Friday, March 09, 2007

Green Kitchen Tip #10

Grocery Bags

It seems like everywhere you shop these days, whatever items you purchase are automatically slipped into a plastic bag or two. Unless you inform your checker, the assumption is made that even one easily hand-held item necessitates wrapping in a thin plastic sleeve. When you think about it, most of the produce we buy either gets grouped into its own plastic bag or else comes in a pre-packaged plastic shell.

Apparently every year 500 billion plastic bags are dispensed from stores across the globe. Many of these plastic bags are showing up in the ocean and in the internal organs of ocean mammals, of all places. Probably the majority of plastic bags end up in landfills, but only 1-3% will ever be recycled.

And it isn’t just hearsay that plastic bags have environmental advantages over paper bags. It takes four times as much energy to produce paper bags than it does to extrude plastic ones. 14 million trees were sacrificed in 1999, in order to fabricate 10 billion paper bags for American shoppers. Those were trees that once contributed to sinking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. The paper bag industry avoids recycled pulp, because that would undermine the integrity of the finished bag. During production, paper bags contribute 70% more air pollution and 50 times more water pollution than do plastic bags. At recycling time, it takes 91% more energy to recycle the equivalent weight of paper bags as it does plastic bags.

But that doesn’t negate the fact that the decomposition products of plastic bags are rather toxic and that plastic can be difficult to recycle unless it is free of contamination (including dyes often used to brand the bags with a store’s logo). In fact recyclers find plastic bag recycling to be uneconomical, therefore many of those to-be “recycled” plastic bags are showing up in India and China, where an absence of strict environmental laws allows them to be incinerated. During incineration plastics release toxic chemicals, including dioxins, which can lead to increased cancer rates.

So how do we stem the tide of plastic bag saturation?

Many grocery chains have noticed it is profitable to market their own re-usable grocery totes. I have found that the capacity of these totes is much higher than a plastic bag, which is handy when I buy a large amount of groceries. Juggling too many plastic bags can be encumbering. The trick with these totes is to get into the habit of bringing them not only with you, but also into the store with you. Store them in your car, or by the door if you walk to buy your groceries. Make sure they are in a very visible location, so you see them as you exit your vehicle, or your house. Keeping them in the trunk may seem the tidy thing to do, but they are easily forgotten there.

Even with the best intentions we can still attract miscellaneous plastic bags. The clean ones with holes should probably be recycled (hope for the best), the ones without holes can be re-used. Here are some ideas for re-using plastic bags:
  • Why buy additional plastic garbage bags, when you can reuse your grocery bags for this purpose? Purchase a small garbage can that is short enough to support the weight of a filled bag. You may have to take the trash out more frequently, but this will reduce the chances of any lingering trash odors in your house.
  • Store some in your car, or in any bags or purses you own. You never know when you might need a garbage sack. If you like to hike or walk in parks, you can do a good deed and pick up litter along the way.
  • Donate them to daycare centers or thrift stores.
  • If you walk your dog, or if pets use your lawn as a rest-stop, use them as temporary gloves to pick up deposits, then carefully turn them inside out, and knot them up.
  • If you are particularly crafty, you can cut them in strips and crochet yourself a beautiful hand bag that will be more durable than a single plastic grocery bag. You could also weave floor mats in this manner. Someone should seriously sell these, for those of us who don’t enjoy crocheting. However, be careful to avoid exposing such items to excessive sunlight, as the plastic will degrade in UV light.

Source for most of my statistics.

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At March 09, 2007 2:32 PM, Blogger OMM said...

AMEN! We "recycle" the plastics around our home as trash bags, or dog/ litter bags, but they still seem to overflow. So I bought the canvas grocery bags & keep them hanging on my key rack, so I don't forget them. Any ideas on how to get things recycled that our local recycling doesn't take? Should I just research our area more?

At March 09, 2007 4:29 PM, Blogger Jade said...

Hey omm!

I know that in our area you can recycle plastic bags at certain stores. Chain grocery stores, in particular. Often there is a bin by the entrance/exit.

Sometimes there are recycling options above and beyond your local pick-up recyling options at solid waste and recycling centers. You might try a web search using the key words: (your County or your State), recycling.

Good luck in your recycling endeavors!

At March 10, 2007 4:36 AM, Blogger Susan said...

At Trader Joe's, if use bring back your paper bags to reuse, they enter your name in a lottery for free groceries. It's an incentive that seems to work. In fact, most people get in the habit and don't even care about the raffle ticket!

While I already use my bags as garbage bags, I didn't realize I could recycle them at the store too. Thanks! This was a persuasive post, Jade.

At March 14, 2007 8:03 AM, Blogger dogscribe said...

I just found you from Farm Girl Fare. I LOVE your site and wish more people were "environmentally" friendly. I'm rying and recycle everything I can, (yep I use the plastic bags for doggy pick up too), started my own compost last year and am planting my own veggies along with supporting my local farmers market.

I just wanted to say THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU for all the tips and things that make you think.

At March 15, 2007 10:05 AM, Blogger Jade said...

Thanks Susan! :) It sounds like Trader Joe's has a great incentive program. If there was one close to my home I would shop there anyway, but now I can add one more reason to support their business. Along the same lines, a local chain grocery sells their own tote bags and I have noticed I always feel a sense of pride walking into the store, visibly carrying my tote bags with me. So yes, it becomes a reward in itself.

Welcome Dogscribe! Thank you for your supportive comments! It is a pleasure to share what knowledge I have on environmental issues, and I look forward to hearing what you and others have to say as well!

At March 31, 2007 12:31 PM, Blogger PeakEngineer said...

In case you didn't hear about it, San Francisco recently banned plastic bags:

It's definitely good news that at least some municipalities are getting message.

At April 06, 2007 1:47 PM, Blogger Jade said...

Thanks for the link, PeakEngineer. Actually I had heard about this too. I was only upset that they decided paper bags were acceptable (if my memory serves). But I guess its hard to outlaw both, given most of us have poor memories for remembering to bring our own bags.


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