"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.

¹ http://daily.sightline.org/daily_score/archive/2007/09/19/it-s-in-the-bag

*riii* Cans, glass jars, paper packets, cardboard boxes and plastic bottles began to emerge from a split in the bottom of a shopping bag in what seemed like slow motion. An ear-shattering jumble of sounds followed as the groceries met the bitumen carpark.

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*muh-blu-blup, muh-blup-blup, muh-blup-blup, muh-blup-blup, muh-blup-blup*
The contents of Alec Guiness's glass bottles, vials and beakers bubbled merrily away, making the now famous sound.

While we're all trying to be green and reduce landfill, what would happen if we tried too hard? The Man In The White Suit is a wonderful example of just this. From an engineering perspective, I find it just as frustrating. If for no other reason, I will never be a designer while we disagree over functionality versus consumer appeal.

It was threatened at one stage in Australia that the sale of HDPE shopping bags would be completely outlawed. The ACCC managed to get all major retailers to be "responsible" though, and do two things. Firstly, "plastic" bags are still available at point of sale at a cost of $0.10 a piece. "Green bags" cost roughly $1.25, but are designed to be used again and again. Contrary to what the name suggests, many are no longer green in colour, but rather may be even Louis Vitton patterned. These bags are made of polypropylene mesh cloth, still plastic, just like the polyethylene ones.

Dimensions seem to be inconsistent between stores let alone countries, but construction seems fairly universal, so this should apply regardless of where you picked yours up. Aussie bags are constructed of nine individual pieces and fourteen separate seams. The two handles are each two strips an inch wide, placed back to back then sewn on with a a seam around their edge. The handles run from the point where the base and side wall meet, up the height of the bag, an arbitrary distance that is at least as long as the spacing between the points where the handle joins the top of the bag, to the top of the opposite side of the same panel, and finally back down to the bottom again.

A fairly flimsy sheet of polypropylene is usually placed in the base of the bag for rigidity. This also redistributes the weight of the contents to directly on the horizontal run of the side seams. Remember that while the cloth of the bag is fibrous, it is not woven per se. An outer strengthener covers the join of the centre section (end-base-end) and sides on the outside. The use of this strengthener does not directly exclude the ability of the handles to continue under the bag from one side to the other.

Green bags can sustain holding roughly 20kg, enough for 6x 3L bottles of milk, theoretically enough anyway. That's over the physical volumetric capacity of the bag. Extending the handles across the underside of the bag however, should bump this up to 30kg. My climbing carabiners can hold 200kg, making my 57kg of body mass seem easy meat. Just as the load on those carabiners reaches nearly 130kg when I'm abseiling, the load on every part of those shopping bags goes up when the bag is lifted or you swing your arms as you walk. Swing a bottle containing liquid, and as the contents sloshes around inside, the stress on the bag goes up even more. The safe maximum weight capacity of a green bag is closer to 12kg, or 4x 3L bottles of milk. If you think about using these bags every week/fortnight for your family grocery shopping, having to distribute the items between bags such that milk and flour don't end up together nor meat and washing powder, keeping the weight down comes at a compromise to how many bags you then have to carry.

Carry? Don't you load the bags into the trolley to get them out to your car? No, for the simple reason that the size and shape of shopping trolleys was ignored when these bags were designed. A shopping trolley fits two layers of 1x landscape + 2x portrait bags. Due to the taper of shopping trolleys required for them to be able to stack, only one green bag fits at the front, and sideways. The size of the average green bag isn't optimised for fitting groceries in it either, I checked on that in case that had taken precedence in design considerations. Breakfast cereal boxes are either too wide to get in the bag or too narrow to get anything down beside, and no size of can seems to fit neatly.

So, for being something that we are supposed to use regularly as a complete replacement for an existing and functional product, what was going through the minds of the creators of this new way to save the planet? Something similar to what the girl was thinking who designed the recycled plastic bus stop shelters we have that drip water on you when it rains I guess.

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