How many reusable bags to you have in your car or home? Do you use them when you shop? Who would have thought that reusable bags, thought to be the solution to plastic bag pollution, would become a problem?
Reusable bags were meant to supplant flimsy plastic grocery bags – the one-use, petroleum-based bags that critics say last for centuries and all too often wind up as litter or in the guts of sea life.
It’s not clear the reusables have done that in any significant way. Indirect measures suggest that plastic bag production has remained relatively steady.
What is clear is that reusables have taken off as a cultural phenomenon, social statement, and even art form.
“People are accumulating too many of these, so we’re back to the original problem,” said Vince Cobb, a Chicago businessman who reinvented himself as a reusable-bag expert and salesman at www.reuseit.com.
Not every reusable bag is environmentally equal. A nonwoven polypropylene bag, for example, would have to be used just 11 times to make up for the negative effects of a plastic bag used one time, according to a British Environment Agency study that compared bags. A cotton bag, however, would have to be used 131 times.
Perhaps it was inevitable that a culture hooked on shopping would find itself obsessed with bags. But there is a problem.
A grocery bagger in Texas quipped:
“Reusable bags are the pits. They are hard to bag; they take longer to bag leading to longer lines and longer times at the checkout. People hand or throw them at the bagger. They’re all wadded up inside one bag. They come in so many sizes it’s difficult to use them. I’ve found them with dead bugs, live ants, used condoms, trash and even lost credit cards in them. If people only had respect for those of us who have to put up with their nastiness, it would help.”
And this was the comment from a checkout clerk:
“As a cashier (of a large national grocery chain) I have a quota for how many items I scan per hour. The people who bring in their own bags drive my coworkers and I crazy! It’s time consuming … people never bring as many reusable bags as they need, and when you tell them you’re going to have to use plastic bags for the remaining groceries they freak out like you just killed a baby polar bear and they want you to remove the items and stack them back inside the reusable bag like a game of Tetris to “make it work.”
I have to admit that I did not realize the problems that reusable bag cause these hard working grocery professionals. Robin Shreeves the Stay-at-home mom blogger about finding eco-friendly food options came up with these Ten Commandments of Reusable Bag Use to help our friends at the grocery.
- Empty bags completely after use.
- Wash all bags regularly, after every use if necessary.
- Use bags that are easy for the cashier to fill.
- Place your reusable bags at the front of your grocery order on the conveyer belt so the cashier knows you have them and want them to be used. Don’t freak when the cashier starts putting your groceries in plastic bags if you haven’t let her know you have reusable’s.
- Separate all bags so the cashier can easily grab each one as needed.
- Open bags that fold up into themselves while you are waiting in line. Don’t make the cashier wait for you to open them or worse, make the cashier open them.
- Let the cashier know how you want your order handled if you don’t have enough reusable bags. Realize it’s your fault for not bringing enough and politely say something like “I’d like the remaining groceries to be put in paper bags, please.”
- Remember when you bring reusable bags that many cashiers see you as a representative of all environmentalists. Being on your “high horse” can turn people off wanting to do good.
- Show respect to your cashier by saying please and thank-you, helping to bag, smiling, and staying off your cell phone while she is waiting on you.
- Never put a used condom in your reusable bag.
More companies are giving bags away as promotional items, if you already have enough, be polite and say No Thank You.
It would help if you explain why cotton bags have to be reused so many more times. In any case I have a set of cotton bags bought over 20 years ago and they’re still going strong. I daresay they’ve paid for themselves many times over.
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Hooray for this great post! I have been wondering if, in our attempt to switch to an alternative to disposable plastic bags, we aren’t using more energy to produce these reusable bags than producing the disposable ones. I have to beg stores not to give me one now because I have so many in the back of my car. I’d love to do a calcuation of the amount of energy used to produce one reusable bag versus the number of plastic disposable bags that same amount of energy would produce. In other words, how many times do you have to use a reusable bag before you “break even” with disposable bags. Is it 10 times? 20? who knows?
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I like the assessment of reusable bag impact and the trade off with cotton versus recycled plastic and the generally no optimal solution. That said, the issue of how folks treat grocery store employees is somewhat different problem. I suspect that the behavior was present with one-time use bags, just focused on other perceived shortcomings of the grocery shopping experience. And really, why don’t folks just bag their own groceries? That way they can keep track of those used condoms…
Personally I cannot believe any statistics that claim that plastic bags, made from petrochemicals, toxic to extract, toxic in manufacture, and toxic/offgassing in indoor air, and which never degrade, which end up all over the environment despite attempts to keep them from doing so because they are so easily airborne and misplaced, that are very often not recycled, because to recycle them one must bring them back to the grocery store, not merely put them in the bin at home, and that are only used as trashbags in very specific households (I do not have a dog, and do not use scooping cat littler, i could see using them for that, i use no liners in my small trashbins and empty all into my large bin with a full sized garbage bag in it) can ever, ever compare to paper bags, made from a natural, renewable material, yes clearcutting is bad but seen oil rigs and oil spills? come off it. clearcut land comes back a lot faster. and i recycle my paper bags 100% of the time, in fact they are an ideal liner to my paper recycling bin.
as for reusable bags from china, i question whether they are really not lasting eighty times, and even if they did last eighty times if they are made from recycled plastic as many are or from natural fibers then i still believe they would be better. i find that most people who claim that reusable bags are bad, or that plastic bags are great, tend to be either ‘devil’s advocates’ or confrontational types who simply love stirring the pot in general, or who have ties to industry that finds plastic bags cheaper and easier to use or who makes a profit off them.
i will keep right on using my collection of reusable bags, some which i bought at the grocery store and many of which are yes given out as swag, for the many years they do indeed last me, and if i collect too many (doubtful, as it’s handy to keep some int the car and some in the house and i use them for many other things than groceries) i will give the excess to friends who have not yet gotten into the reusable bag habit. and when i forget my reusables i will continue to hand carry or place in my purse everythign i can and for what i can’t say ‘paper only please, and fill as full as possible.’
given that many more people probably throw away, allow to escape (some) into the environment where it kills creatures and kills the beauty of the view for all who see it, or who keep ‘a billion’ (as a friend says) in their basement doing no good, and paper is much easier to recycle, i cannot believe any of the claims that are being made here. plastic sequesters carbron? huh? if we keep that oil in the ground and those chemicals from being made in order to be made into plastic, i think we will be much better off. as for the transit from china, well that is the way of the world now, these items are extremely lightweight and compact and i’m sure many zillions can be transported in a small amount of space, i cant see how that ever outweighs the hundreds and hundreds of wasted plastic bags and their associated impacts one reusable bag makes.
no consumption is 100% green but we tend to want to live in the present and not like the hunter gatherers or the amish, so we will consume something. i always believe that reusable is better than disposable, and easily and frequently recycled is better than rarely recycled. btw the recycling of plastic is a nasty polluting process as well, and many plastics are shipped overseas for sorting and recycling! carbon! and where they go the environmental laws are more lax so they pollute even more during the recycling process. see van jones on this issue on Utube.
i believe plastic is the number one worse item we use for packaging in any context and i avoid it as much as is possible.
as for keeping your bags clean, sure yes, but who would ever need to wash them after each use? this seems like a very odd and bad suggestion. my bags rarely need to be washed. i am polite to the cashier and bagger, and i don’t freak out at them, but i am clear that if i dont have enough reusables I would like paper, and not paper wrapped in plastic, and that i would like the reusables and paper filled very full. i help bag myself, and i treat people like humans. i dont leave anything gross in my reusable bags. now, that was like three sentences. isnt that much easier than ‘ten comandments’? that’s really all it takes.
nice blog and nice posting
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