Last week’s Change the World Wednesday challenge from Reduce Footprints really got me thinking about how many plastic bags I use without even noticing them. I hate getting them at the store but only at the checkout line; when I’m in the produce or bulk section I think about how much I need to get reusable bags, especially for the mushrooms, but week after week I use one or two new bags. I do save and reuse the old ones, but those thin produce bags tear if you look at them wrong so I usually only get one or two uses. I do better with the zip top sandwich bags that I put herbs in, and for the heavy bulk (rice, beans, tofu, etc) I bring some plastic storage containers.
Single use bags are just plain bad. Americans waste about 12 million barrels of oil annually in the production of plastic bags, and if you use paper, we harvest about 14 million trees each year. Aside from being a waste of a valuable, finite resource, plastic bags are here to stay. Like the bag scene in American Beauty, they float and fly and land in trees and in the water. Once in water they can resemble prey causing some obvious issues for the unlucky predator. Even if the bags don’t retain their original shape, once they get into the water they flock; the Northern Pacific Garbage Patch is bigger than Texas. To help protect their seascapes, several coastal North Carolina counties are thinking of joining the growing global ban (as reported on Morning Edition last week or so). A few of the local green grocers (Earth Fare, French Broad Food Coop, and with Greenlife leading the way) began to charge for plastic bags this year, and even if the stores didn’t want to charge, couldn’t they give a credit like Earth Fare used to that the shopper can donate to a charity (which both decreases single use bag usage and gets the company a tax deduction).
Paper at least breaks down when thrown away, and all of our textbook covers were repurposed grocery bags. However, paper still wastes plenty of resources. Some of those trees may be old growth stands while others could be from GMO tree plantations, but either way a whole bunch of trees go down. The GMO trees for paper production are being selected for less lignin which makes them easier to process. The issue is that lignin makes trees strong (literally it fills the spaces between the cells’ walls), and it also helps the tree conduct water efficiently (sounds like a recipe for more less efficient water usage and increased pesticides). On the carbon side, it also plays an important role in carbon sequestration. Even if you recycle your bags a great deal of energy is used to do so (in both transporting and processing).
My organic cotton bags have another one up on plastic and paper: they hold pounds more. Two bags can easily handle a week’s worth of groceries (I usually keep the delicates, like bread & fruit, in their own bag). On the downside, baggers at the Ingles are so used to flimsy plastic bags that might hold ten pounds, I bag my own groceries which saves Ingles on labor costs (I avoid the stupid robo-checkouts) as they will invariably use half the bag then resort to plastic.
This weekend I will make or buy some reusable bags for my bulk items so I cut the plastic bags out all together.