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Wiser Living

Finding a natural solution

Going Baggy

by Matt Hirschfeld

Tags: carbon footprint, plastic bags, reusable bags,

totebagsUsing reusable bags gave me a powerful feeling. OK, so maybe powerful is a tad eccentric, but I don’t own a hybrid car, consistently eat organic food, or wear organic clothing, so I thought by decreasing my carbon footprint with the bags, I could boost my eco-ego just a tad.

I guesstimate that I buy about two to three reusable bags worth of groceries and items a week, which equal to about eight to 10 plastic bags. That comes to about 470 plastic bags saved a year, a miniscule dent in the 100 billion plastic bags Americans throw away every year, according to the Worldwatch Institute.

I occasionally forget the bags when running quick errands to the store, though. Remembering the bags is like another imminent check on a to-do list. It really is simpler to just stuff the plastic bags under the sink when returning from the store and only having to remember my wallet and grocery list when I go to the store.

Still, I thought I was doing the right thing, even if I remembered to use them most of the time. I then discovered a New York Times article that delved into how green reusable bags really are.

It is obvious to me that the reusable bags would sit in landfills longer than disposable bags. The reusable bags should be usable anywhere from two to five years, but many people don’t use the bags in an effective manner and the bags just end up sitting in pantries, closets and trunks.

A number of reusable bags, such bags as ones from big box store are made from non-woven polypropylene, which is a byproduct of oil refining. Bags made of non-organic cotton or canvas aren’t much better because they can require large amounts of water and energy to produce and may contain harsh chemical dyes. Paper bags also require the destruction of trees and are made in factories that contribute to air and water pollution.

I attempt to figure out why more people don’t use the bags. If students in my 26,000-student college used the bags for one year, it would save about 12.2 million bags a year (using my 470-per-year plastic bag use). If everyone in my home state of Kansas (population: 2.8 million) used them, it would save about 1.3 billion plastic bags a year. I know that not every student and citizen of Kansas shops like me, but 1.3 billion is much closer number to 100 billion—and to making a difference.

If the reusable bags were actually reused, that would far outweigh the effect the reusable bags could have in a landfill after a couple of years of use.

Plastic bags won’t disappear from my life for a while. I would go broke if I didn’t have them to line my smaller trashcans and had to buy small plastic bags. I’ve realized that being environmentally doesn’t end at just buying reusable bags. It begins with using those bags every time I shop.