by Eileen Weber
A few weeks ago, I wrote an article about reusable bags. Whether it’s at your supermarket chain or an organic market, a growing number of shoppers are toting around these spiffy little bags.
Allie, a reader who commented on the article and has her own “green” web site, had this to say: “I remember about a year or two ago when every grocery store caught up with Stop & Shop and started crowding their front aisles with reusable, polyethylene bags. I was driving home from work on Route 8 and saw one of the tell-tale green bags on the side of the road. I thought, ‘Well, it was only a matter of time before they started clogging the storm drains like their plastic predecessors.’”
She continued by posing a few queries: What is the environmental impact of producing all these new bags? And how safe is polyethylene, for us and the environment? What about the communities where these are being produced?
Excellent questions. What is the impact of disposed reusable bags? And, are they as great as we think they are?
According to Vincent Cobb, founder of ReusableBags.com in a San Francisco Chronicle article dated December 21, 2007, it’s just part of the business to send your product off to Asia to be manufactured. “All you have to do is create a basic design, send it over to China, spend $10,000 to $20,000, and you’ve got 5,000 to 10,000 bags.”
While the bags are designed to have more than one use, they are not compostable. Most bags are made from synthetic fibers, primarily polypropylene or polyethylene. Polypropylene, in particular, is a material made from recycled plastic bottles. It’s great that we have a use for the plastic bottles. But the point is, plastic is plastic. It doesn’t break down. In fact, it is estimated that it takes approximately 500 years for plastic to break down in a landfill. And more to the point, the materials used to make plastic are by-products of oil refining—not exactly eco-friendly.
The question of how green these bags are was also posed by Australia’s Sydney Morning Herald on April 25, 2005. In that article, one reader said after 30 years in the packing industry, “I’m amazed at the constant rave about the ‘environmental’ green bags…Doesn’t anyone realize these bags are made of the same almost indestructible materials used in car bumpers?”
So what do you do if your bag is ripped and no longer usable? Can you bring it back to the supermarket you bought it at? Not at Stop & Shop. A quick call to their customer service department revealed that while they have a bin at the front of their stores for single-use plastic bags to be recycled, they don’t have a recycle program for the “green” bags they promote. Bottom line, we can’t recycle our recycled bags.
The up-side is that the bags are what they say they are: Reusable. “Every green bag equals 1.2 single-use plastic bags,” said Ian Kiernan, chairman of the Clean Up Australia campaign, to the Sydney Morning Herald. “That’s an estimated 8.3 plastic bags saved every week, or 431 a year.”
Perhaps we need to look at the glass as half full instead of half empty. Any plastic reused is saving our environment. Unfortunately, it will have to be just one bag at a time.
Photo courtesy of Sydney Morning Herald.