I won my junior high school poster contest celebrating the first Earth Day. I've recycled for over 20 years. I follow family members around the house turning off lights and adjusting the thermostat.
Those are just some of my bona fides as a suburban mom concerned about the environment who preaches (and practices) “Reduce, Reuse, And Recycle”. Therefore it was quite disconcerting to learn that my disgust for disposable plastic bags and support for banning them may be misplaced.
Not that those annoying, flimsy plastic receptacles are good for much other than lining the pockets of those who make them. Au contraire. For one thing there are far too many of them – between 200 and 300 million bags PER YEAR are used in each major US city. Although they've only been in widespread use since the late 1970's they've become a consumer staple around the world.
It didn't take long for people to discover the downsides of these modern miracles. Each one generally turns into a piece of litter, which not only are a blight on the community landscape but also pose a serious threat to the health of citizens, wildlife and surrounding bodies of water. Since 2002, when Ireland became the first country to enact a per-bag tax, several countries and many local communities have followed suit, adopting either a bag tax or an outright ban. In 2007 San Francisco became the first US city to ban the bags (with some exceptions). In 2010 Washington DC imposed a per-bag fee of 5 cents on any type of disposable sack (including paper). That fee had a huge impact on consumer behavior, reducing bag usage from an estimated 270 million bags per year to 55 million.
Good, right? Well, hold on a minute. It seems we need to ask what we’re replacing those bags with. That’s because the cheap, reusable bags handed out for free, or sold for a dollar or two by many merchants, are made of something called “non-woven polypropylene” and have a greater carbon footprint than the flimsy plastic bags! Their short lifespan and the fossil fuels needed to manufacture them are harmful to the planet. Their remnants present disposal problems worse than plastic. And then there’s the concern that most of these bags are manufactured in low-wage Chinese factories.
A recent British study showed that the increasingly common, cheap, reusable bag would need to be reused 11 times to be on equal footing with disposable plastic that is not reused. If every plastic bag was reused only once (which many are), you would need to use the cheap “green” bag 26 times to be equivalent in reducing carbon in the atmosphere.
OK … what about higher-quality bags made from more natural material, like cotton? That must be better, right?
Unfortunately, no. In fact, according to that British study, because of the huge quantity of fossil fuels required for growing, processing and manufacturing cotton bags you’d need to reuse one non-organic, factory-made bag up to 327 times to equal the carbon footprint of one flimsy plastic bag.
So now I’m starting to feel bad, and a little used. Merchants pushing the cheap reusables in the name of being “green” are luring us all into believing we’re being good citizens of the earth when in fact we’re not doing much good at all. And what about all those nonprofits giving away reusable bags with their names and logos on them in return for a donation or participation in an event? I used to feel darn good presenting them to the grocery bagger. Not so much anymore.
So what’s Earnest Earth Mother to do? Thankfully I found a solution. We can use and encourage others to use more expensive reusables made of organic cotton, hemp, jute or JungleVine®.
That last one is something I just discovered, and I’m pretty keen on it. Called Nature Bag, these totes involve no manufacturing or agriculture and weight only about 2 ounces. That’s because they’re made from a wild-growing vine fiber (tropical kudzu), which purifies the air as it grows, removing carbon and producing oxygen. Although it looks fragile, it is in fact very durable, promising years of break-proof, versatile and stretchable use.
And here’s another thing to love about Nature Bag - the Earth’s Greenest Bag™ is made by members of the Khmu tribe, the indigenous ethnic group of northern Laos, which has used the bag for thousands of years. They hand-gather the vine and produce the bags in their villages, so no commuting or manufacturing is required. This venture is supported by the Laotian government as an anti-poverty measure that strengthens traditional village life.
Nature Bag is truly an inexpensive alternative to plastic, ranging in price from $15 to $35. They’re well worth the price. I’m stocking up and making sure I have enough in my vehicles so I won’t be caught bag-less ever again.
Check out www.naturebag.org.
by Peggy Huppert, Earnest Earth Mother
Peggy Huppert is the mother of three adult children, one step-son and three granddogs. She is a senior leader for a national health nonprofit and lives in the Twin Cities, USA area.
Nature Bag™ - Earth's Greenest Bag™ Reusable Bags