Thursday, May 01, 2008

sustainable living: paper or plastic? No thanks!

Sorry I've fallen off of this series lately, to be honest, I just totally forgot about it!

Anyway, I thought I'd hit on a short topic today: shopping bags. Most people get little plastic bags at the grocery store, use them once, maybe use them again, and then toss them. These bags don't decompose well, however, not even the ones that claim they do. Some bags break up into smaller bits quickly while others don't, but they all take as much as 1000 years to decompose. In the meantime, these poor unloved bags end up taking up space in landfills (100 billion of them at last count) or swirling around in the Pacific, trillions of them forming a dead zone twice the size of Texas.

Not to mention the minor problem of our dependence on foreign oil: plastic bags are generally made from petroleum. The "biodegradable" ones, meanwhile (which still last for centuries in landfills), are made from corn, which perpetuates our over-reliance on that crop, fueling a feedback loop that leads to corn insinuating itself into virtually everything we consume... but that's a story for another time.

Anyway, if I were like your average lazy reporter I would finish my article comparing plastic to paper bags. Which one degrades faster? Which one costs less energy to make? Which one should I use to minimize my impact on the environment? Except, there is an easy answer: neither.

Meet the reusable canvas bag!

Canvas bags are made typically from hemp or cotton. They last a long time, but that's fine because you reuse them every time you shop. They're cheap: most grocery stores sell ones already emblazoned with their logo for $.99 each. You don't have to buy many, though, because these bags will hold a lot more than plastic bags. The ones we bought from Meijer have little pockets on the sides so the bagger can keep fragile items or soaps and whatnot separated from the rest. Our 10- to 12-bag shopping trips have become 3-baggers thanks to these bad boys, which means no more second trips back out to the car when we're bringing in our groceries. With our cold, rainy weather and detached garage that's a pretty big deal.

Obviously, we had to find alternatives for the old plastic bags we were using around the house, at least as far as daily chores go. Of course, the only advantage a plastic bag has over the canvas ones is disposability, so the canvas bags are an adequate (and often superior) substitute in any task that doesn't end with you throwing away the bag and its gross contents (for us, cleaning the litter boxes). Frankly, you still accumulate some bags on the occasion that you forget to bring your canvas ones or overdo your grocery intake or something, so we still have a couple of plastic bags lying around for that rare chore that requires a bag but doesn't happen often enough to justify buying a bag for it. For the ones that do, such as bringing lunch to work, we just bought a smaller canvas lunch bag online.

People who write articles and feel an overwhelming need to provide balance (where "balance"= proving that all options are equally shitty even when they're not) are dismissive of reusable bags because "you just forget about them in the car anyway." This is true at first, as you get used to the idea of bringing your own bags to the store, but it passes relatively quickly. After a month or so of leaving them in the car half the time, it's now become habit for us to pop open the trunk whenever we get out of the car at the grocery store and the farmer's market.

There are a lot of changes we've made that have some drawback. Buying better meats and produce costs more, gardening takes time and effort, home improvements require a significant initial outlay of cash, etc. I can honestly say, however, that the canvas bags have been an unalloyed positive in our lives, to the degree that we even notice the change, anyway. They're cheap, effective, and have blended seamlessly and effortlessly into our lifestyle.

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