In the last post of the Plastic Bag Series we discussed key issues caused by our constant use of plastic bags and some numbers to show why we should all care, but awareness and acknowledgement of the problem is just the beginning. As Joel A. Barker said:
“Vision without action is merely a dream. Action without vision just passes the time. Vision with action can change the world”.
So let’s talk about a very simple solution that can have a massive impact on this issue: switch to reusable bags!
Nothing new here, I would say everyone is familiar with these type of bags because nowadays supermarkets sell them, however these bags are not the only type of reusable bags you want to start using (and to be honest they are not even the best option) to help reducing plastic bags consumption.
These are the main types of reusable bags I own:
- Carry Groceries/Shopping Bag.
- Produce Bag.
- Bags for other purchases (clothes, dry items).
1. Carry Groceries/Shopping Bag
These are for example the famous “Green bags” I was mentioning before. They are cheap and available in many shops and even when the material look like fabric, the reality is they are just another type of plastic bags: Polypropylene bags. According to Wikipedia:
“Polypropylene is the world’s second-most widely produced synthetic plastic, after polyethylene”.
So comparing to regular plastic bags, it makes sense that the production of these bags take even more resources given that they are heavier and thicker (maybe the “Green” bit on the name can only be reduced to the colour? who knows!), therefore we really need to reuse them over and over for several years to make them a better option than the normal plastic bags.
If you already own some of these bags just dust them off and start using them today, as Bea Johnson said:
“The greenest product is unarguably the one you already own”.
Personally I still have many polypropylene bags that I have bought over the years from the supermarket, they are ok but they’re not particularly durable and again they are not bio-degradable, so it wouldn’t be my best option if I need to buy new ones.
Something important to note here is that you can actually recycle your old Green bags (please don’t send them to landfill). Here in Australia and in New Zealand it is done via the “RedCycle Program“. Simply take your green and plastic bags (including bags from packaging) to your nearest collection bin which are mainly located in the main supermarkets. Visit their website for more information.
Now, if you don’t have any groceries bags and need to get (or make) new ones, in my experience these are key elements to consider:
Apart from the standard Polypropylene bags, there are other bags made with synthetic materials (e.g. many foldable bags are made out of Polyester) but there are also some made with natural fibres which are generally better for the environment because they come from renewable resources and at the end of their life they biodegrade naturally.
Many tote bags are made out of hemp, jute and cotton (especially organic, again topic for another post) which would be my preferred option.
Durability and maintenance
Look for a bag that is strong and durable and you can use for many years to come.
Also think about a bag that you can easily wash, these bags over time get quite dirty and you want to keep them clean to carry your food. Again natural fibres like hemp and cotton are washable fabrics.
Ah! and if you are like me that like to keep products as pretty as possible (I know, it is quite a dilemma trying to live a greener life), consider darker colours that hide a bit any stain.
Considering you have to carry these bags plus their content, you probably don’t want heavy bags, so this is another aspect to consider when choosing your bags.
2. Produce bag
In most supermarkets/shops plastic bags are also used to shop fruit/veggies, so even if you are using reusable grocery/shopping bags, still there is a lot of waste caused by produce bags, and most people tend to forget about them.
Here in Australia in some states plastic bags have been banned however the ban only includes light-weighted shopping bags, it doesn’t include produce bags, bags from packaging or even thick bags provided by clothing/department stores. Therefore again it is up to us to avoid these bags too.
I always get a bit frustrated (I know I shouldn’t) when I see people using 1 disposable plastic produce bag to buy for example 1 head of garlic or 1 leek. We don’t need a plastic bag to get 1 of these items, actually you can even buy 3-5 pieces without plastic bag at all in any supermarket, the cashier just grab them, put in the scale and straight to the shopping bag. Trust me I do this all the time and I haven’t had any problem. I took the picture below this morning buying some tomatoes and pears in a big supermarket without any type of bags:
So back to the reusable produce bags, they are not that common. Often when I am shopping some people ask me and show interest in these bags, although in the last few years they have been appearing in small groceries and health shops which is a great sign.
Again there are different aspects to consider when buying/making these reusable produce bags:
Visibility of the products
There are mesh style produce bag and normal fabric bags. I like mesh produce bag because when you’re paying the cashier can easily see what’s inside, but I have both types.
There are synthetic ones (for example made from recycled plastic bottles) and again bags made from natural fibres such as cotton and hemp. When I bought these bags for the first time around 3 years ago, I only found synthetic ones. I must say they are very durable, after several years they still look great, but given that they come from a non-renewable source and I also wash them often (micro-plastic – I’ll write about that later!) it is not the best option. Most recently I bought some from hemp (mesh style) and they are not as strong as the synthetic ones, but it is probably a better option. I also have some organic cotton muslin bags, and they are great, but you can’t see-through them so easily.
Most of these bags are medium size (equivalent to a normal produce plastic bag) and I’ve found they are the best option. I have some large bags too, but I don’t use them often. If you have a big family you might need to asses what’s the best choice for you. I would suggest you start with the standard size first and add more if needed.
As with normal plastic produce bags, the bag weight will be included in the total price you are paying for the product, so you might want to ensure the produce bag is very light. In some stores you can actually tare the bag and pay only for the product, but in normal supermarkets is probably not an option. In my experience mesh and cotton muslin are quite light.
A note on a storage and maintenance, I keep my produce bags together with the rest of the groceries bags, but I use a different fabric bag to keep them organised/clean in one place. When they are dirty I pile them up (together with other reusable items at home) until I have enough pieces for a quick washing machine load, that way I keep them clean.
3. Bags for non-food related purchases
I have a couple of bags for other purchases, I like to keep these bags separately so that they are always clean and I can carry for example clothes without being worried about stains/dirt.
Mine are EnviroSax brand, two of them I bought +5 years and they are still going, they are foldable bags because it is the best way I have found to keep them around when I need them given that they are small enough to fit anywhere. They are made out of Polyester, fortunately I don’t need to wash them much as I only use them for clean products. If I had to buy a new one, ideally I’d try to find a local brand selling foldable bags from natural fibres or at least recycled materials.
If you know how to sew you can make your own bags, it is way cheaper than buying them and you can make them exactly as you like.
Second hand shops can be the perfect place to find pre-loved fabric which is a great alternative because you are reusing resources which are still in great condition. The other day I saw a picture on Facebook of a lady who bought a $2 curtain in an op-shop and made at least a dozen of these bags!
Here some YouTube videos if you want to give it a go:
Tote Shopping Bag
Where to buy reusable bags
Here in Australia, I have seen them in storage stores, small groceries shops, health and bulk shops. And many offer a great variety the picture below I took from Wholefood Merchants here in Melbourne:
If you want more options then you might need to order them online. A place I really love to get hand made and local products is Etsy.com. Ensure you use the filter to show only products in the country you live.
Unfortunately I have never seen a reusable bags in any second hand shop, but you might want to have a look there too, you never know.
So there you have it, few ideas to use reusable bags. If you have never used them before and you would like to start, your goal would be to get/make your reusable bags soon, set a deadline and enjoy the process. Change is a good thing especially if we are trying to generate less waste to help our planet.
In the next episode we’ll tackle the key part that holds this intention together: what you can do to really start using your bags, how to develop the ‘reusable bag habit’. So stay tuned. In the meantime, please leave your comment and tell me, have you tried to use reusable bags before? What has been your biggest challenge?
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Thanks for reading,