First the short-ish sermon...
Plastic bags are icky.
Salon.com has a great article if you want the down and dirty details of our nasty plastic addiction. Here's a sample:
The plastic bag is an icon of convenience culture, by some estimates the single most ubiquitous consumer item on Earth, numbering in the trillions. They're made from petroleum or natural gas with all the attendant environmental impacts of harvesting fossil fuels. One recent study found that the inks and colorants used on some bags contain lead, a toxin. Every year, Americans throw away some 100 billion plastic bags after they've been used to transport a prescription home from the drugstore or a quart of milk from the grocery store. It's equivalent to dumping nearly 12 million barrels of oil.
Only 1 percent of plastic bags are recycled worldwide -- about 2 percent in the U.S. -- and the rest, when discarded, can persist for centuries. They can spend eternity in landfills, but that's not always the case. "They're so aerodynamic that even when they're properly disposed of in a trash can they can still blow away and become litter," says Mark Murray, executive director of Californians Against Waste. It's as litter that plastic bags have the most baleful effect. And we're not talking about your everyday eyesore.
Another snippet from DuHaime's LawMag:
As you read this article, somewhere, in or on a great sea of our Planet Earth, a living creature, perhaps a turtle or a bird, has just tried to swallow a plastic bag, or has just had that bag handle slip over its head; an errant plastic bag thrown overboard by some anonymous passenger, with the colorful cruise ship gift store logo only slightly worn by the salt water.
"Plastic bags?" you say. "Big deal!"
Plastic bags are a big deal.
In the U.S. alone, an estimated 12,000,000 barrels of oil are required to produce the 100 billion plastic bags used annually (the "plastic" used in bags is high-density polyethylene, which is made from petroleum).
Recycling as best I can tell is not a good answer. Plastic bags are not recycled -- they are used to create timber for decking and park benches, which is downcycling -- creating something else from the plastic, and those items cannot be re-used... So yeah, it's good to use these bags for something other than polluting, but sooner or later it goes in the landfill. And plastic takes hundreds of years to break down, and just disintegrates into smaller and smaller bits of toxic litter. Which means that plastic bag I brought home yesterday will still be here when my great-grandchildren's grandchildren are around...
There's a swirling mass of plastic 1000 miles off the coast of California that is twice the surface area of Texas. A swirling death mass of plastic, since it is very hard on sea life -- sea turtles eat plastic bags thinking they are jellyfish. Birds get tangled in them. They sink down and smother bottom-dwelling creatures. Very depressing. It's obvious one-use plastic items are not the answer -- but what can we do about it?
Stop using them. Yeah, you really really can. It takes a change of habit, a deliberate decision, a little investment in reusable bags. But you can do it. If I can do it -- and I have -- then you can too. I am not organized. I do not do things habitually. Really. I don't do things the same way twice. But I have managed to almost entirely shop without plastic bags. And you can too.
I used to use canvas bags for my groceries...but they were awkward and unhandy. They have no structure or support so they flop over around the groceries, they get heavy and bulky to carry, they don't stand up by
themselves. We still use them for hauling
dirty laundry home from camping, for hauling beach towels and snacks to picnics, but not for hauling groceries.
When we lived in Europe, we used bags like this:
to haul stuff home from the farmer's market. They work great for that, because we had a couple loaves of bread, some appelflappen (apple turnovers - yum!) and some produce. No canned goods, no bulky bottles of detergent. These are great for bulky and lighter things. Packages of toilet paper and diapers and stuff like that...
Now I use these:
They work great! I have a dozen bags all together, ten of the square polypropylene grocery bags, and two of the Trader Joe's bucket bags. Note how the green bag is standing up by itself. It has a hard bottom, so it's easy to load and carry. Two gallon jugs of milk fit perfectly in them. The bucket bags are big enough to hold those toilet paper packages, and carry all the other bags to the store. I think I have spent less than $20 on all of these. Fry's grocery stores even give you a 5 cent credit for each bag you use. I can get over $200 worth of groceries home in these dozen bags. (Next up for me, something for produce to avoid those plastic bags!)
As I unload my groceries I stuff all the bags back into one of the Trader Joe's bags, and put it right back in the Suburban so they are ready for the next shopping trip. I tend to keep them on the passenger seat so they are in sight. That way I remember to use them every time I go into any store.
There are lots of options for bags out there. Practical and inexpensive, cute, fun, charitable, designer...
these are from reusablebags.com, a website that has lots of information and lots of bags to choose from.
This FEED bag is designed to look like the grain bags used to deliver food to schools around the world. It costs $60, and that money will be used to feed one child for a whole year in school. Friends of the World Food Project and Amazon.com
This is the Anya Hindmarch bag that made green designer cool. $15 to look green and awesome and environmentally aware... Time has the story.
And this is on my wish list...these are Gecko Trader recycled rice bags from reusablebags.com. They are more expensive -- $25 or so -- but they are fair trade and made by workers in Cambodia. Very cool. Maybe for Christmas...
There are also various thermal bags, so your ice cream stays frozen on the way home. I don't have any of these yet, but my friend says they work pretty well.
But, Julie, you say, you have teenagers and an almost teen. You can go to the store by yourself. You don't have to haul a toddler around, or a baby and a baby seat. It's too complicated to have something else to keep track of...
Yeah, definitely. I remember how much of a pain it is to shop with kids, and this does sound like one more thing to keep track of...but if all the bags are stuffed into one bag it's easier. And once the kid is old enough, it can be her or his responsibility to carry them into the store. Or just wait. You kids will be old enough soon enough. Then you can worry about plastic bags.
A couple of hints...put the bags on the bottom shelf of the cart, or in the baby seat, not under all the groceries -- you need them available when you get to the checkout. And put the bags somewhere handy so you remember to grab them when you shop.
I have come home with fourteen plastic bags for $50 worth of groceries -- my local store is really bad about how they pack stuff and double bag -- so coming home with those same $50 worth stuff and not creating all that garbage feels great! I think there is a great return on very little effort -- just think of how many plastic bags you won't be throwing away this year!