Ban the Bag, the Straw, and other Single-Use Plastics

April 22nd is Earth Day. And as the day grows nearer, the number of articles about how we can better serve our planet increases.  Our local paper, the Vancouver Courier, ran an article last week entitled “Why is it taking so long to ban plastic bags”, and challenged the city to move forward on legislation to ban these potential sea-killers.  Yeah, it’s about time! But wait - is banning the nefarious plastic bag really the solution?

When we go shopping we usually bring our own reusable bag.  I have a closet full, and try to keep a bunch in the car. My favourites are the ones made out of “parachute” cloth (which I would love to believe are upcycled from used parachutes!) because they scrunch into a small ball that can fit in my pocket or gym bag, and can go through the wash over and over.  

Can I feel that I’m doing my part by having a healthy stash of reusable shopping bags? Contrary to the popular belief, on a life-cycle basis, stronger, heavier bags made to last longer - no matter what material they are made from - have a substantial environmental negative impact because they use more resources in their production. And some natural materials like cotton/canvas require considerable pesticide use and water in the growing process which has negative environmental consequences.

A 2011 UK Government comparative study of plastic supermarket bags shows, for example, that a cotton reusable bag must be reused 131 times to match the lower environmental impact of a conventional plastic shopping bag used just once.

131 times?  Will my bags make it until 131 uses before they fall apart?  And when they do fall apart, they aren’t recyclable. Plastic bags are.  And I can use my plastic bags for garbage and dog waste. Most of my plastic bags and wrappers can be recycled and turned into park benches or other things.  If recycled or disposed of properly, they aren’t going to end up in the stomachs of sea creatures. Reading information fromallaboutbags.ca, I wonder if a plastic bag ban is the best environmental path. The feel-good choice may not always be the best environmental choice.

Does that mean I think we should stop bringing our own grocery bags to the store?  Not at all! But we do need to consider the actual impact our decisions make, and buying a heavy cotton bag might not be the best solution.

I have a few suggestions.  One is theChico Bag (I am not getting anything if you buy off this link) because they are upcycled and made from reusable fabric.  And they can be recycled when they are done (which in my experience, is way beyond 131 uses). Or a hemp bag or bamboo bag, especially if made without pesticides.  If they are 100% natural materials, and not a mix, they can probably go in your compost when ready to retire.

Another option is to upcycle your old T-shirts.  There are a few ideas on the internet how to transform an old T into a unique tote bag, either by sewing the bottom or, if you’re like me and don’t sew, by tying the ends.

We can drive ourselves crazy trying to find the most eco-friendly solution to every need.  Reusing or upcycling things we already have is always going to have the smallest negative impact.  So continue to carry those reusable bags with you to the grocery store, but before buying a new one, look into the best eco-friendly option.

There's a new term being thrown around the internet called "GreenWashing" and we need to be aware of it.  'Greenwashing' refers to products advertised as "eco friendly", "good for the environment" and "zero waste" but on closer look, are just creating more landfill material.  

So before you buy the reusable bag, the travel cutlery set or any other 'green' product, think first if it's something you already have or can repurpose.  I've bought cutlery at the Salvation Army for almost nothing, and carry a fork in my straw pouch.  And yes, even a straw pouch could be a single sock, a discarded pencil case or any number of other items you might already have.

In a world that is crumbling under the weight of consumerism, sometimes we need to take a step back and rethink if we need all of these items in order to live a 'green' lifestyle.  Especially if those things are plastic, made in unsafe conditions or are creating more plastic garbage for us to deal with.

Next time you reach for your wallet, pause and reflect if this is a product that truly is adding to your eco friendly lifestyle.  Ban or no ban, we're all trying to make this world a better place.