In the One Small Thing series, I am highlighting small changes you can make to your daily habits to reduce your waste and make the world a little greener, and your wallet a little thicker.
Check out all the habits already discussed:
Today we are going to talk about a personal favorite of mine: reusable bags.
If plastic straws and plastic bottles are the top 2 offenders found on beaches, the lightweight, ubiquitous bag probably rounds out the top three problem children. We have all been walking along, or driving down the road, only to see the tumbleweed of the twenty-first century, the plastic bag, float across our view.
These bags are small, lightweight, and tear easily. They can be pulled out the open window of a car on the highway, fall out of a shopping cart, or sneak under the lid of a trash can.
America is by far not the only nation with this problem. In fact, in a release from Earth Policy in 2014: “Before a ban on thin bags—which tear readily and get caught by the wind— went into effect in 2003, plastic bags were christened South Africa’s “national flower” because of their prevalence in bushes and trees.”
This problem has been ongoing and recognized for years, and many nations are trying to combat it with both taxes and bans. Many states and countries around the world have instituted taxes on merchants, consumers, or both, for using plastic.
Many more have outright banned single use plastic bags, instead imploring suppliers and citizens to use glass, cloth, paper, or cardboard instead. In America: “U.S. cities with bag bans include San Francisco (as of 2007), Portland (2011), Seattle (2012), Austin (2013), Los Angeles (2014), Dallas (to begin in 2015), and Chicago (2015).”
Some more facts from ConservingNow.com:
- A person uses a plastic carrier bag on average for only 12 minutes.
- On average we only recycle one plastic bag in every 200 we use.
- Each year, an estimated 500 billion to 1 trillion plastic bags are consumed worldwide. That comes out to over one million per minute. Billions end up as litter each year.
- Windblown plastic bags are so prevalent in Africa that a cottage industry has sprung up harvesting bags and using them to weave hats, and even bags. According to the BBC, one group alone harvests 30,000 per month.
- According to David Barnes, a marine scientist with the British Antarctic Survey, plastic bags have gone “from being rare in the late 80s and early 90s to being almost everywhere.” Plastic bags have been found floating north of the Arctic Circle near Spitzbergen, and as far south as the Falkland Islands. Source: British Antarctic Survey
- Plastic bags are among the 12 items of debris most often found in coastal cleanups, according to the nonprofit Center for Marine Conservation.
Sources: International Fund for Animal Welfare, the Environmental Protection Agency and other agencies or persons as cited.”
So you know it’s a problem.
You know bags take 500 years to degrade, and even then don’t fully break down, but become toxic micro-plastics.
If you have a bag tax or fee, you’re tired of paying it.
You have a bag full of bags under your sink, or in a closet.
You don’t want to add to your stock anymore.
You’re ready to do something about it.
Recycle or re-use old plastic bags
Since you already have a stash of plastic bags (you know you do), the first thing you can consider is recycling them. Many grocers are now putting up collection bins for old plastic bags right at the checkout or store entrance.
Those bags may be recycled into composite wood, which is a mixture of plastic and wood scraps. Or they may be melted down into a new batch of plastic bags. And a small portion may even end up in the space-age-sounding field of nanotechnology:
“Scientists at the University of Adelaide have developed a new way to recycle those plastic bags and create carbon nanotube membranes, which may potentially be used for energy storage and biomedical innovations. ” (source)
If you don’t have a store near you that offers plastic bag recycling, you can at least get creative and give them a second life.
Options include craft projects like turning bags into rugs or purses. You could also use them as liners for small trash cans, to hold dirty diapers, or pick up dog poo. But all these uses ultimately get them into the landfill anyways, now they also have gross stuff inside.
A better choice?
Don’t collect them in the first place!
How? Read on…
Reusable grocery bags – freebies/synthetic/plastic
I have at least 100 reusable bags at this point in my life.
This is not an exaggeration.
I fill the trunks of two cars, and there are even more sprinkled all around the house too.
And I think I paid for… 3 of them?
Tons of events now give away bags, because it is easy branding.
They plaster their logo on the side, and you carry it around town.
If that bothers you, maybe you’ll have to scroll down to the you-buy-it options that can be plain or patterened.
As for me, I don’t give a hoot what’s on the bag. Only what’s in it.
These bags do come with some risks.
Most shoppers do not separate their groceries into produce – dairy – canned – meats, etc. And a very tiny number of people actually wash their reusable bags, ever, let alone after every shopping trip.
Guilty as charged.
I don’t think I’ve ever washed my reusable bags.
I know I know, how can I even blog about these things? Because honesty is the best policy. And honestly, I’ve never yet gotten sick. I suppose there’s a first time for everything.
And I’d still rather take that chance than keep accumulating bags full of bags.
The biggest message here: reusable is awesome! But wash them often. And never put raw meat in them, this is one case where plastic wrapping is A-O.K.
Reusable bags – natural fibers like cotton, hemp, wool
The best option is to use an extremely sturdy bag made from organic, natural sources.
Emphasis on organic.
Crunchy granola gurus tout cotton bags, but neglect to mention the devastating impacts of pesticides, herbicides, and water usage demanded of conventionally grown cotton.
“The larger takeaway is that no bag is free of environmental impact, whether that’s contributing to climate change, ocean pollution, water scarcity, or pesticide use. The instinct to favor reusable bags springs from an understandable urge to reduce our chronic overconsumption, but the bags we use are not the big problem.” (source)
So look for organically grown cotton or hemp bags.
Or best yet?
Make your own!
Take your old clothing or linens that are destined for the landfill or Goodwill, a little bit of time and DIY sewing, and create yourself an arsenal of free, eco-friendly shopping bags.
Here’s a nice no-sew DIY for a t-shirt tote bag: https://www.mommypotamus.com/no-sew-t-shirt-tote-bag-tutorial/
And 7 more ways to do the same thing: https://thethingswellmake.com/recycled-t-shirt-bags-review-of-7-ways/
As with the reusable bags warning, remember to wash these often, preferably after each use with hot water.
Other uses for bags:
- Corral trash/recyclables/compostables to bring home
- Keep your car/office space organized
- Hold wildflowers you pick or a bouquet you buy
- Forage wild fruits, herbs, mushrooms, or nuts
- Use instead of giftwrap/tape/bows for the holidays