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Tote Bags vs. Plastic

My friend and yoga student, Mark Kent, sent me an email the other day with a link to an article in The Atlantic, titled “Are Tote Bags Good for the Environment?”

Basically the article points out that “canvas bags might actually be worse for the environment than the plastic ones they are meant to replace.”  The article then refers to a 2008 study by the UK Environment Agency (UKEA) that analyzed resource expenditures for various bags: paper, plastic, canvas, and recycled-polypropylene tote bags.

Shopping bags for sale are pictured inside a Fresh & Easy store in Burbank, California October 19, 2012. Tesco's billion pound gamble to crack the U.S. may have only months to run as investors and management focus more squarely on the British retailer's struggling home business and slowing growth in emerging markets. Fresh & Easy (F&E), having absorbed nearly 1 billion pounds ($1.6 billion) of capital since its 2007 launch, remains stubbornly loss-making in the cut-throat U.S. grocery market where it competes with larger rivals. Picture taken October 19, 2012. To match story TESCO-FRESH&EASY/ REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni (UNITED STATES - Tags: BUSINESS FOOD) - RTR39OBE

“Surprisingly, the authors found that in typical patterns of use and disposal, consumers seeking to minimize pollution and carbon emissions should use plastic grocery bags and then reuse those bags at least once—as trash-can liners or for other secondary tasks. Conventional plastic bags made from high-density polyethylene (HDPE, the plastic sacks found at grocery stores) had the smallest per-use environmental impact of all those tested. Cotton tote bags, by contrast, exhibited the highest and most severe global-warming potential by far since they require more resources to produce and distribute.”

Say it isn’t so!!  We, Americans and Europeans, have been brain-washed, drilled, trained, and conditioned to think of plastic bags as major source of pollution.  They lodge in trees, catch in the esophagi of animals, fester in landfills, clot cities, and are reduced to small particles floating in ocean gyres—for hundreds of years into the future.   Many of us wouldn’t dream of taking a plastic bag at a grocery store for love or money.  If I need some mushrooms, for example, and don’t have a produce bag handy in one of my totes, or a small paper bag that I’ve saved from some previous purchase, then I’ll carry the damned mushrooms in my pocket to the check out counter.  Yogis eschew the bags, whole towns and villages have outlawed them, and entire food chains and manufacturers have eliminated their use, so, now what?

It’s kinda depressing and has me wondering about the accuracy of the 2008 statistics.  Here are my thoughts, at least as of today —

1)  I don’t see “tote” bags hanging in the trees around the dumps and “transfer” stations, but plenty of plastic bags – did the UKEA study take the clean up effort into account when figuring the per bag resource expenditure?

2)  Just because something is “cheaper” to manufacture, doesn’t make it “better”

3) As far as the 327 times of usage to make a tote as sustainable as a plastic bag, I question the math, although I’ve been using mine for years and have easily surpassed the 300 mark!!  I use a lot of baskets too!!   I wonder what the cost is for a hand woven basket??!!

4) I have – oh gosh, I don’t know, maybe 15-20 bags – from Yoga Journal conferences, from yoga festivals, from grocery stores, etc – I use mine for years – all the time – for everything – dog food, swim gear, mail, groceries, kindling, flowers, presents, etc – and wash them frequently.  I suppose that washing bit adds to their “cost per bag” figure.

5) Indigenous people have been using canvas, cotton, wool, reeds whatever (not recycled plastic) bags and baskets for hundreds and hundreds of years – I don’t see them piling up in land fills.

6)  Using totes makes people more conscious in general – they have to “think” – In the article it says that the researchers interviewed people who said, “well, I have them, but I don’t use them” – Those people are idiots (I know that’s a little judgmental).  Idiots don’t count.

I keep all mine in the car.  I think they are great.  I’m going to throw one in my compost and see how long it takes to decompose.

I get it.  I’m really fortunate and privileged.  I haven’t been to a grocery store in months except to get some dog food, millet, rice, oats, beans, and clorox (to soak on rags and tie to the fence to keep the bears out of my compost pile) and of course used my canvas bags for this shopping.  I’ve been eating kale and swiss chard and tomatoes (OMG – overrun with tomatoes) and squash out of my garden – neighbors with chickens give me eggs (that are about the only exception to my vegan commitment).  I feel good and extremely fortunate about my sense of sustainability.  I get up every morning and give thanks for the fact that I have land where I can grow a garden, that I know how to grow vegetables, and that I have neighbors with chickens who let them run free and feed them with food free of pesticides, antibiotics, and preservatives.

What’s the answer?  I don’t know.  Where do you start?  I guess you just do the best you can and be as conscious as you can and tread as lightly as you can.  For me it always goes back to the 7 billion people on the planet.  It’s just “too damned many people”!  It’s not that technology couldn’t handle it.  Of course we know technology could “handle it.”  But at what cost?  If we went back to 2 billion I think things would be a lot easier, cleaner, and we would have room to breathe.  Imagine.  Space – more space per person.  More space for everyone to have land to grow veggies – even people in cities.  (See Will Allen, recognized as a preeminent practitioner of urban agriculture in America and throughout the world.)  Imagine less traffic, less pollution, more trees, less animals being produced for food, more small farms, less Monsanto and Nestle land and water grabs –  A lot less congested, stressed, and damaged environment.  Sigh!

Thanks for sending, Mark.   I think I’ll make a blog out of this – I’m sure I’ll get a few comments