February 18, 2008

Filled with groceries

Long ago, when the local grocery store switched from the brown paper bags of my childhood to the flimsy and disturbingly non-biodegradable plastic bags, I decided that I would bring my own canvas bags to the store. I would set an example for the community, for my kids, for the universe! My friend Soil Scientist had successfully switched over to canvas bags years before that. She had a handful of canvas bags, each with her name written in marker, that she used when she bought groceries. Whenever she came to a potluck, she'd stop at the store and bring food in a canvas bag. I thought I could do the same. I'd be Super Eco-Mom.

It didn't work that way. I buy a whole lot of groceries, way more than my single friend ever did. I'd buy expensive canvas bags and then use them for other things — a canvas bag is so handy — and then I wouldn't have enough. They were never sitting nicely on the front seat of my car when I'd stop at the store. And they were all different sizes, which made them annoyingly impractical. I loved the concept of re-using bags, but I could never manage the practice successfully. In the end, I would get the plastic bags and just feel guilty about it. Too often that is the way awareness works with me: it adds to my guilt but has little impact on my life.

But then last year, the local grocery store began selling black re-usable bags, just the same size as the old brown paper bags, except sturdier and with handles. They were reasonably priced, just $.99. The first time I saw them, I bought a dozen. Of course, my family couldn't resist using the bags for other things, like carrying stuff to the beach, so the black bags disappeared from my car, but then the next time I went to the store, I just bought more. And whenever I forgot to carry the bags into the store, I would buy more of them. I can't imagine how many black bags I've bought in the last year, but it's probably like 60 or 70. For a while, it seemed like I would just keep buying more black bags every week for the rest of my life, which would defeat that whole smug saving-the-planet idea I had going. And while it's cheap to buy one black bag, it begins to add up when you are buying five more every time you enter the store.

But eventually, my house and community became saturated with black bags. They are everywhere, as ubiquitous as the old brown paper bags used to be. You can find them in my kids' bedrooms, filled with books or toys. You can find empty ones in my kitchen or laundry room. My mother has black bags in her house and in her car: so does my sister. When we go snowboarding on Sundays, I bring food in a black bag, and so does Neighbor Guy. Whoever is the last to leave makes sure to grab whatever black bags are lying on the table. You can find black bags in the front seat of my car, and another stash in the back. When I eat lunch at my daughter's off-campus apartment, I see black bags sitting on a chair. I've got black bags at my office at school, ready to be filled with student portfolios. When I go to a potluck, black bags are piled on the counter. No need for anyone to ever write their name on the black bags: they are everywhere and everyone's and communal property. They have become part of our lives. I haven't had to buy a black bag in months now.

The black bags seem to be working for everyone. The local grocery store saves money because they don't have to buy so many of those plastic bags. It's better for the environment, obviously. It's easier for the consumer because the bags are way sturdier than the flimsy plastic ones, which when carried by exuberant but well-meaning teenagers often sent glass jars of food flying onto the ground. It's a situation in which everyone wins.

30 comments:

peripateticpolarbear said...

I have a hard time striking the right balance. I need some plastic bags for kitty litter box liners, but I don't need as many as I get from the grocery store....so there's this big balancing game going on, and it seems like I go back and forth between too many and not enough plastic/cloth. I do really like those handled bags from the grocery store---they hold things flat, which is awesome.

Linda said...

Can you post a picture of one? We are stuck in the semi-solution of canvas bags vs. paper or plastic. I use canvas bags, because there's one of me and I don't have to buy a lot of groceries at a time, but there isn't a good a alternative for larger families doing their grocery shopping here. I'm curious what the black bags look like and may give some thought to finding some ways to encourage the grocery stores here to use them.

purpleteardropsofhappilymarriedness said...

That is soo the way I feel about awareness, kind of too, its through guilt. And I have way too many reusable bags (grocery store kind), 6 from one store, 4 from another, and 3 from someplace else. I was even given 2 of those black bags as a gift from my roommates mom so I definitely agree with you that they've permeated the community around here. I just need to remember to bring them with me! Its so frustrating, because I use them for other purposes too but hardly ever for food. I'm accumulating a rainbow of bags, certain stores sell them in assorted colors. Linda, where do you live? If you have a large chain near you you should be able to purchase one between $.99 and $2.

Lisa C. said...

I find that with reusable things, the trick really is to have a whole lot of them. Otherwise it doesn't work. Glad you found a reusable bag situation that works for you!

Cathy said...

First,Jo(e) is going to have to come up with a really cool picture of the black bag - you know it just can't be a picture like you or I would take.

Somehow I vision those black bags multiplying behind Jo(e)'s back and everywhere you look, black bags abound. LIke an invasion :).

Anonymous said...

What material is the black bag made of? A petroleum by-product? An did spending ~ $200 really win out as a reasonable solution?

jo(e) said...

The bags are made of a water-repellent, non-woven polypropylene blend. Each bag can hold up to 25 pounds. They are reusable, and so far after a year, none of mine have broken.

They sell for 99 cents.

Most families don't buy the quantity of groceries that I do and need only to buy ten bags or so.

If I buy a bag and use it once each week for two years, that is 730 plastic bags I've kept out of the trash stream. Yes, that is worth 99 cents to me.

Now that I have some natural light, I'll see if I can take a photo of one ....

YourFireAnt said...

Why not reuse the plastic or paper bags too?

I do.

FA

jo(e) said...

FA: It's because I buy food in such quantity. Whole gallons of milk or juice, big containers of stuff. The plastic and paper bags rip too easily. They aren't really made for reuse.

Autumn Song said...

I have to keep buying these too - it's not that I have a busy household (there's only me and the little dog) but I often forget to take them with me to the shop, or, when I do remember, I find they are full of other things (laundry, books, folders etc). I haven't bought any for a while so I must now have reached the appropriate bag balance. We'll see...

kathy a. said...

those are nice-looking bags. i thought i'd try bringing my own some years back, but approached it with the wrong frame of mind: only bought a couple of them, and always forgot to take them.

like PPB, we need some plastic [useful for dog poop, scooping the litter box, packing and dirty laundry on trips, etc.], but not the gerzillion we have. i dutifully recycle them eventually, but that's a pretty lame solution to my poor planning.

Nadine said...

I have one of those black bags and a very similiar one in green (same sturdy material and style but gotten free during a presentation on recyclying). Being single I could easily use them and never have to get another plastic or paper bag ever. I even manage to ususally have one or both in the car for impromtu grocery shopping. I'm very pleased with them.

Cynthia said...

That anonymous comment makes me shake my head. You are more patient with the trolls than I would be.

People here in the midwest, when we first started a recycling program, would complain that the bins were made of non-recyclable plastic, and they would make that comment kind of sneeringly as if that was some big indictment of the whole program. But the bins are re-usable plastic, emphasis on re-usable, and can be used for years and years.

People are afraid of change even when its something so simple as taking bags into the store with them.

Anonymous said...

Plastic bags are re-usable too. We donate ours back to the grocery story once a month or so. We've never had one break even with 2 milk containers in a plastic bag. It's just so typical that the "green" solution is the expensive solution.

jo(e) said...

When the grocery stores here take back plastic bags, they are not re-used. They are recycled. That means that energy is used to haul the bags somewhere and make them ... into more bags. That seems to me a waste of energy.

Re-using is more energy efficient than recycling.

If taking plastic bags with you when you shop and reusing them works for you, that's fine. But I find them too flimsy. And I don't think that paying 99 cents per bag for a bag that will last me years is too big a price to pay.

jo(e) said...

I've found that often the "green" solution is one that saves me money in the long run. It's cheaper to use less gasoline, for example, and cheaper to avoid disposable products. So I am not sure what you are talking about ....

Anonymous said...

Well, really, isn't this all about how we FEEL? If you FEEL better paying the money up front and then re-using, that's fine. If I FEEL better about NOT paying money for bags and instead dropping off bags to be recycled then doesn't that also work? Dropping off requires no additional carbon output from me ... I suppose they are hauled on a truck somewhere to be recycled ... I am in fact contributing to the reuse/recycle circuit so doesn't that work too? Beats the heck out of throwing them in the garbage after one trip to the store, right?

jo(e) said...

I am not sure what you are trying to communicate by your sarcastic use of the word feel.

In terms of impact on the environment, reusing bags is more energy efficient than recycling the bags. Energy is expended when the plastic bags are hauled off to a plant, melted down, and then made into new bags.

But both reusing and recycling are more ecologically sound practices than putting the bags into the trash stream.

Anonymous said...

How much energy is expended in making a polypropylene bag? How does that carbon output compare with the energy expended in melting/recycling single use plastic bags? I'm guessing that the manufacturing process is quite energy heavy since EACH reusable bag costs 99c while the plastic bags are bought in bulk, very cheap. So if costs offset the energy expenditure then your way is actually less efficient.

jo(e) said...

Because the disposable bags are "free," most consumers throw them away. And they are flimsy, not really meant for reuse. More than 500 billion enter the trash stream each year, ending up in landfills, along roadsides, in streams, etc.

The point of reusable bags is that they ARE reusable. Sure, they might cost a bit more in energy to make in the first place, but then they stay in use for years, which makes them more efficient in the long run.

BerryBird said...

I love the black bags! They are very well made, and hold 3-4 times as much as the flimsy plastic bags. Shopping for just two people, I can usually fit all the groceries into just 3 bags, instead of being saddled with 10 or 12 crappy plastic bags. I reuse them for kitty litter, too, but generally at least half are useless due to the tears. (The ripped plastic gets returned to the store for recycling.)

My strategy for remembering to have them with me all the time is to carry in the three bags of groceries, and put them away. Then I go back out to the car for a second trip to haul in the soda, putting the black bags in the trunk while I'm there. We still get plastic bags when my husband does the shopping, as he hasn't learned to use the black bags yet.

One other huge bonus: I have yet to see a tree with a reusable black bag caught in the branches, but I see plastic bag trees every day.

Anonymous2 said...

First, there's no definite way to tell how much energy goes into making each type of bag based on price alone. The relative difference in price could come from the price of the materials needed to make the new bags or from the small scale of production of the reusable bags compared to the enormous scale of the production of generic plastic bags. Perhaps if more stores switched over to reusable polypropylene bags and if these reusable bags were produced in larger numbers, then the price of these reusable bags would drop considerably.

But for the sake of argument, let's assume that each reusable bag does cost 2 or 3 times as much energy to make as each plastic bag does. Well in that case, if a reusable bag lasts more than 2 or 3 trips to the store, it has become more energy efficient than the plastic bag it has replaced. Or if each reusable bag uses 10 times as much energy to produce as a plastic bag, then the reusable bag must survive at least 10 trips to the store to become as energy-efficient as the plastic bag it has replaced. No matter how you look at it, if the reusable bag is reused long enough, it WILL become more energy-efficient than a plastic bag. And this isn't even taking into account the fact that the reusable bags can typically hold at least twice as many groceries as the plastic bags can. Especially for someone like jo(e) who makes lots of trips to the store and reuses these bags for years (not to mention using the bags for other purposes like carrying Ultimate gear), these reusable bags seem to be far more energy-efficient than plastic bags.


As far as the price goes, it's true that the consumer will have to pay a few extra bucks to purchase the reusable bags. But is 10 or 20 dollars too big a price to pay to lessen the destruction of our environment? Considering what most people pay for groceries per year or even per week, this cost doesn't seem very high. This seems to be one of the main difficulties our country has in "going green" - neither the government nor the consumers want to invest the money to switch to more energy-efficient "green" processes, even if these processes are better for the environment and are actually CHEAPER in the long run (once they have been established on a large-scale and have been in practice for some time).

Finally, Anonymous, I have no idea what FEELINGS have to do with any of this either, unless you are suggesting that consumers FEEL less guilty about using plastic bags that are destructive to the environment provided they return them to the store for recycling into even more plastic bags.

Chichimama said...

I am so, so glad that I am not the only person out there who has had a problem keeping the canvas bags for just groceries. Now if only my local store sold bags as nice as those for a reasonable price, I would happily pay 99 cents per bag for several visits to accumulate enough to actually use for groceries and everything else...

Jenevieve said...

Wow, normally I have nothing to add, but here are two posts in a row on which I can comment!

When Matt and I lived in Spokane. I had the same ineffectual guilt thing, and we amassed a huge collection of plastic bags. I had received 2 canvas bags as an employee perk thing from Petsmart, but usually just used them as gym bags or such.

Now that we live in Edinburgh, though, our style of living has really changed. Since we don't have a car, we walk to the local market and can only buy what can be carried. So our two canvas bags now perfectly fit one trip's worth of groceries. Good all around!

...though I admit it makes me laugh when the checkers ask, "What's, um, Petsmart?"

Anonymous said...

Anon2, the answer is NOT waiting for the government to do something. Nor is it empowering yuppie consumers to buy things while shaming those of us who actually DO reuse/recycle, into thinking that we "aren't green enough." The answer is getting the private sector involved. Your solution of reusable polypropylene bags is feasible. When liberals stop alienating the private sector and start working WITH them towards solutions, then greenthinking will unfold for everyone.

listie said...

I love my black bags. Back when that grocery store first switched to plastic bags they also offered reusable bags - I think they were about $5 each then. I bought enough for a week's worth of groceries, but no more. They were awkward, the cashiers hated them, but I pesisted with them for close to 20 years. Then came the black bags! I bought a bunch of them right away and the old green bags are now relegated to returnable cans and bottles.

nimiecat said...

We reuse our plastic bags for trash. Target bags are the perfect size for emptying a diaper genie. The thing that really annoys me about the plastic is that the cashier will put one or two items in it then start another bag.

S. said...

At my store we get around the bag problem by soliciting recycled bags from customers. Except during the holiday rush, it usually works out right: we stay about a bag's worth of donated bags ahead of the demand.

readingwritingliving said...

Oh, so thaaaat's how you do it; you buy 60 or 70!! You saturate the house! We only have two Trader Joe's bags, and a couple of cloth Safeway bags, and they have gotten totally absconded with for other purposes. And they're never in the car. I did buy one of those tiny bags that squish into a tiny stuffsack on a keyring, but it's only the size of one bag. I guess I'd better go buy several dozen more!

Magpie said...

I love that you bought 60 or 70.

I got four, because they were rather more than a dollar - two in my car, and two in my husband's. And we use them, but not every single time. And I feel bad when I forget...