25 - 2007

Dealbusters: Do just one thing: Bring your own bag — or don’t take one

A common topic of discussion in the eco-blogosphere is eliminating plastic, especially plastic bags. In fact, San Francisco has outlawed the use of traditional plastic shopping bags by large grocery and pharmacy chains.

One argument against the ban, as reported in the article at the link above, was lodged by the chair of the grocers association:

“We’re disappointed that the Board of Supervisors is going down this path,” said Kristin Power, the association’s vice president for government relations. “It will frustrate recycling efforts and will increase both consumer and retailer costs. There’s also a real concern about the availability and quality of compostable bags.”

The assumption here is that people NEED plastic bags.

You don’t need them. And it’s not that hard to do without. So far in June, doing all my regular shopping, I’ve avoided taking 47 plastic bags.

47 is a lot, and the month’s not over. According to the stats at that same article, 47 bags requires one-fifth of a gallon of oil for production.

Most of those bags were not used at the grocery store, where my figure is based on their recommended stuffage of five items per bag. In addition to not wasting plastic, avoiding the bags paid me back at most grocery stores at 5 cents per bag — a savings of a few dollars, although some stores are eliminating that practice. (Hopefully they’re eliminating it because too many people are bringing bags!) IKEA not only doesn’t pay customers to bring their own bags — it charges them to use a plastic bag.

So what do you do? If you do only one thing, I suggest this: When you are purchasing a single item, please refuse a bag. Put the item in your purse, your backpack or just carry it in your hand and set it on the seat of your car. See? It’s easy.

If you want to go further, here’s how I recommend switching from plastic:

The cost breakdown:

First, get yourself some nice bags — with estimated cost.

  1. Think about what you need: I walk to the grocery store, so I like sturdy bags with long straps so I can fit them over my shoulder, making them easier to carry home. I need about six bags to be on the safe side (I shop weekly for our family of three).
  2. In Colorado, Vitamin Cottage is selling “Just 1 Bag” bags for $0.99, and periodically they give bags away free with purchase. Their new bags are attractive, dark blue bags shaped like a paper grocery sack, with a sturdy handle. In other areas people can buy bags at shops like IKEA or Trader Joe’s. Three store-brand bags = $4 (with tax)
  3. Convert canvas, fabric, mesh or plastic totes that are sitting around your house to grocery bags. Where did you leave the tote bag you got at that trade show … Two reclaimed bags = Free
  4. Buy new ones: A vast assortment is available at badlani.com or ReusableBags.com. One or two bags bought because they’re so darn pretty = $20
  5. If you’re handy, make your own – choose the pattern you prefer at Squidoo.

Total per bag = $3.42
Uses to make up the cost at a $0.05 bag credit per use = 68

The how-to’s:

Keep your own bags handy. Here’s what I do:

  1. I carry a large purse. Trendy and useful for toting items out to the car or home.
  2. I have my grocery shopping bags stashed on the shelf of a storage tower in my kitchen. When I grab my coupon book, I grab the bags.
  3. I have a large insulated zipper bag (bought at Costco) that stays in the cargo space of my car. It’s easy to haul into Costco with me and fill at the register.
  4. I also have an emergency mesh bag in the cargo area of the car to corral larger items or several items from running a few errands on one outing.
  5. We invested in a three-pack of ChicoBags this year. One stays in my purse, one in Mr. Cheap’s bag, and one in the glove box of our car. They fold into a tidy little pouch and then expand into a sturdy nylon bag. They are cute, made in a fair labor/fair wage facility, and you can send them back to the company when they’re kaput and they’ll be “repurposed.” Buy them at the ChicoBag Web site at 5 for $20 and have your pick of colors.

Use them.

  1. Put the bags on top of your groceries or in front of your groceries at the store so you don’t forget to hand them over and then feel guilty for making the checkers re-pack all your stuff … or worse, leave with your own bags AND plastic bags.
  2. At grocery and especially at non-grocery stores, speak up! Watch the checker/bagger and say in a loud, clear voice, “I don’t need a bag today.” For 50% of checkers who are on autopilot, you might need to repeat yourself: “No bag for me today, thanks!”
  3. Remember, you are not required to take a bag. Carry your receipt and the store can confirm if you paid for what you carry.

I’ve used my ChicoBag this month at Lowe’s, the local hardware store, Target, Macy’s, Vitamin Cottage and Goodwill. Clerks have acted confused at Target and a little bit angry at Saver’s — but overall, they get it. My Goodwill checker was thrilled and told me that she’s replaced all her light bulbs with compact fluorescent bulbs. You go, sister!

My next project might be to make some produce bags. I have a deep envy for this person’s pirate lace.

The priceless factors:

  1. No storage issues with plastic bags bursting out of shopping bags bursting out of your basement.
  2. No guilt over those images of misshapen turtles and whales dead from ingesting plastic or toxins from disintegrating plastic.
  3. No trips to recycle them (if you have the option).
  4. No more bags fluttering in the trees, bringing down your property values (a cruel blow for the homeowners among us!).
  5. No grocery sacks ripping and dumping stuff everywhere.
  6. No more of what my grandma might call “nerds” — the staticky plastic cutouts from plastic bags, sticking to your food or your foot or the kitchen floor.

The verdict:

In other words, it’s not only virtuous to move away from plastic bags — your life will be better for it.

And even fiscally, if you go to the grocery store weekly, your bags will pay for themselves in less than 16 months — and that’s assuming you take the not-so-cheap path to getting started.

Grade: A+

How do you do it? Other advice?

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