.
But if you’re really jonesing for a brand new bag, the site Reusablebags.com carries quite a few of these options, including bags made from recycled plastic as well as renewable natural fibers like hemp and cotton. However, I recommend this site with some reservations.
In addition to bags made from recycled plastic and renewable materials, Reusablebags.com also carries quite a few bags made from new petroleum-based synthetics, including the Reisenthel nylon bags mentioned above. The goal of Reusablebags.com is to reduce the amount of disposable plastic entering the waste stream each day from single-use bags. And all of the bags that they sell will help meet this goal. But I don’t think the folks at Reusablebags.com are looking at the bigger picture. All of the bags that they sell have a life-span, whether that life-span is 1 day or a few years. Eventually, they will all wear out. And when that happens, what will happen to the materials of which they are made?
The fabric from cotton and hemp bags will certainly biodegrade. But it could take many human lifetimes for the synthetic bags to break down, if they ever do. There is currently no organism that can break them down. When I wrote to Reusablebags.com questioning their inclusion of certain products on their site, the response was, “When choosing products for our website, there is always a balance between the positives and negatives of a product in our choice to showcase them.” It’s my opinion that they allow too many of the negatives to slip past the judges. Still, as I said, the site is very useful for finding reusable shopping bags that are made from sustainable materials. You just have to read the descriptions carefully before deciding what to purchase.
Another option besides buying bags is to make your own. For those with the time, skills, and desire, Heather T. at Make-A-Bag-Along is collecting patterns and instructions for sewing, knitting, and crocheting your own reusable shopping bags. There’re even instructions for knitting one big new tote out of many used plastic grocery bags that will last much longer than each small one. And no virgin plastic is consumed in the process. Make-A-Bag-Along is a new site, and Heather needs ideas. If you are crafty, I encourage you to visit the site and share any ideas you might have for making your own bags.
Finally, whether we decide to carry our groceries in reused plastic bags, new bags from renewable sources, or homemade bags, the main point of this article is that we all need to stay awake and aware. It’s easy to be swayed by “green” marketing language that is really just a masked come-on for mindless consumption. It’s not so easy to see past the advertising to the reality that the best way to step lightly on the earth is to stick to the 3 R’s: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, in that order. Nowhere in that list is Buy More Crap.