March 11, 2010

Shopping baggage


Late last year I read about a study that made me start to think a lot more about our use of shopping bags. We’ve been using the ubiquitous (in Australia, at any rate) green polypropylene shopping bags for our grocery shopping for years now, but the Woolworths Shopping Bag study, by RMIT’s Centre for Design, made me start thinking about all the bags we consume when we buy or receive goods.  The study looked at the whole life cycle environmental cost of a number of different types of retail shopping bags (paper and several different plastics), taking into account the production of the raw materials and manufacturing of bags from those raw materials, transport, use and ultimate disposal of the bags.

The study concluded that reusable bags had lower impacts than single use bags, but these benefits were highly sensitive to the number of times a bag was re-used. Not a surprising discovery, but more surprising was the fact that despite having the lowest impact on litter, and being made of renewable resources, paper bags had the highest environmental impact due to the energy embodied in their production. You can read more about the study and conclusions here and here. Since reading that, I’ve been carefully hoarding any bags (especially paper) we receive for re-use, and giving a bit more thought to the kind of bags we do use, or perhaps could use.

The shopping bags we use are polypropylene, which is recyclable when they reach the end of their useful life. In theory that is. In practice, I was surprised to learn here that because the thread used to make them isn’t recyclable they have to be unpicked by hand, they need to be shipped from Australia to China, where labor is cheaper, to make recycling economically viable. This is a great example of the fact that even though something may be recyclable, the process of recycling (if and when it is disposed of in a way that enables recycling) is not without environmental cost (and may well have some ethical issues too).

Perhaps I’m a tad cynical, but I do feel that recyclability is increasingly becoming an easy green-washing feature for advertisers, with a whole heap of ifs and maybes being swept under the carpet, out of the consumer’s sight. I guess it’s up to each one of us to consider why we choose the purchases we choose, and to be satisfied in our own minds that they are worthy justifications based on the best information we could access.


But back to bags- there are certainly some opportunities in the shopping bag arena for some environmentally beneficial creativity. First up, if you are lacking reusable shopping bags, make yourself some shopping totes that suit your needs- perhaps something that folds up nice and compact, a big roomy bag, a retro crochet bag (link to .pdf), or whichever size and shape you might need, perhaps re-purposing materials you have on hand (ideally natural materials such as cotton that will decompose at the end of their useful life). Second up, make sure you have them on hand when you go shopping, and use and re-use them for as long as possible.


Our household already has a useful stash of shopping bags, and are in the routine of using them, but I realized we could do with some reusable produce bags. Although we re-use them a lot of the time, I found that we were always coming home with a few more plastic produce bags every time we bought our fruit and veg. Inspired by some handmade mesh produce bags I saw on flickr, and this tutorial from Wisdom of the Moon, I hit our local second hand shops and found a sheer mesh curtain to re-purpose. One evening with my overlocker (aka serger) later I had a set of 10 mesh bags.

I sized them to minimize wastage from the materials I had, and to keep them similar to the plastic produce bags I’m used to, using some cotton yarn for drawstrings. I’ve been trialling them for a couple of weeks now and am really pleased. Responses from cashiers has varied, from the ditzy supermarket checkout chick who wondered if I wanted her to take the produce out to weigh it (Umm, no- that’s fine, they weigh next to nothing), to the ladies at our regular market vendor who remarked how nice they were (Oh thank you!). The only drawback is that we are now dependant on plastic containers to keep our veggies fresh in the fridge. At least they're re-usable, but I do wonder if there is a bag I could make for this purpose... Any suggestions?

16 comments:

Michelle said...

What I have done for carrots it to wash them and wrap them in a cotton towel and place that inside my mesh bag, that way when I want to eat them, all I have to do is cut the ends off and cut down to what ever size I want. If it were the baby carrots, I would simply wash them and use the cotton and mesh as above. I think this would work with other cut veg as well, like peppers, but not so much for cukes and other watery types. Hope that helps!

Maimy said...

Those mesh produce bags are a fantastic idea! & I completely agree about recycling being an easy green-wash - recycled (reprocessed) and recyclable products are a massive compromise at best. Great post :)

Kirsten said...

A lot of veggies don't need to be covered to stay fresh, and the rest actually need to stay moist, not air tight. For carrots and celery I keep them in a long container of water, changing the water usually when I'm using some. For herbs I put the stems in a glass of water, and for leafies I wrap them in a moist towel.

Erin said...

Greenwashing is alive and well. In Kmart this week I saw some children's toys with recycled cardboard packaging that screamed "97 percent recyclable". On closer inspection this was preceded by "this packaging is..." and the toys themselves were 100% cheap, non-recycled, or recyclable, plastic! Unbelievable. Great post.

innercitygarden said...

Our fruit & veg mostly come to us in a delivery box, some are wrapped (like peas) in paper, some are in clingfilm (like half a cabbage), the rest is free. I just chuck it all in the bottom of the fridge. I usually wipe out the crisper drawer before I put the food in, to get rid of the organic soil from the week before and to make sure there's no active mould. I should add that we dont' get a whole week's worth of veg in the box, I do other shopping every few days to supplement the box when I've worked out what we're cooking. I put that stuff in the fridge in cloth bags or unwrapped, it's fine.

sooz said...

Great post - lots to think about, and a few bags to go and make. Being aware of the green wash issue is really important.

When my sister lived in Austria (over 10 years ago) they had a law that all waste was the responsibility of the manufacturer, but the consumer had to get it to them. Supermarkets collected the waste from packaging to take back. It acted as an incentive for everyone throughout the market chain to reduce waste - consumers don't want the hassle of returning it, supermarkets don't want to stock the stuff that has lots of returns, manufacturers don't want to dispose of it. So if you bought toothpaste for eg you would take the box off right at the check out and leave it at the supermarket, so wouldn't you buy the one that didn't come in a box? Recycling also had to be sorted into several different types, bottles had to be returned (and a large deposit had to be paid). While I am no economic rationalist, the bottom line is the market needs to make the cost of excess packaging reflect the environmental luxury it is.

nicole said...

I like this post! I never remember that not all countries have the same recycling "schemes" we do...

soozs: it's still like that ;-)

I'm german (living in germany, but I have lived in Melbourne as a student) and we usually have three kinds of bags for sale at the checkout usually. a) standard big plastic bag b) insulated plastic bag for frozen food and c) cloth bags.

I have a massive amount of cloth supermarket bags (so I don't need to sew any more, rather I'm trying to come up with ideas on how to recycle them into something more useful *lol*), hardly any regular plastic bags and two or three insulated bags I reuse.

We also don't have people bagging our groceries for us at the check out. I'm not sure if that's still being done in australia. I know when I went to the commissary with my american neighbour I always felt weird watching someone bag groceries for me.

When I go grocery shopping I usually don't use bags at all. I have two folding boxes for when someone takes me in the car or I just toss it all in the back of our bike trailer and my two saddle bags.

Another difference is also recycing. We have three trash bins and one kind of bag, blue for paper, green for biodegradeable waste, yellow bags for plastic/aluminium/other recyclables and a black bin for the rest (mainly diapers and stuff I was too lazy to separate like the random banana peel or food scraps)

Minymo said...

I have a whole load of fabric bags which come free from our local op shop whenever buying there. They are really strong and sewn by a great bunch of women who seem to be having a lot of fun together.

A year or so ago, in Port Chalmers, there was a project where you could take an old t-shirt and have it snipped, sewn and turned into a tote in a flash.

I love the idea of leaving packagaing behind at the supermarket but am a bit of a wuss. Possibly something to di en masse with like-minded folk.

And...can anyone tell me why cucumbers come wrapped in those long plastic bags which are so awkward to unwrap when the smaller Lebanese are sold loose?

Di said...

Thanks for the fridge tactics Michelle and Innercity!

It is very interesting to read about different approaches in different countries. The Austrian approach makes so much sense to me! I wonder what has to happen for other countries to take up the idea?

Re trash bins in Australia, we have one bin for mixed recyclables (paper, glass, plastics etc), one for garden waste (ie, biodegradable, but not kitchen scraps!) and one for other general waste. There is a bit og a push on at the moment (at least in the media I pay attention to) for people to get into composting/worm farming kitchen waste at home.

And yes, I've always wondered why the lebanese cucumbers are loose, and the long cucumbers come wrapped in plastic!

Kerstin Svendsen said...

wonderful post di. the green washing is depressing. :-(

lisa s said...

really great post di... the green washing is icky to think about - the mesh bag is a nice idea....

one local market by us also has those "recyclable" plastic bags for produce - which we reuse and then put in the bin, but i haven't been able to find out if they really are easily recyclable.

Rebekka said...

Regarding the cucumbers, I only buy the unwrapped ones. They all taste similar anyway...

Rebekka said...

Regarding the cucumbers, I only buy the unwrapped ones. They all taste similar anyway...

Kate said...

I agree, most stuff is fine loose in the fridge. Even the leafy stuff stays pretty fresh in the veggie drawer, although I still chuck herbs in bags - I imagine they'd be fine in a jar with water, covered with a cloth bag.

I keep my tomatoes in a plastic tupperware container that's specifically made for storing veggies. It means I can buy/pick heaps at a time and they stay ok. I already have it, so I think it's ok.

My sister buys a new 'green' bag almost every time she goes to the supermarket. It makes me CRAZY! tell her she's better off buying (yes, buying, it's 10c now in SA) a regular plastic bag which at least gets a few go arounds before it gets ditched. I take the same three or four green bags, and I have two fold up plastic bags in my purse that I got as gifts - they get even more use than the green bags, so I feel FAIRLY justified.

It's tricky, adding things up, isn't it? I read something that said that while of course a ceramic mug lasts longer and degrades faster than polystyrene, it takes much more energy to make. If you then wash it in a not-full dishwasher, you've negated any energy benefits, and probably should have just used a paper cup.

I wish our supermarkets were like the ones in Austria! When I was a kid I used to try so hard to think of things to do with things like plastic biscuit trays - they seem so weirdly one purpose, unlike most of the other things that were in my life. These days it just takes SO MUCH effort to avoid packaging. Worth it, but surely it shouldn't be so ahrd that only people like us, way out on the wings (I don't think we are, but my 'normal' friends do), do it.

toasted said...

Like the cucumber, I've been repeatedly frustrated at how impossible it is to buy cherry tomatoes that don't come in a plastic container in Australia!

There's a West Australian Company called Onya Bags at
http://www.onyabags.com.au/shop.php?crn=208

that makes mesh weigh-bags that come squashed inside a compact little silky bag so they're easy to stash and carry to the shops. Not quite DIY but very cool - and nice if you want to make a gift of them to someone who thinks things are legit if they're bought at a shop (we all know the type, and maybe even love em or be related to them!)

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