Example: I'm at an oyster bar on a first date I met from online. The guy obviously knew I worked in sustainability from my profile, so one of his get-to-know-me questions was “when you go to a grocery store, paper or plastic?” Points for doing his research and like a Boy Scout always being prepared….but it falls into that awkward “green police” bucket (plus, is knowing my bag choice at a grocery store really getting to know me?) The guy rocketed through 20 similar questions, so everybody around us could tell it was one of "those” first dates. Even the oyster bar shucker behind the counter was laughing out loud (which is “bagging up” according to the kids these days/Urban Dictionary….see what I did there? FTW!) But I digress….
TELL ME THE ANSWER ALREADY
The simple answer is bring your own bags and reuse them (to take you from the land of simple, read further below).
1) Put a handful of reusable bags in the back of your car (or if you prefer ladies, in your purse, I love the bags that fold up into a pouch)
2) Remember to take it from your car when you go to the store/grocery
3) Maybe save money at checkout for bringing your own bag (I usually get $0.05 per bag…here’s a partial list of retailers thanks to the Krazy Coupon Lady)
4) Put back in your car after you unload stuffs at your house.
5) Rinse, repeat.
You should have some lying around. It’s a pretty standard brand giveaway these days (conferences, 5K charity races, promotions). I have about twenty. Worst case, you can buy them for cheap at any grocery store (seriously, look next time at checkout, they’re everywhere). Even if your city has not instituted a fee or plastic bag ban, it’s beneficial for the planet and in helping you carry more and more heavy stuff in fewer bags. In eco speak, that means you are reducing by reusing, it’s like a double hitter (FTW, again!). I’m kind of obsessed with my sturdy 6-pack reusable wine carrier…not just to cart vino but liquids of any type that pack a weighty punch (and used to tear up one-time bags). Here's a pic of just the ones I have at the office:
Ok, so I get why it’s a perennial-ish eco question…there have been so many eco studies and lifecycle assessments on grocery bags that there’s an entire website dedicated to aggregating them. Some say plastic uses less energy for how much it carries (aka “just use plastic, the end”), others say despite more energy, paper comes from a renewable resource where plastic is petroleum based (aka “pick the environmental issue you care about”), and reusables are more energy intensive to make than either (aka “the truth if you don’t discount for reuse”).
At the end of the day, if you dig deep enough, it leads to *the* core eco philosophical conundrum of “the only way to reduce your impact is to do nothing at all”. Stop thinking this way, it will make you go bananas. You with me? Good.
There’s a fantastic study from UK Environment on this topic that has all the bag types and reuse cases if you want to nerd out. Otherwise, hang your eco hat on the following:
- Did you have that bag already? Then you’re fine. It already exists, and you are putting it to good use. So every time you use it, that’s 1-3 fewer plastic or paper one-time use bags. That’s awesome and the right way to think about it. Period. Economists call this a “sunk cost”, and say rational decision makers should not account for the sunk cost in future decisions. The environmental impact already happened. But behaviorally we DO think about it and let it paralyze us….but now you know better, so check yourself before you wreck yourself. Just skip to the part where you reuse that bag already!
- If you buy a reusable bag, nowadays most are made from recycled plastic (LDPE usually), so opt for those. It means it only takes 10 reuses to “break even” for the environmental impact vs. a one-time plastic bag (even fewer reuses vs. paper) . That’s a few months. Start putting your shopping into reusable bags today and by the next season you’ll have broken even for the planet.
- Oh no! You forgot to bring in your reusable bags and have to get paper/plastic! Take a deep breath. The world will keep turning, it happens to all of us. Do the following:
1. Don’t buy reusables at the checkout unless you don’t have enough already at home
3. Commit to bringing your reusables next time. Why?
WHY DOES THIS MATTER?
Plastic bags run through stormwater drains into the our riverways and the ocean. Thanks to worldwide currents, after about a year, they end up piling up in a dead zone "vortex" or garbage patch, where 90 percent of the debris that accumulates is plastic. Huffington Post put together a fantastic infographic on "how" for Earth Day 2014 (channel your inner child and love pictures as much as I do...makes things so much easier to digest!)
There are a number of these garbage patches in our oceans. The Pacific Ocean Garbage Patch is halfway between Hawaii and California and the size of Texas. Everything IS bigger in the Lone Star state....don't forget it's 68% bigger than California!
Instead of picturing a Texas-sized amount of whole products floating around (e.g. entire plastic water bottles or a plastic bags), the problem is worse. With the salt water and the effects of the sun's rays, plastic breaks down into small bits...and at a certain size, birds and fish gobble it up mistaking it for food. So help keep our oceans and wildlife friends healthy!
Have you been a reusable bag-avond for a while? Did you make the switch? Did I help you think differently about it? Let me know in the comments!