360: Reusable Bags

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Earth911′s 360 series breaks down the ins and outs of your everyday items.

The question “paper or plastic?” is not as easy to answer as you might think.

Many argue the best answer is “neither.” But really, it’s hidden answer C: “Bring your own reusable bag.” However, not all reusable bags are created equally.

Some are made from more sustainable products than others, making it important for consumers to become informed about the differing materials, so they can purchase accordingly.

Photo: Amanda Wills, Earth911.com

Choosing the most sustainable material is one of the best ways to make your reusable bag last. Photo: Amanda Wills, Earth911.com

Paper Bags

Sometimes customers choose paper bags, believing they are easier to recycle than plastic, thus the “greener” choice. However, while paper materials are more commonly accepted by community recycling programs, paper bags themselves are actually harder on the environment than plastic bags. Check out the numbers:

  • Plastic grocery bags require 40-70 percent less energy to manufacture than paper bags.
  • For every seven trucks needed to deliver paper bags, only one truck is needed to deliver the same number of plastic bags.
  • The production of plastic bags consumes less than 4 percent of the water used to make paper bags.
  • Each year, Americans use about 10 billion paper bags, which results in the cutting down of 14 million trees.

Limited-Use Plastic Bags

Plastic bags are pretty impressive products. They only weigh about 4 to 5 grams but can hold up to 17 pounds – nearly 2,000 times their own weight.  Although they are usually stashed away in a drawer or closet initially, most people reuse them later.

According to the American Chemistry Council (ACC), about 90 percent of Americans reuse their plastic bags for garbage disposal, lunch bags and pet pick-up.

The problem with plastic bags is their disposal. They are fully recyclable, but the majority of curbside programs do not accept them because their lack of weight makes it easy for them to get stuck in recycling machinery. Fortunately, an increasing number of stores are taking responsibility and accepting used bags for recycling. According to the EPA, about 12 percent of plastic bags and wraps were recycled in 2007, an increase from previous years.

Reusable Bags

For many, the answer is to not use paper or plastic, but a reusable bag. These can cut down on waste if they last for a long period of time. The key is to buy the right kind of reusable bags. However, if the bags are cheap and do not last long, they will end up in the landfill and defeat the purpose of your purchase.  Don’t accumulate more bags than you need. Think “quality,” not “quantity.”

Important questions to ask yourself before buying:

  • Who makes the bag?
  • What is the bag made of?
  • Will it last?

Reusable bags may be made of a variety of materials. Here are three examples of sustainable materials that are often used to make reusable bags:

Recycled Polyethylene Terephthalate (PETE or plastic #1) - Approximately 31 percent of plastic bottles produced in the U.S. are made from PETE, and it is one of the most highly recycled plastics. Finding uses for this post-consumer material is essential to supporting the recycling business, and reusable bags made from PETE are generally long-lasting and durable.

Recycled Cotton - Many reusable bags are made of cotton, but the key is to find organic cotton, or even better, recycled cotton. Using recycled cotton helps reduce the harsh dyes, pesticides and herbicides of conventional cotton, while also using less water and human energy than conventional and organic cotton. Recycling discarded fibers also helps divert millions of tons of textile waste entering our landfills each year.

Hemp – Often referred to as a “super fiber,” hemp products will outlast their competition by many years. Products made from this fiber are strong and hold their shape, while cotton products can stretch with time. Hemp is also naturally resistant to mold and ultraviolet light. Hemp bags and other products are increasing in popularity in the U.S. and around the world.

Afterlife

What to do with reusable bags when they are no longer functional is another waste dilemma. The ACC explains in a report that most of the biodegradable and compostable bags on the market do not breakdown in a natural environment, home composting device or landfill. Rather, they will only breakdown in a professionally managed, large scale composting facility.

Because less than 100 such facilities exist in the U.S., a large amount of bags will likely end up in the landfill. For this reason, the ACC argues that recycling limited-use plastic bags is better than switching to reusables, while other environmental organizations argue that the benefits of reusables are higher.

Whomever you agree with, it is important to shop smart and reduce your consumption of virgin materials while you are seeking to green your bag. Make sure to fill bags completely (or at least to the weight that you can carry) and look for  products that utilize sustainable packaging to put inside them.

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