Lots of Reusable Bags

Back in the day, grocery stores bagged your items in paper bags. Then, in the late 1970s, the plastic bag was modernized and the choice between paper or plastic eventually diminished. Plastic bags offered a low-cost, compact solution for retailers, but also created an environmental risk. The plastic bag dilemma created a litter problem and a hazard for wildlife. According to the Bring Your Own Bag website, the average family uses about 1,000 plastic bags every year, with 80% coming from the grocery store. Every day at the local landfill, if not recycled, plastic bags also create a litter problem and get buried with the rest of the garbage.


Sandwich Bales of Plastic Bags and Cardboard at Walmart

Retail Recycling

Plastic bags originally couldn’t be recycled with a traditional municipal recycling program. However, now almost all major retailers and grocery stores accept plastic bags to be recycled. In our area, I think Walmart, Kroger and Food Lion were the first to accept plastic bags in their recycling programs. Walmart even upgraded the size of their collection box to accommodate the vast amounts of plastic bags people are bringing. Walmart accepts plastic bags, garment bags and shrink wrap, and yes, it really does get recycled. For example, drive around the back of a Walmart, you will probably see bales of cardboard for recycling. Some of those cardboard bales may have plastic bags squished into between the layers, like a sandwich. This is called ‘sandwich baling’ and this is how the materials are shipped to a recycling processor. Walmart’s Plastic Bag Recycling is a part of its Zero Waste and Sustainability Program. According to the American Chemistry Council, more than 832 million pounds of plastic bags and film was recycled nationwide in 2008. The programs are growing, especially as more consumers are made aware of their recycling options. I think people will recycle, if they just knew how and where.

Reusable Bag Problem

Now there is the reusable bag dilemma. In the last three years, we’ve been encouraged to switch to reusable bags, especially at grocery stores. These reusable bags are made from a variety of materials, such as cotton or woven recycled plastic, but worse they come in varying durability – some fall apart in a few trips. How many of us have at least five reusable bags now? Over the last few years, I have accumulated several reusable bags, at least 25! Do I really use every one of those to buy my groceries every time? No. I’m actually emotionally torn between the choice between a plastic bag, which I can recycle, or a reusable bag, which works for a certain amount of time and is then discarded to the landfill. It’s a dilemma!

So, in order to tame the beast of bags, I have come up with a few rules when it comes to the bag choices we make.

My Bag Rules – make a choice

Bag Falling Apart

1) If you accept plastic bags, make the effort to recycle them! You can bring them back to grocery stores to be recycled as a part of a national collection program, such as with Wal-Mart.

2) Say no to bagging items that don’t need a bag, such as milk or a 2-liter of soda. Really? Do you need a plastic bag for that?

3) Buy reusable bags that are durable, sustainable and you really will use. One product I found is a cotton bag from Keeping the Green, that is easily stored in your purse or car. Another great reusable bag is an insulated bag for cold items.

4) Give the gift of a bag. If you have too many yourself, offer them to friends who have little or none.

5) Stay away from the cheap bulk racks of “reusable” bags. Invest in a good quality, durable bag.

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Sources: American Chemistry Council and the Society of Plastics Industry.

the author

Originally from Virginia, Jennifer C. Sellers is passionate about sustainability and conservation in South Carolina and throughout the world. She earned her BA in English from Coastal Carolina University and her MAS in Environmental Policy and Management from the University of Denver. She is a university sustainability coordinator that implements programs and teaches people about going green and being sustainable. Follow her on Twitter @MyGreenGlasses

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