Thursday, January 17, 2008

From Windbags to Grocery Bags

We're just past the ides of January, and it seems the politicians are getting windier by the day, especially Mitt, who, like his hero Reagan, will offer up whatever silken-voiced windbag pleasantries it takes to bring on the smiles, the false hopes and the votes. Let's get back to the kind of bags we can really use every day.

The Sierra Club's Green Tips today deals with that most pervasive and telling of environmental debates. No, not nukes, not whales, not even global warming. Ah, friends, green and not so green, it's the one that precedes all those, in fact. It's the ever persistent paper, plastic or "neither" debate.

"Neither" has come to mean, ideally, "I don't need a bag, thanks." If you can carry your stuff out of the store without a bag at all, please do. Just say no to any bag. But for most, "neither" now means you've brought your own bag, and you'll be using that one instead of the store's "throwaway" bag.

But when we say "neither" and indeed use our own bag, we are still not using nothing. We're not off Scot free. There's no free lunch. The bag we bring is still made of either plastic or cotton in most cases.

Often, the thinking on this debate and the choices we make are superficial. Let's keep in mind some aspects almost always left out of stories about "throwaway" vs. "reusable" bags.

It's been said that we have lost the game (and a healthy future for ourselves and others) if we drive a car to the store and think that our choice of bags is making a significant difference. And that is true. The bag game is a game. The fossil fuel game is for keeps. Still, we make some of these smaller choices to feel we have any control at all over the challenges we face, and in that way, any little bit helps.

I use store and reusable bags, and I always refuse a bag if I can carry out my purchases by hand or in my arms. More importantly, I can walk to my grocery store and do about half the time when I need to go on days I work at home (which is sometimes weeks at a time), and I recycle all bags and everything else I can, picking up the cans and trash of others as I walk to and fron the store.

But I still consider these things:

Reusable bags are not as recyclable as paper and plastic bags. Reusable bags are often made of plastic themselves, about as much plastic as 20 (Earthwise) to 70 grocery store bags (watch out Whole Foods!). At least we can recycle most store bags, hoping they are truly recycled and hoping that that process is a net gain, meaning that it saves energy.

Many busy stores actually don't prefer people bring their own bags for two reasons: store security AND because the store's own bags are faster to fill with purchases and easier to slide out of the way at checkout.

Cotton bags are popular for being anti-plastic, but cotton is not an environmental freebie, either. It takes plenty of fertilizer and energy to produce and ship those cotton and other reusable bags to the store. (The new thin plastic bags such as Earthwise are more efficient to produce and ship.)

Now here's an irony: sometimes, "green" consumers make a special trip to shop for reusable bags or order them via mail, creating even more shipping. Also, many of us already own plenty of reusable bags (say 2-4), and so getting more, even as gifts, is overload. My sister gave me three for Christmas, and I had four already. I'd like to give some as gifts myself and might re-gift a few of these, but I'd want to be absolutely sure the recipient would regularly USE the bag. Otherwise, the reusable bag might either be clutter or get thrown away -- another irony. (To really take advantage of reusables, you've got to reuse them many, many times, and so far, reusables have not saved the stores or the consumers ANY money or resources, as the costs to produce and buy the bags and the landfill/cleanup costs for conventional throwaways are going up.)

And lately, some retailers have turned the bags into a style issue so as to jump on the bandwagon and SELL MORE BAGS. Clearly, this is about the store manufacturing something more you something you are willing to buy, even when the really "green" answer is always "less". The only real way to tread more lightly and win the green game is to do with less, including buying less stuff you might put in a bag -- and most importantly, a lot less driving to the store. Our CO2 debacle is dumped in the landfill, but is also written on the wind, and we have yet to see if any politician's rubber will really hit the road. Meanwhile, what matters most? Every gallon of gas we burn bites us in the ass. Every mile we drive counts against all of us.


At 1/18/2008 10:37 AM, Blogger alex9852 said...

I really enjoy reading your blog, it always has great insight. But I am very frustrated with the media’s lack of questions to the presidential candidates about global warming.

The Daily Green just put an article out talking about how the presidential candidates are not being asked where they stand on the issue of the climate change - this is surprising to me considering its such a MAJOR concern to people. I just saw a poll on that says people care a lot what their next leader thinks about global warming (after you take it they show you the results). Does anyone know of another poll or other results about this subject?

If not, go to and take their poll to see which way the results go. This is a pretty legit website; they are endorsed by Al Gore and the alliance for climate protection and they have a carbon footprint calculator. No matter which political party you vote for this is an important issue for our environment, our economy and for homeland security.


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