Saving our planet; one bag at a time

November 4, 2008

The answer is jute shopping bags

Filed under: Environment — Tags: , , , — Kaajal @ 3:57 pm

In an article titled An Inconvenient Bag from the Wall Street Journal, author Ellen Gamerman speaks of how these supposedly ecological polypropylene bags could actually be harmful for the environment.

She’s right. Even though they are reusable, they aren’t as strong as people make them out to be. Any sharp edge and it will rip right apart.

And they will take as long if not longer than ordinary plastic bags to biodegrade. In theory they are recyclable, but hardly anyone actually recycles them (the prevailing rate is less than 1%).

Cotton, she says, is equally suspect because of the amount of chemicals and water required while growing cotton.

Given all this, the ideal answer is jute. Jute grows wild and doesn’t do any harm to the environment at all, and in the process of going from plant to bag, provides employment and a livelihood to thousands of poorer people in India.

Jute is also a very, very sturdy fabric and will last much longer than either polypropylene or cotton.

Earlier people would laminate jute with a layer of plastic to render it stiff and water-resistant and that was seen to compromise its ecological relevance, but now (thanks to a British company called D2W) we are able to laminate it with a plastic that will also biodegrade.

Jute bags could be the answer to this thoughtful debate, but my impression is that most Americans aren’t very familiar with this fabric. For them, it would be useful for me to point out that jute is a cousin of hemp and linen and shares many characteristics with those materials.

Here’s the original article I read.

An Inconvenient Bag
The Wall Street Journal/Associated Press - Published: November 3, 2008

The green giveaway of the moment - the reusable shopping bag - is a case study in how tricky it is to make products environmentally friendly.

It’s manufactured in China, shipped thousands of miles overseas, made with plastic and could take years to decompose.

The bags usually are printed with environmental slogans as well as corporate logos and pitched as earth-friendly substitutes for the billions of disposable plastic bags that wind up in landfills every year. Home Depot distributed 500,000 free reusable shopping bags last April on Earth Day, and Wal-Mart gave away one million. One line of bags features tags that read, “Saving the World One Bag at a Time.”

But well-meaning companies and consumers are finding that shopping bags, like biofuels, are another area where it’s complicated to go green.

“If you don’t reuse them, you’re actually worse off by taking one of them,” said Bob Lilienfeld, author of the Use Less Stuff Report, an online newsletter about waste prevention. And because many of the bags are made from heavier material, they’re also likely to sit longer in landfills than their thinner, disposable cousins, according to Ned Thomas, who heads the department of material science and engineering at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Used as they were intended, the totes can be an environmental boon, vastly reducing the number of disposable bags that do wind up in landfills. If each bag is used multiple times - at least once a week - four or five reusable bags can replace 520 plastic bags a year, says Nick Sterling, research director at Natural Capitalism Solutions, a nonprofit focused on corporate sustainability issues.

Fueling the reusable-bag boom is the growing unpopularity of the ubiquitous throwaways known as T-shirt bags, so-called because the handles look like the top of a sleeveless T-shirt. An estimated 100 billion plastic bags are thrown away in the U.S. every year, according to the Worldwatch Institute.

Last year, San Francisco became the first U.S. city to ban the bags from supermarkets and chain drug stores, and this month, the city of Westport, Conn., banned most kinds of plastic bags at retail checkout counters. Boston, Baltimore and Portland, Ore., are also considering bans.

Target has moved displays of its own 99-cent totes to the checkout lanes, to boost the bags’ sales. Rite Aid stocks its branded bags in all of its 4,930 stores. CVS expects to have three million of its own bags in the marketplace within the next year.

Finding a truly green bag is challenging. Plastic totes may be more eco-friendly to manufacture than ones made from cotton or canvas, which can require large amounts of water and energy to produce and may contain harsh chemical dyes. Paper bags, meanwhile, require the destruction of millions of trees and are made in factories that contribute to air and water pollution.

Many of the cheap, reusable bags that retailers favor are produced in Chinese factories and made from nonwoven polypropylene, a form of plastic that requires about 28 times as much energy to produce as the plastic used in standard disposable bags and eight times as much as a paper sack, according to Sterling, of Natural Capitalism Solutions.

Some plastic bags are, in fact, made with recycled materials. The polypropylene bags at Staples are made from 30 percent recycled content, according to company spokesman Mike Black. Target sells six types of bags and Wal-Mart, who pledged to reduce plastic bag waste by about 33 percent in every store world-wide in the next five years, sells a new blue reusable plastic bag for 50 cents, said spokeswoman Shannon Frederick.

Getting people to actually use the bags is another matter. Maximizing their benefits requires changing deeply ingrained behavior, like getting used to taking 30-second showers to lower one’s energy and water use. At present, many of the bags go unused - remaining stashed instead in consumers’ closets or in the trunks of their cars.

Phil Rozenski, director of environmental strategies at the plastic bag maker Hilex Poly Co., believes even fewer people remember to use them.

Dan Fosse, president of Cambridge, Minn.-based Innovative Packaging, produces a line of bags called SmarTote. Each one comes with a bar code that allows stores to track whether it is being reused. The idea, said Fosse, whose bags carry the slogan “Saving the World One Bag at a Time,” is that companies can offer prizes or other incentives to customers who can prove their bag isn’t just collecting dust at home.

Grocery stores are starting to report incremental results, said Fosse, who added the bar codes last spring. “It’s really hard to change customer behavior.”

Sarah De Belen, a 35-year-old mother of two from Hoboken, N.J., says she uses about 30 or 40 plastic bags at the grocery store every week. Late last year, she saw a woman at the supermarket with a popular canvas tote by London designer Anya Hindmarch and promptly purchased one online for about $45.

But De Belen said she soon realized she’d need 12 of them to accommodate an average grocery run. “It can hold, like, a head of lettuce,” she says. Besides, she adds, it’s too nice to load up with diapers or dripping chicken breasts.

Powered by WordPress