The blog formerly known as   Fake Plastic Fish
August 2, 2007

Be careful on the Reusable Bags Bandwagon

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.
 

33 comments
SunSugarFarms
SunSugarFarms

I like the turn it inside out and write "I'm a reusable bag". Funny. Could do that with plastic cups and forks the drive-thru fast food places give you.

LatoyaSmith
LatoyaSmith

A year ago I used PCA Delta in Pompano Beach FL to print some promotional tote bags, which they did a great job with. Now I use them for all my promotional items since they have lots to choose from with good prices and quality. If you need promotional items, check them out at http://www.pcadeltaprinting.com

Alexandra
Alexandra

What about Chico bags? I have one in my purse and pull it out whenever I forget my basket. This Chico bag makes me happy. A friend gave it to me. I am thinking of getting some to give guests at my B&B. Don't you think having a collapsible bag that you can carry at all times and use when needed to avoid plastic bags is a good thing?

Jenn the Greenmom
Jenn the Greenmom

Thanks for this--I bought some bags from reusablebags.com a couple of years ago, and they are awesome--but then they spent the next year or so until I officially removed myself from their mailing lists because they kept sending emails and sales and promotions and desperately trying to get me to buy MORE reusable bags. I'm like, okay, the whole point was that I'd have maybe 3 or 4 bags and that's all I'll need for the indefinite future... I still like my cloth bags, and I really don't much like the plastic ones from the store (you can hardly carry anything in them!), but your'e right--how many does one need?

Audrey
Audrey

Hello, I know this post is a couple of years old but I thought I would add my 2 cents worth. What I do is instead of getting a t-shirt/hat/shot glass/junk from a vacation I get a canvas bag that has something meaningful from that place on it. For instance, I have a canvas bag from the Chicago Museum of Art and a canvas bag from Boston with a picture of the little duck statues on it. Everytime I pull out a bag to use it for shopping/carrying things it takes me back to those wonderful vactions I had. People now give me cloth bags as presents and when I use them I am reminded about that person. (Can you tell I'm a bit sentimental?)

Heather
Heather

I just found this post so I know I'm really late in leaving a comment! I love your blog and agree wholeheartedly, especially with this post. I've used canvas bags for years; they were from conventions my mom went to so they all have logos on them that deal with cardiovascular health. I have found an amazing site called www.myrecycledbags.com where the woman uses plastic bags for many of her crocheting projects. They are amazing! The great thing is, she also displays all her patterns for free, so that we can all benefit. I have made three bags from her patterns and they've all turned out really well. They also make for great conversation pieces :)The funny thing is that I have to ask friends and co-workers for all my "supplies" since I don't get plastic bags anymore.Check out her site, you might find something you'd like to knit!

Jennie
Jennie

Thank you for this! Yes, I had the "D'oh!" moment after buying two Chicco bags, and then realizing I was contributing to the Smug Pollution... and had bought *nylon* bags. Duh.But I'm collecting canvas and other bags to reuse till they wear out, and have crocheted one string bag and plan to crochet more.Found your site because I pulled a rice bag out of a neighbor's recycling (!?) and was wondering what to do with it.

S
S

Japanese people have furoshiki fabric which ties around whatever it is. Make your own bag in this fashion, and save electricity that would be used to sew your own. Alnernately, use a pareo, or length of some lightweight fabric that can be tied once around the items, and then if the ends of fabric are long enough, can be tied around your body and carried like a satchel, sling bag, or crossed over the front and tied around the waist, similar to a backpack.More stores in Hawaii should encorage reusable "bring your own" type shoppers by offering a deduction from the grocery bill for those who don't take a bag.I've opted to take my own large mug and plate to work with my own chopsticks and spoons for eating lunch. If I go to the snackshop and get breakfast or lunch, I ask her not to put it in a styrofoam container and not to give me a plastic bag and utensils. She's caught on to this, and I actually get larger servings in lieu of saving her money on the disposable items.Back to the plastic bag thing - I save a bunch of them, folding them up neatly, and take them to a vendor at the local Open Market. I get a discount from the woman vendor for turning in these bags which she recyles out to those without bags!Win-win.

Anonymous
Anonymous

For a years I've been buying basmati rice - 10-20 lb bags in burlap. These bags ended up in the garbage or compost bin. Now I've decided to keep them instead as a grocery bag. It comes with a zipper already and handles. It's a bit smaller than a plastic grocery bag, but holds a lot of stuff if you squeeze it. It only holds a gallon of milk, but you can probably stuff other thinner stuff in them.Also, going to coffee/grain shops for their burlap bags can be good for sewers. Just cut it rectangle and sew the sides together w/ thick thread if your machine can handle it.

Dana Miller
Dana Miller

Another great option - BaggyShirts - Reusable Bags Made From Recycled Clothing for a Healthier Planet! They are made in the US, and the artisans are paid a decent wage and make BaggyShirts from their homes! Check them out at www.baggy-shirts.com!

Clif
Clif

When speaking of reusing plastic bags, don't forget you can reuse plastic bottles. One 12oz soda bottle is 1 oz of plastic. One 2 liter soda bottle is 1.8 oz of plastic but holds 6 times as much soda. Refill 6 12oz plastic soda bottles from a 2 liter bottle and you have not only saved lots of plastic, but LOTS of money over time, cutting you soda expense down to less than 2 cents an ounce. My bunny and I have just completed a year of doing this with the same set of 12oz bottles and there is no reason we can't continue with them indefinitely. Of course, it says on the bottles DO NOT REFILL, probably for health reasons. But, if you rinse them out after every use there is no problem, we are the proof, still alive and kicking ...er...recycling. You lose a little of the fizz, but not to the point of making the soda flat.

King Aardvark
King Aardvark

Hey. I came here from your shameless blogwhoring ;-) at Greta Christina's. I can't remember the last time I've used a bag of any sort. Where I shop (groceries), they give you the option of using the cardboard boxes all the products are shipped in - they're just going to be thrown out anyway.

Ben
Ben

I just started using reusable tote bags for my groceries and other shopping trips. You can get some great reusable bags at http://www.Rejavanate.com . Not only do they eliminate the waste caused by plastic and paper bags but they are made from recycled burlap coffee bags, keeping tons of burlap waste out of our landfills AND the manufacturing process provides employment for individuals with developmental disabilities !!!! It’s a Win, Win, Win !!!

Nancy
Nancy

I have been using the tote bags that many charities send you when you give a donation...I've had some of them for years and years; they're extremely sturdy and advertise various good causes instead of "I'm not a plastic bag". No extra purchase.

Shannon
Shannon

Good points, about reusing plastic bags. I reuse produce bags when I have to use them, for example. However, I've taken to hating everything about regular plastic bags, especially the fact that you can't pack much in them or they break, and the fact that you can only carry them by hand. Most reusable bags can go on your shoulder. Given the choice I'd go shoulder bag any time - far easier to carry.

terrible person
terrible person

Hey, someone's profiting from styrofoam bans! This is from the San Francisco Business Times, August 3-8, 2007.Styrofoam bans fuels East Bay firmSan Francisco Business Times - August 3, 2007 by Elizabeth Browne first year Doug Wright began manufacturing biodegradable food containers in China, in 2004, his company, Bridge-Gate Alliance , brought in just $200,000. Since then, Wright's company has seen a surge in business, caused in part by local bans on the use of polystyrene containers by restaurants. The Pleasanton company has seen revenue jump to $2 million last year and a projected $8 million this year on sales of its sugarcane-based containers. "We're at the right place at the right time," Wright said. The city of Oakland enacted a ban against polystyrene -- best known by the brand name Styrofoam -- on Jan. 1. and San Francisco followed on June 1. Berkeley outlawed it in 1990. Polystyrene foam has several environmental strikes against it: It is made from oil, a non-renewable source, is not biodegradable, and some medical evidence suggests that chemicals in it cause cancer. Both Oakland and San Francisco have been lenient on food vendors since their bans went into effect, focusing their efforts on teaching businesses about alternative, biodegradable containers. In early July, six months after the Styrofoam ban, Oakland sent out its first warning letters," said Susan Katchee, the city's environmental services coordinator. Violators of both cities' bans first receive a warning, then are subject to increasing fines up to $500. "We've found that restaurants are working through old supplies, or that they have tried a new product that they didn't like and that they switched back, rather than looking for an alternative," Katchee said. Katchee said that the arrival of more environmentally friendly alternatives in retail stores has helped. Wright's business is benefiting from that, as well. About three months ago, Bridge-Gate Alliance's containers began appearing in 10 Bay Area Costco stores. "Sales are starting to rachet up," Wright said. "The big windfall is not until every municipality signs up for this thing." ebrowne@bizjournals.com / (415) 288-4949

terrible person
terrible person

Hey, speaking of recycling, they're bringing back Rent in London! Brand new cast!

terrible person
terrible person

I'm going to be ill. I just read about a couple in Arkansas that just had their 17th child. That's 15 more than they need by any stretch of the imagination. If they have so much love to share, just think of all the kids they could have adopted. Congress should change the law on dependent tax deductions. You only get them for the first two natural children. After that, you're on your own. (You can still get the deduction for adopted children.)Like that would ever happen.

Mark
Mark

Hi Beth,I now carry two plastice bags from the supermarket in my purse- cuz ya never know when you're gonna stop by the market on the way home. I may look like a bag lady- but I get a 5cent bag refund every time i shop.

terrible person
terrible person

Here is something we could do with all the extra plastic bags: build a blimp with them! They'd be a perfect, lightweight way to hold helium. Or hot air. Well, I guess they don't do so well with heat. And maybe they'd rip too easily for helium. Still, blimps are wicked cool, and any way we could have more of them, I endorse!

Anonymous
Anonymous

I just use canvas bags bought from trader joes and rasputin. and i try to leave them in my car at all times. and if the boyfriend and i are at the store without the bags...he just asks for no bag and carries everything himself. my bags are old, stained and kinda gross but who cares. plus i can carry my stuff around the store IN them instead of dealing with a monsterous cart. and we get a 5 cent discount for each bag we have (although...why dont we ever get the discount when we ask for no bag and just carry everything? we're still not wasting another bag!)-MARIKA

Roger, Gone Green
Roger, Gone Green

Pasadena (where I am) has all-number curbside plastic recycling, and what few bags we get become something else. . . and we do use SOME as "other stuff" bags. . . but most plastic bags these days are so flimsy they often don't make it from the bike trailer to the house without shredding, or are used to hold one, or at most two(!) items. So I have collected a dozen canvas bags over the years, some bought, some free (mostly from book publishers who LOVE to give teacher's free canvas bags -- it's weird). . .

Louda
Louda

If I had any plastic bags at home, I'd make one just like you did. Awesome.Fortunately, my old canvas tote and I do just fine. I didn't pay $300 for it, but it's quite the fashion accessory regardless. In San Francisco, it's very "hipster".

heather t
heather t

PS to terrible person - I forgot about that song. it's a lot less dark than "Dead" from TMBG's Flood!And, beth, I'm wondering how much your custom "reusable" bags would sell for on eBay!

heather t
heather t

THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU! I was fretting about how i would get word out about the new Make-A-Bag-Along blog, and here you are.

gartenfische
gartenfische

I am fortunate that the strong canvas bags I use when shopping came free. Every once in a while, one of the local natural food stores will offer a free bag if you spend a certain amount. These are bags that will last for a long, long time. (Some of them already have!) I agree, buy less crap.

terrible person
terrible person

Did you know that the band They Might Be Giants have a song called "I Am a Grocery Bag"? It's on "no!", their first album for "children" (pretty much indistinguishable from their albums for "adults", though.) The lyrics go:"Juices, muffins, pasta, and cheeseMilk and biscuits and cocktail sauceI am a grocery bagSalsa and pickles and organic grainI am a grocery bagFresh coffee and bagels, pudding and soapBaby formula and hamI am a grocery bag". You can listen to the song here. OK, so it doesn't mention if the bad is paper or plastic. But knowing TMBG, I'm sure it's recyclable.

Beth in the Fake Plastic Fish Tank
Beth in the Fake Plastic Fish Tank

Thanks, anonymous. You are so right. I forgot to mention used bags. In fact, I just added a paragraph to my original post. I'm glad you reminded me.

Holly
Holly

I agree. A bag is a bag. Did you read some of those "I am not a plastic bag" bags were selling on eBay for more than $300?!

Anonymous
Anonymous

You are so right, avoiding plastic bags should not be an excuse to shop. Who needs a new one, there are so many bags out there already! When I helped my sister clean her apartment, she was getting rid of a box of free totes from conferences and vendors from her job. Doesn't everyone have something like this? If not, try Goodwill, where my sister brought hers, or try Freecycle.

Pfeng
Pfeng

These are all very good thoughts. I've got a set of hemp string bags from reusablebags.com, one of the least of the evils apparently; I would have loved to have instructions on making my own, though. I will definitely be trying that whenever I need more bags!!!

Beth Terry
Beth Terry

Yes. I love Chico Bags. They are extremely convenient and save many, many disposable bags. Plus the company is very active in the anti-plastic bag movement. I wrote this post a long time ago, and its tone is probably more judgmental that if I had written it now. However, I do think it's important to ask ourselves if we really need new "green" things and to reuse what we already have first.

lynn
lynn

@Audrey Great idea!