Reusable Grocery Bags: Fashion Accessory, Environmental Necessity
Johannah Rodgers


It’s not often that trends in the worlds of New York fashion and the PSFC collide, but with the summer of 2004 having been declared the season of the tote bag by both Coop members and the fashion-forward crowd, the two are set to meet, however briefly. Though what fashionistas may not know (and what, of course, Coop members do know), is just how important the adoption of these totes as reusable grocery bags is in efforts to protect the environment.

At the May General Meeting members considered a discussion item related to reducing plastic bag usage. Elizabeth Tobier, the Coop member sponsoring the plastic bag discussion item, said in an interview that she “wanted members to be aware of the devastating effects that plastic bags have on the environment and on marine life and wildlife in general.” There are two types of plastic bags at the Coop: plastic grocery bags (those gray bags at checkout that are commonly referred to as “T-shirt bags”) and the clear plastic bags that are used for produce and bulk items and are generally referred to as “roll bags” or “produce bags.” As a result of the GM discussion, the environmental committee, the sign committee, and Coop staff are in the process of creating new ways of informing members about alternatives to plastic bags and drawing attention to the number of plastic bags Coop members use.

The environmental issues related to plastic bags are manifold and relate not only to their mode of production, but to their patterns of use, and methods of disposal. An estimated 500 billion plastic bags are consumed each year globally, requiring 60 million barrels of oil to manufacture.

These bags are available everywhere, and are sometimes re-used, but very rarely recycled. Because production of new plastic bags is relatively inexpensive, there is a limited market for recycled plastic bags, and only an estimated 1-3 percent of bags are eventually recycled. And the rest? Well, some land in trees, others blow down streets or float in oceans, with the ones making it to the landfill requiring 1000 years to biodegrade. Plastic bags have not only become a blight to urban and rural landscapes, they have proven to be damaging to various types of land and sea animals who at times ingest the bags, having mistaken them as a source of food.

In response to what some call the epidemic use of plastic bags, several countries have passed legislation to curb plastic bag usage, and the results have been dramatic. In March, 2002, Ireland initiated a PlasTax, which adds a 9 pence (about 20 US cents) tax levy to each new plastic bag. In three months, according to the Web site, Ireland recorded a 90 percent drop in the use of plastic bags, and accumulated $3.45 million in PlasTax money, which was then used to fund environmental projects. Ireland’s program has been particularly effective in reducing plastic bag usage because it is consumers, rather than retailers, who pay the tax. Though even the latter strategy, which was adopted by Denmark in 1994, has resulted in an estimated 66 percent decline in plastic bag use.

While England and Australia both consider adopting PlasTaxes, Taiwan has already passed a law that it hopes will reduce the use of plastic bags and disposable silverware by requiring merchants to charge customers for both. And, in Bangladesh, the government passed legislation in 2002 banning all high density polyethylene bags in the capital Dhaka after it was discovered that improper disposal of these bags aggravated the massive flooding that occurred in the city in 1988 and 1998.

Although the Coop accounts for a very small percentage of the 100 billion plastic bags consumed annually in the U.S., we can still reduce our reliance on them. General Coordinator Mike Eakin reports that the Coop’s “recent usage of roll bags has been running at an annual rate of 1,750,000 bags annually, costing $8,500, and usage of T-shirt bags has been running at an annual rate of about 780,000 bags costing $9,750. Interestingly, our collection of money to pay for plastic bags is running at an annual rate of just under $13,000, or about 70% of the total cost. This is the highest proportion of our cost that we have ever collected, and it has been rising, perhaps because of better placement of collection boxes and increased publicity.”

To promote member awareness and use of reusable shopping bags, General Coordinator Janet Schumacher has created a new consolidated area for displaying reusable grocery bags at the end-cap of Aisle 2. “We want people to be conscious about their use of plastic bags and to know that they have a range of options available in terms of reusable shopping bags.” To appeal to the breadth of tastes, budgets, and lifestyles of coop members, Schumacher has ordered a variety of new bags, including a small canvas tote bag with black handles ($4.11) that fits over the shoulder and comes in a range of fashionable colors. With pink and orange already sold out (more should be coming soon), snag one or two of the remaining yellow or black ones and you’ll have a great shopping bag and/or spiffy summer purse. For those looking to conserve space, Schumacher points to the line of string bags available, which, she emphasizes, “are highly compressible.” And, of course, those sturdy, graphically appealing Coop printed bags, which are already very popular with members, continue to be available.

One of the notable new additions to the bag selection at the Coop has been a reusable plastic zipper bag priced under one dollar. Who knows whether it is fashion or function that is driving sales, but these bags quite literally went flying out the door. Holtz, who assisted Schumacher in finding the low-cost bags, says that “we sold 120 bags in one week, it was amazing, I think having a price below one dollar and the fact that the bag is sturdy and light and reusable really appealed to a lot of people.” The Coop, which sold through its first shipment of 82 cent bags, received a new order last week and these bags are priced even lower! So make sure you grab one of these 61 cent bags while they are still in stock.

In addition to reusable grocery bags, Coop members may be interested in reusable produce bags. Although many members already reuse standard roll bags (2 for 1 cent), for those who don’t feel these bags are sturdy enough, there are currently two options: muslin produce bags and green plastic bags. Both can be found either in Aisle 4A, near

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the cleaning products, or in the new end-cap bag display. The muslin produce bags are47 $1.11 and are machine washable. The bags are durable and can be used for produce and dry goods, as can the reusable green bags, which come in three different sizes: small (10 for $2.38), medium (10 for $3.23) and large (10 for $5.20).

The problem for most of us, of course, is how to remember to bring the bags to the Coop or how to have the bags handy when we shop. Although even Schumacher cannot help members with these issues, she and Holtz do have some suggestions. For those who make big weekly or monthly shopping trips, she and Holtz recommend having a system in place, and a bag of empty bags handy that you take with you each time you plan to shop. For those who shop at the Coop daily, or straight from work, keep one of the canvas or string bags in a briefcase, or purse, or even in a coat pocket, so you will always have it ready. As a committed spur of the moment Coop shopper, and someone who is used to using T-shirt bags as trash liners, I can only say that Holtz and Schumacher’s advice really works. Having taken the time to put aside a designated shopping bag, which also contains a spare tote bag, and a few muslin produce bags, I have significantly reduced my use of plastic T-shirt and produce bags.

© johannah rodgers