Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Reusable bags and the barriers to going green

I recently got into a discussion on the blog of a company, which I won't name, that sells reusable bags. The company's blogger was responding to a news story about lead being found in the inks used in some reusable bags.* The blogger wrote about how this news story shows why people shouldn't buy those cheap $1 reusable bags now sold in almost every store, and should buy quality bags like theirs instead. Their bags sell for $13-16 each.

He or she added that it's embarrassing to be a walking advertisement for a company, since many reusable bags carry the logo of the store where they were purchased, and that it's even more embarrassing to use a reusable bag in one store that carries the logo of another store.

I responded in part because of the blogger's tone: it was snarky and critical of those who buy inexpensive bags, rather than simply positive about their product as a great alternative.

I wrote back that for many people, their bags are too expensive, and if it's a choice between buying their bag or none at all, they'll continue to use disposable plastic bags. I added that I personally feel no embarrassment about whatever label is on my bag, no matter what store I'm in. (Does anyone else? When you think of all the ways we advertise companies, from the labels on our jeans to the logos on our T-shirts, does anyone even care anymore?)

The blogger responded to my comment that it's better to buy one quality bag than a cheap one that people won't value and will likely discard. She or he then linked a photo of one reusable bag thrown into a pile of garbage, which consisted of several disposable plastic bags, and added a comment about it being silly to think we can save the planet for a buck.

The blogger then deleted my follow-up comment twice. But since this is my forum, I'll share it here. My points were:

1) Comments like that are the reason many people think environmentalists are out of touch with the needs of ordinary people. A family household probably needs an average of five bags to carry all the groceries they buy for the week--so to buy this company's bags, they'd need to spend $65-80. In this economy, many households don't have that kind of spare income--but more can afford to spend $5 for five reusable bags.

2) When you tell people that the efforts they're making aren't good enough, rather than encouraging their progress, the end result is that people often throw up their hands and say, "Forget it!"

3) It's important to acknowledge the barriers that people face, and offer "next best" alternatives if a reader can't, because of whatever circumstances, do the very best. I shared a quote I'd read recently by a doctor, who said that if people can't afford to adhere to the "12 things to always buy organic" list, they can still reduce the burden of pesticides they ingest by eating a wide variety of produce, and washing produce well before eating it. I suggested this company do the same (perhaps not on their company web site, but at least on their blog), saying something like, "For those who can afford it, please buy our bags for these reasons. But if you can't, please continue to do what you can to reduce the amount of disposable bags you use."


What do you think? I'd like to do the very best for my family in everything, but that's not always possible. I started this blog because I want people to know that even if you can't buy a homestead and live off the grid, or afford to purchase organic cotton clothing and a hybird vehicle, there are still ways to become more green inexpensively.

The blog Condo Blues also recently took up the topic of reusable bags. She writes,
I don’t support laws that ban plastic shopping bags because it ends up hurting people that cannot afford to buy reusable shopping bags. I’d rather a store or city offer incentives for using your own bag because I think you get more flies with honey than vinegar.

Condo Blues goes on to share some sweet honey: an interview with the "Green Bag Lady," a woman who sews reusable bags and gives them away for free.


* Note: The news story that reported on lead in reusable bags had some interesting readers' comments. One reader questioned the holes in the story. He pointed out that the story never reported how many bags were found to contain lead nor how much lead they contained. He asked whether or not ink in the lead on the outside of the bag can leach into food on the inside of the bag, as well as how much lead can be absorbed by food that generally remains in a reusable bag for less than an hour. Without this more specific information, he noted, the story sounds like propaganda by the makers of disposable plastic shopping bags who want to discourage people from using reusable bags.


  1. I thought the same thing about the story written about lead found in reusable shopping bags. The plastic bag industry is taking a hit now that many people are using their own shopping bags, if nothing else because they breed like bunnies when stored for later reuse.

    Most of my bags were freebies when going to the fair, home show, etc. I really don't care if I use one store's bag in a different store.

    I have enough bags now and generally refuse them when offered but it warms my heart when I was at the garden show that people were collecting the free shopping totes (the vendors were happily giving out more than 1 if you asked) to use for shopping.

  2. Living in a tiny NYC apartment, I use plastic bags for trash and recycling because I don't have a large can that gets emptied once a week. I use the paper bags from Whole Foods for my paper recyclables. Also, since I walk everywhere, I try to keep reusable bags with me, but my purse is small and I don't have room. (yes, I know about the ones you can bunch up in a ball-those are good for some items, but not all.) If I'm buying one item and I'm close to home, I omit the bag. Any little thing helps.

  3. I bought cheap reusable bags from my grocery store when they first started selling them 5 years ago. Guess what? I am still using them. They have lasted just fine and I have no problem using them. I use them at any store I go to. Target, Best Buy, the grocery store, the pharmacy, the library...everywhere. Who cares? Typically the store is thankful you are using reusable so they don't have to buy more plastic. They don't care where your bag is from. I have gotten a few nice ones here and there, but we also use the cheap ones from the grocery store. We keep about ten in each of our cars so we always have them.

    Just think how many plastic bags we have not used in the past 5 years. That's real change and real progress. And we're just two people.

  4. I really like your attitude in this post and am sorry your comment elsewhere was deleted. That's annoying, when I think you're being reasonable. I often feel like people who are crunchier than I am think my efforts don't matter, which in turn makes me wonder if I shouldn't bother. But the rational part of me knows that every little step in the right direction counts, so I wish more people would be encouraging, like you, rather than snarky and unhelpful. So, from a tentative and still-learning environmentalist, thanks!

    Also, I did buy our family's bags, but they were cheap. I've admired the prettier ones, but they cost so much more and I don't need more right now (see, I'm trying for less waste & consumption, even of the reusable variety!). My bags have a store's logo on them very discreetly, but I've never gotten any grief about using them at other stores, or just for errands in general. Who cares? Everyone knows by now what such bags are for.

  5. Great post! I often feel guilty when I forget my reusable bags when shopping. However, we save all of our plastic bags and reuse them for dirty diapers, trash can liners, etc.

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