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More and more cities are passing legislation or taxes against disposable shopping bags, particularly because it is increasingly common for U.S. seashores and riverbanks to look like the one above—especially after a storm.
Laws against throw-away shopping bags make good sense if you consider that in the U.S., we go through 100 billion plastic shopping bags every year, costing retailers about $4 billion dollars.
Although people think plastic bags are “free,” not only do stores hide their cost in higher prices at the register, but plastic bags actually cost taxpayers .17 cents per bag in pollution clean-up costs too. In the state of California alone, public agencies spend more than $25 million annually to manage plastic bag pollution.
That’s a lot of money that could be much better spent.
Choking on Petroleum
Plastic bags are the second most prevalent form of litter after cigarette butts, and over 4 billion bags get caught by the wind and end up clogging storm drains and littering our forests, rivers, lakes, beaches and oceans every year. The United Nations Environment Programme estimates that there are now 46,000 pieces of plastic litter floating in every square mile of ocean!
Plastic bags are known to kill over a million birds and hundreds of thousands of sea turtles, whales, seals, and other marine mammals every year.
Plastic bags are often mistakenly ingested by animals, clogging their intestines, which results in a very painful death by starvation. Other animals or birds become entangled in plastic bags and drown or can’t fly as a result.
Plastic bags are made of petroleum-based polyethylene and require 12 million barrels of oil to produce each year—a nonrenewable resource that creates more greenhouse gases and increases our dependency on foreign oil.
That’s over $500,000,000 in oil that our country could be saving to put towards clean, green energy and jobs.
Instead we are literally throwing the oil away.
Less than 1% of plastic shopping bags are recycled, and they take a thousand years to decompose in a landfill. As polyethylene breaks down, toxic substances leach into the soil and enter the food chain.
And the 4 billion bags that escape into the wind every year? Most end up as litter in the ever-growing Great Pacific Garbage Patch, an oceanic landfill the size of Texas, where they remain toxic indefinitely.
Anything we can do to phase out disposable shopping bags quickly would be good thing.
- 20 Ways to Give Up Plastic (And the Toxins in It)
- Can Shopping Change the World?
- 37 Ways to Reduce Trash in Your Home
Paper is NOT Better Than Plastic
In many ways, paper bags are even worse than plastic bags. Each year, Americans use about 10 billion paper bags, which results in the cutting down of 14 million trees. Four times the amount of energy is used to manufacture paper vs. plastic bags, and 98 percent more energy is used to recycle paper vs. plastic bags.
Paper sacks generate 70 percent more air pollution and 50 times more water pollution than plastic bags. Paper bag production also adds to climate change in two ways: Forests (major absorbers of greenhouse gases) have to be cut down, and then the subsequent manufacturing of bags produces greenhouse gases.
Brown paper bags are recyclable, but only 10 to 15 percent are being returned to recycling plants. In addition, the manufacturing of new brown paper bags utilizes very little recyclable material and requires the usage of extremely toxic chemicals to produce. (Ever smell a paper mill? Aaack!)
And paper bags don’t decompose any faster than plastic bags, once they end up in a landfill. Paper bags may be biodegradable in your compost pile, but once you’ve thrown them away, you’ve ensured they will never will. Very little in a landfill ever decomposes because there is no air. Even food waste can take decades to break down.
However, plastic bags are not the more sustainable solution as they use more fossil fuels and raw materials energy, and consume larger amounts of crude oil and natural gas than paper bags.
How to Remember Your Reusable Bags
Reducing your footprint and becoming more self-reliant is a lifestyle change. And like quitting smoking, eating better or any other lifestyle improvement, if you don’t put a system in place to make living sustainably easy—if not effortless—it will be almost impossible to integrate new, positive changes into your life permanently.
To sustain any new endeavor, you’ve got to set yourself up for success!
So, after thinking long and hard about how I could make remembering my reusable bags effortless, I came to the conclusion that it is the mismatched sizes and unwieldy shapes of most cloth bags that get reused for shopping that make them extremely inconvenient to use. And incredibly forgettable on the back of a doorknob or under the seat of a car. And significantly less convenient than just getting a paper bag at the store.
Such a system is designed to fail, especially on those unplanned shopping trips. Who likes having to schlep around a big cloth bag full of cloth bags? And are you really re-purposing that old charity totebag if you never actually remember to carry it into the store?
These days, I NEVER forget my shopping bags, whether I’m making a spontaneous stop at a convenience store or a big haul at the farmer’s market. And here’s why:
They fit in my pocket.
I believe that if you can’t make a new habit easy—that is, if you can’t find a way to make new choices become natural in your day to day routine—then most people simply won’t succeed. Other things will take priority, despite the best of intentions.
It’s human nature to take the path of greatest familiarity or least resistance; it’s not “lack of discipline” or “poor memory.” There are plenty of things people are very disciplined about and always remember. It’s just that reusable bags seem so, well, unimportant by comparison, that they seldom cross your mind until it is too late.
So the best solution for me was to use those old tote bags to store potatoes, or pack clothes for donation, and instead buy a set of ultra-compact reusable bags that specifically fit into a pocket or on a keychain.
My old tote bags still get reused (better, I think), and I always have at least one reusable bag everywhere I go. Win-Win!
I just love my ultra-compact reusable bags. I have used the same five Envirosax bags for over 15 years now, and they have been worth every penny. Tough, lightweight, washable polyester, these really pretty bags are one of the few ultra-compact shopping bags that fit over your shoulder, so your hands are free to use your keys, guide your toddler, etc.
Envirosax bags amazingly hold the equivalent of 2 supermarket plastic bags, yet they fold down small enough to stow into a pocket or handbag. They fold down so small, in fact, that I carry at least one in every purse I use so I always have one right next to my wallet anywhere I shop—from the drug store to the fabric store to the plant nursery.
(You do remember to bring your bags to these places, too, right?)
Plastic Free Shopping
After setting up a successful system to remember your reusable bag, doesn’t it seem a little silly to then fill them up with lots of disposable plastic vegetable and bulk bags? To cut the throw-away plastic out of grocery shopping entirely, I also use reusable produce bags and bulk item sacks.
The produce/bulk bags I use also fold up very small, and weigh almost nothing. I keep them folded up inside my Envirosax 5-pack pouch, and the whole shopping bag kit fits into a space no larger than 5″x7″x2″ in my purse—so I have no excuses for not using them!
No more plastic disposable bags, no more forgettable random tote bags, no more guilt—and a lot more class and style.
Ultra-compact, reusable bags can make shopping a little more fun and lot more eco-friendly. What more could you want?
- Dangers of Plastic Bags
- 10 Facts About Single-use Plastic Bags
- 60,000 Plastic Bags are Being Used This Second
- Which is more environmentally friendly: paper or plastic?
- UN Environmental Program Marine Litter Report
- How much does it cost to clean up plastic bags?
- Life Cycle Assessment for Three Types of Grocery Bags – Recyclable Plastic; Compostable, Biodegradable Plastic; and Recycled, Recyclable Paper (2007)
- Time Magazine – Here’s How Many Trees Humans Cut Down Each Year
- An Exploratory Comparative Life Cycle Assessment Study of Grocery Bags – Plastic, Paper, Non-woven and Woven Shopping bags (2010)
- Socio-economic impact assessment of the proposed plastic bag regulations (South Africa)
- Life Cycle Analysis on Plastic Bags
- National Cooperative Grocers Association – Paper or Plastic? NCGA Suggests Neither (2008)