March 11, 2010
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.
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.