"From an energy standpoint, using a canvas bag is 14 times better than plastic without factoring in the littering, landfill, recycling, and foreign oil dependence issues with plastic bags. Canvas bags are also 39 times better than paper, at least from an energy standpoint."¹
"Reduce, Reuse, Recycle"
A Few Facts
It costs about 600 BTUs (630,000 joules) to make a plastic bag, and about 2500 BTUs (2,600,000 joules) to make a paper bag. "In 1999, 14 million trees were cut to produce the 10 billion paper grocery bags used by Americans that year alone."¹ Making the bags produces huge amounts of pollution, vented into the air or water. And speaking of water, billions of gallons are used to process the raw material, water that is pumped out of rivers or water tables.
"It takes 91% less energy to recycle a pound of plastic than it takes to recycle a pound of paper. But recycling rates of either type of disposable bag are extremely low, with only 10 to 15% of paper bags and 1 to 3% of plastic bags being recycled"¹. Each plastic bag takes about 17 BTUs (18,000 joules) to recycle, compared to 1440 (1,500,000 joules) for paper.
According to wikipedia, one joule:
- will lift a small apple one metre straight up.
- can heat one gram of dry, cool air by 1 degree Celsius.
- is one hundredth of the energy a person can receive by drinking a single drop of beer.
Not much on its own, but those recycled bags' worth soon add up.
On the subject of recycling (in the US), only about 50% of paper is recycled, only about 6% of plastics, 18% of glass, about a third of iron and steel and a sixth of the aluminium. Much of that recycling is shunted around by rail or road (and even sea - most electronic waste is recycled overseas).
So You're Doing Your Best
There's a growing concern about waste, and not just in the land of the eco-hippies. More and more supermarkets are jumping onto the bandwagon of environmental friendliness, and instead of asking "paper or plastic?", are asking "do you need a bag...?". Many stores are going a step further, and either charging the shopper for a bag, or giving a cash incentive for not using bags (5-10¢ seems to be the going rate). Look near the checkouts of your local store, be it Safeway or Sainsbury's and you will see the reusable bags. "Good for 500 trips!" said one sign, and the bags themselves carry the message. "I will replace 200 grocery bags!" is the slogan on one, and doubtless you've seen others. Cotton or plastic, they are all good for the environment. According to the article quoted above, reusing a grocery bag 500 times will reduce resource use and energy required to produce and recycle dozens of disposable bags.
Of course, that requires that you use the things in the first place. Our local food co-op gave away hundreds of bags on the last Earth Day, to try to encourage reuse of bags, and we ourselves have several bags of various materials, tucked away in "strategic corners" of the house where we will remember to take them out when we go to shop. These strategic places include the laundry room, bottoms of drawers and in a hall closet, so we're probably forgetting to take them out on at least half of our shopping trips. My best successes are with a folding Sainsbury bag, and the backpack I take to work when I cycle. But most people, unless they are very well disciplined, are still forgetting them. I would lose count of the number of times I've stood in line and heard people mutter that they've forgotten their bags, and they are then forced to either take paper (the eco-groovy Davis Co-op doesn't use plastic), or buy another reusable bag. Bad idea.
Then there are those folk for whom the canvas bags are not groovy enough. Has to be organic cotton, reused industrial sacking or the new eco-fashion material, hemp. I see you, I know who you are. You stroll through the store, locally-grown organic broccoli nestling up to the tofu and the special olives you bought for your dinner guests. "Cotton pollutes the earth", you tell your companion, "twenty-five percent of the pesticides used throughout the whole world, are used on cotton". You pull out the tab from the back of your t-shirt, proudly displaying 'Organic Cotton'. This is good, but only if you stick with it, and don't fall slave to fashion. Here's that scenario: waiting in line for the checkout, you spot a shopping bag. "Reuse Me, Save The World!", it cries. Hemp, it is. Organic hemp. Printed with nice biodegradable soy-based inks, no less. You have to have it. Into the basket it goes, possibly to be forgotten on your next shopping expedition.
The Hypocrisy of Packaging
Okay, so I will assume that you are using your bags each trip. Well done, you. Now, what you need to do is shop wisely. Please, avoid the packaged stuff now.
I've seen you pick an 11-ounce plastic box of salad mix, rather than take the loose salad stuff. I've even seen you put that box into a plastic bag before putting it into your basket. You ninny - all the reusable bags in the world won't preserve you from the wrath of Gaia, assuming that the Earth Mother goddess is as wrathful as the God of the Old Testament. "I will sweep it with the besom of destruction, saith the LORD". Better you hope there's no hell reserved for the wasteful, come Judgement Day.
"But I recycle my bags!", I hear you cry. Well, know this - that bag, along with all the other recycling, needs to be collected, transported to somewhere, sorted, picked over, washed, chopped up and only then, recycled. Best you reduce your plastic use. The truck that collects them runs on diesel. That's a fossil fuel. It's transported for miles and miles to the recycling centre, then shipped off elsewhere to be turned into more packaging. All this uses energy, increases pollution and makes the baby Jesus cry, not to mention the gods or goddesses of your choice. Refuse packaged products, and feel better about your lot.
You buy those four apples, three avocados, two oranges, and you put them in a plastic bag? Not this guy. For years I've been putting my loose fruit and veg straight in the basket, or shopping trolley. "But the cashiers complain!", you say. "Tough", say I - it takes them but a moment to corral them together to weigh them, and I generally help them out with that anyway.
Davis Food Co-op used to have a rule that if something was available loose, in bulk, they would not carry it packaged. Myself, I seek a return to that standard - it's better for everyone, as there is a lower cost in producing and shipping the product. I am caught between amusement and irritation when I see over-packaged products on the shelves of any store, be it supermarket, computer store or toy shop. The pair of kitchen shears that comes in a hard, sealed plastic case? Madness. I need shears to open the damned thing, then I can't find whether that particular plastic is recyclable in my area. So I'm starting to refuse to buy these products, myself.
A more advanced way of getting a better eco-conscience is to reuse things. I'm only just getting to be good at this. The most obvious thing to do is that if you have to use bags, you reuse them. They're good for several turns around, and people do notice and comment on it, usually positively. In addition to working at the food co-op, I occasionally work a stand at the Davis farmer's market, and guess what? I see dozens of people reusing bags, every single week. This is not just planet- and conscience-friendly, it's stallholder-friendly, too. Those bags cost almost a cent apiece, and each week, hundreds of them are taken away, and the cost to the farmer escalates. Even if they are recycled (and a great many are not!), there's still an environmental overhead, which is a Bad Thing.
The boxes of produce that come into our store every day (literally hundreds a week) are mostly not recyclable, being made of heavily-waxed cardboard. Some, from local farmers, are able to be reused, so we save them up, and when the farms deliver, lo! and behold, away they go to be given another lease of life. Those that aren't collected find their way down to the farmer's market again, to get more fruit-and-veggie farmer's lovin' by being filled again. Having instituted this process in Davis, I'm proud to say that thousands of boxes (costing from $1 to $1.50 each) have been given this new lease of life.
Then there are those things that are unavoidably packaged. Pickles, preserves, jam, marmalade, things that come in jars. Save those jars. Same with many plastic packages, you know - the ones with sealable lids. Wash them, put them on one side, because they are reusable! When comes the time for you to buy your bulk stuff, be it tea, herbs, spices or whatnot, you have a ready container, rather than going and buying more. Or if you make your own pickles, preserves or rumtopf, you have containers all ready. Again, I've been doing this for donkey's years. But now I'm blowing my own trumpet instead of helping others blow theirs, so to speak, so I'll move along.
Damned Fossil Fuels
Okay, so. You decline to buy over-packaged stuff, reuse your little plastic produce bags, carry your shopping bags religiously on each shipping trip, but then you climb into your Chelsea tractor to take it home. In the back of the car you keep the folding chairs and table you used for your weekend camping trip, the 3-gallon bottle of water you had for the trip "just in case", a bag of clothes you were taking to the charity shop three months ago, a carton of rubbish that your son was supposed to be taking to school for a project, and the cat's travel basket that you forgot to take out of the car on Wednesday. That's a lot of weight to be lugging around, not to mention that you possibly fill the car up with petrol at every opportunity, rather than run it on half a tank around town. Add to that running the air conditioning when you don't need it, driving like fuel was still at 1990 prices, and you're adding up a big cost, both financially, and in pollution terms.
You get home to your house, step into the air-conditioned 70°F (21°C) cool in the summer and unpack. Now think for a moment. Could you tweak that thermostat up a smidgen? Every degree Fahrenheit you up the thermostat can save around 2% of the cost of cooling the house. Or in the winter, how about taking it down a tad? My wife tells me that when she's at work, she needs to wear a jacket because the A/C is set so low. Tweaking things so that it's on the edge of your comfort zone is good for you - save money on energy bills. I've also been in homes where in winter, the heating is set so high that the family were lounging around in shorts and summer shirts. Put a sweater on, for goodness' sake, and turn the thermostat down. Don't have a sweater? Go and buy one, just remember to take your shopping bag with you.