Bring. Your. Own. Bag.
It’s 2019 and it really should go without saying at this point. But here we are saying it because — amazingly — this is not happening nearly as much as it ought to be.
Research reported by Statista on the “share of Americans who use reusable grocery bags” reveals that respondents, who self-reported their behavior, have a pretty dismal record. The study included 10,448 Americans between the ages of 18-64 and was conducted from September 24-October 24, 2018. So, less than a year ago.
In any of the age groups represented, fewer than half of respondents report that they use reusable grocery bags.
But does it really matter?
There’s actually a lot of folks right now talking about a study from Denmark and other life cycle assessment (LCA) studies that look at things like the impact of manufacturing on climate change, ozone depletion, water use, air pollution, and toxicity to humans, winding up with the conclusion that single-use plastic shopping bags are actually the least concerning of our current options with regard to those things.
I mean. If the single-use plastic grocery bags you get in the store (made of low-density polyethylene — LDPE) aren’t that bad in terms of these LCA analyses, why are so many governments talking about taking action or in the process of taking action to ban them? What gives?
As this article in The Verge points out, those studies don’t take into account the impact of all the bags that find their way into our oceans and, significantly, this report explains in greater detail the limitations of LCAs — including the fact that they trend toward “too much focus on carbon emissions and too little on end-of-life impacts.”
In addition, “Existing LCAs consider waste management scenarios which often ignore environmental leakage of packaging.” In other words, these analyses presume that all bags made end up in a landfill, incineration or recycling, which is “at odds with reality, where a substantial fraction of packaging ends up in the terrestrial and marine environment.”
In fact, Waste Management reports that 4,000,000,000,000 (that’s four TRILLION) single-use plastic bags are used each year, world-wide, and that only 1% of those get returned for recycling. The Danish study, in particular, assumes that LDPE bags get reused once in a trash bin and then incinerated. That’s not actually, you know, happening.
What is happening is that loads and loads of plastic bags are swirling around mucking up the natural environment. And it takes each one between 20-1,000 years to degrade.
So, as The Verge article points out, whether it matters or not depends a great deal on what we care about.
OK. So What Reusable Bag is Best?
The answer is: The one(s) you already own. We’ve become rather fond of how Quartz puts it:
The simplest advice for individuals seems to be this: Whatever you have in your house now—be it a pile of cotton totes, or a jumble of plastic bags—don’t throw them out. Keep using them until they fall apart. Whatever the material, use it as a garbage bag once you can’t use it for other purposes any more. And whatever you do, try not to buy new ones.
Because, “We know that single-use anything is a terrible idea.”
But I Forget to Bring My Reusable Bag(s)!
Cut it out. No, really. The only way the change happens is if we commit to making it a habit. This might mean keeping reusable bags in the car. It definitely means putting the effort into building the question “Do we have the bags?” into our pre-grocery shopping rituals.
We have a half dozen reusable, foldable totes that can be put in a work bag, handbag, purse, or backpack so that we never have to be without our own bag.
Hard-core Tip | Make it a challenge to yourself that every time you forget your reusable bag(s), you have to find some other way to get your items home without resorting to using the store’s LDPE bags — ask for cardboard boxes, carry the items in your hands or purse. Just don’t let “buy more reusable bags” be your solution in the heat of the moment, when you know you have a bunch sitting at home already. Because, as Quartz points out…
“If you’re trying to contribute as little as possible to the two global calamities of climate change and the swirling gyres of forever-materials slowly filling our oceans, there’s a useful formula to keep in mind: Use fewer things, many times, and don’t buy new ones.”
Like any other habit, the more we make a conscious effort to prioritize bringing our own bags to the store, the more ingrained it becomes until, one day, we find that showing up at the farmer’s market or grocery store without our reusable bags feels just as odd as showing up at the farmer’s market or grocery store buck naked.
[header photo | LRS]