Reusable: The Bags That Save the Planet (and Save You Money)
By Martha Michael
“I just want to say one word to you. Just one word: Plastics.”
The line about the future of plastics delivered by Walter Brooke to Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate was right on the money in 1967. The use of polymer substances would go on to mold the marketplace in product manufacturing and impact commercial industries of all kinds. The durability of plastic products made them effective and desirable, but the increase in demand has created a threat to the health of the environment.
Unfortunately, plastic products made for temporary use have become a permanent problem with worldwide consequences. The waste created by excessive dependence on plastic products has become unmanageable, so lifestyle changes and new regulations are in order if we’re going to reduce the environmental impact of plastic.
There’s got to be a way to bag this problem, right?
Plastic Buildup Over Time
You used to get a paper bag when you shopped at the grocery store until the advent of plastic, which seemed like an environmentally-friendly option because it saved trees. In fact, the use of plastic didn’t seem problematic until the 1970s, according to a United Nations report on the impact of plastic waste. From the 1970s to the 1990s the amount of plastic waste tripled, and currently there are approximately 400 million tons of plastic waste generated every year. One million plastic bottles are purchased every 60 seconds. More than one-third of plastics are produced for packaging, mostly single-use food and beverage containers, and 85 percent of it ends up in landfills. No wonder Earth Day is a big deal.
Tote Bags and Grocery Sacks
Campaigns for the reduction or elimination of single-use plastic bags have circulated and gained speed. The good news is restrictions that some states have in place are reducing the manufacture of new plastic bags, but now people are stocking up on more totes than they can use.
Until a renewable resource can carry your groceries, there’s no perfect solution, but the best thing you can do is reuse every bag you already own as many times as possible, says an article on the CNN website. Whatever material they’re made of, it’s best if everyone uses them until they fall apart.
Some countries have attempted to replace the thin, single-use plastic bags by producing thicker, more durable plastic bags meant for long-term use. The problem is that people aren’t reusing them as planned, so now they’re growing in number. A report by Greenpeace says that supermarkets in the UK sold 1.58 billion durable plastic bags in 2019, which is enough for 57 bags per household.
"If companies are just giving us thicker plastic bags, I would say then the policy is an overall failure," says Judith Enck, a former Environmental Protection Agency regional administrator and now president of the nonprofit Beyond Plastics.
Factors that go into assessing the environmental impact of a particular type of bag include:
- How they are processed
- Method of disposal
The two main issues to look at are how many times the bags are used and how cities dispose of them. A thick polypropylene bag needs to be used 10-20 times and a thinner polyethylene bag needs 5-10 uses to make them a better choice than the thinnest, single-use plastic bags.
How Sustainable Is Your Reusable Grocery Bag?
Residents of cities where plastic bags are unavailable or have surcharges have done their part by picking up the sensible straps of reusable tote bags, including double-stitched, heavy duty canvas ones. A heavy hitter among the environmentally conscious who wanted an alternative to the less responsible use of plastic bags, cotton totes have become ubiquitous. It’s easy to assume that cotton bags solve the problem of plastic usage, but there are other factors to consider when looking at environmental impact.
Cotton crops demand a lot of water; because farmers use pesticides and fertilizers to fend off insects, nitrates get into the groundwater. This leads to a toxic chain of events when nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas, is created. The bottom line is that a cotton bag needs 50-150 uses to make up for its carbon footprint.
A Danish governmental agency studied the impact of cotton bags using a large number of indicators and found that a cotton tote needs 7,100 uses to compare with a single-use plastic bag. That was the conclusion when taking into consideration:
- Ozone depletion
- Climate change
- Water use
- Land use
- Air pollution
One of the biggest problems with plastic shopping bags is their contribution to litter, but they have less environmental impact than many other factors involved in the climate crisis. However, they’re a fossil fuel product and their lack of disposability makes them unsustainable, so ceasing production and finding more uses for the ones you have is the best way forward.
Uses for a Reusable Bag
Beyond carrying groceries, reusable totes can be trusted for other chores. An article in Taste of Home offers some ideas to maximize the use of cotton bags which many people have acquired in suffocating quantities.
Beach tote - See if you can fit a beach towel and your folding umbrella into one of your oversized bags. If it’s an insulated bag, you’ve got your picnic ready too.
Trick-or-treat - Going door-to-door for candy is still possible without the jack-o-lantern bowls of yesteryear. When you have bags of every shape and size in your cupboard, decorate them for Halloween and use them.
Car trash - You probably already have bags in the car for grocery runs. You can designate one as a trash receptacle and keep your car clutter-free.
Diaper bag - You can save a discussion about eco-friendly diapers for another day, but still communicate the benefits of sustainability by stocking a reusable tote instead of investing in a designer bag.
Gym bag - Working out shouldn’t break the bank. If you have a reusable shopping bag that fits everything you need to suit up and sweat it out, you can feel good about your healthy choices and sustainability.
Alternative Uses for Plastic Products
Like a lot of lifestyle choices from the clothing we buy to the food we eat, we don’t entertain the idea that we can or should change our habits until we’re confronted with good reasons to do so. When we’re simply warned about global problems without options to do our part, paralysis can set in.
Every individual can play a part to reduce the negative impact of plastic pollution. An article on LAL Today, a Lakeland, Fla. news website, offers suggestions for lowering your environmental footprint with alternatives to single-use plastic products.
Plastic bags - While Americans still throw away 100 billion plastic bags per year, it’s one of the products people are conscious of overusing. It’s easily solved by choosing reusable grocery bags and containers, but statistics show we are still using 307 bags per year per person. Those end up in a landfill or waterway.
Plastic straws - There are an estimated 8.3 billion plastic straws clogging beaches across the globe. Similar to shopping bags, if you prefer to drink from straws, you can carry a reusable, eco-friendly style with you at all times. They come in metal, bamboo, and silicone, or you can use paper straws that break down faster than plastic ones.
Plastic bottles - Americans use 13 plastic water bottles per month, and with the prevalence of trendy, stylish, and customized reusable bottles available, it’s easy to bring that number down to zero. That means each individual can reduce the number of plastic bottles going into the environment by 156 per year.
Plastic wrap - If you grew up with sandwich baggies and Saran Wrap, you may not picture your kitchen without filmy plastic to keep food fresh. However, it’s also a form of plastic waste because it’s not easy to recycle and when it finds its way into waterways it’s harmful to fish. Storage sacks made of fabric and coated in beeswax are manufactured as a substitute for plastic. They work like their precursors and they’re reusable.
The greatest minds across the globe are trying to come up with solutions to the crisis of plastic production, from single-use bags that clog drains to ocean wildlife choking on straws. Everyone can get on board, from recycling plastic bags to choosing sustainable fashion through resale shopping.
When Walter Brooke’s character announced, “There’s a great future in plastics,” it was prophetic and entirely accurate. However, seeing the sustainability crisis that followed decades of single-use plastics overproduction, his follow-up question to Dustin Hoffman takes on a new meaning. Though it was written to promote the success of a world dominated by plastic production, in modern times it could actually inspire a challenge to the status quo when he says, “Think about it. Will you think about it?”
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