Trendy grocery totes tout eco-chic style
It's an everyday conundrum, a question we're all asked once, twice, maybe several times a week: "Paper or plastic? " How about, "Neither...
Los Angeles Daily News
It's an everyday conundrum, a question we're all asked once, twice, maybe several times a week:
"Paper or plastic?"
How about, "Neither, I've got my own"?
Turns out, what was once the token accouterment of a Birkenstock-wearing few has become the latest fashion accessory.
"There's an enormous amount of trendiness around the reusable-shopping-bag phenomenon," said Vincent Cobb, CEO and founder of www.reusablebags.com, a Web site dedicated to reducing overconsumption of plastic shopping bags. "It's one of those easy feel-good things. It's like, 'I can't do those big things like buy a hybrid car, but I can do these sorts of little green things.' "
Cobb's site, which has been around since 2003, sells more than 150 different reusable grocery bags.
Studies have shown that both paper and plastic take their toll on the environment. Paper bags, often thought to be the "right" choice, require 40 percent more energy to manufacture than plastic bags, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency; they also require 91 percent more energy to recycle, pound for pound.
As for plastic bags, 500 billion to 1 trillion are consumed annually worldwide. Consequently, they rank as one of the 10 most common trash items along the American coast and pose serious health hazards to sea animals who accidentally ingest them.
In April, Whole Foods banned plastic bags at all its stores nationwide. Customers must either use the store's paper bags or bring their own bags (for which they get a 5 cent credit per bag).
The no-plastic policy has saved an estimated 100 million bags since it was instituted. Whole Foods marketing manager Ashley Gibbons called it "the first step in what we see as a long evolution in becoming as green as we can."
Last year, the city of San Francisco banned nonbiodegradable plastic bags from being distributed at all large supermarkets, as well as smaller chain stores (including Rite Aid and Longs). The stores can now only offer recyclable paper bags, reusable bags or compostable "bio-plastic" bags made of cornstarch or potato starch.
(Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels and City Council President Richard Conlin have proposed a 20-cent tax on disposable bags at grocery and convenience stores and drugstores. The proposed fee, the first of its kind in the nation, would go into effect Jan. 1 if the City Council approves it.)
Good intentions, sure. But some experts say banning plastic bags may be doing more harm than good.
"We don't think bans are the right approach," said Keith Christman, senior director of packaging for the Plastics Division of the American Chemistry Council, an organization representing plastic-bag manufacturers. "Bans will result in a switch to alternative materials; the likely switch is to paper. If you switch to paper, it doubles energy use, doubles greenhouse-gas emissions and water use."
Furthermore, he said, surveys have shown that 92 percent of Americans reuse their plastic bags as trash-can liners and for pet-waste pickup — which saves new bags from being made for those purposes.
But Cobb maintains that the problem isn't using disposable bags; it's wasting them.
"It doesn't matter that it's paper or plastic; it matters that you use it and you toss it," Cobb said. "The problem is the mindless overconsumption of use-and-toss items."
The fashion world is on his side. In the past couple of years, reusable shopping bags have earned a celebrity-chic status.
British designer Anya Hindmarch's $15 "I'm Not A Plastic Bag" unbleached cotton bag sold out the day it was released last year.
"I hate the idea of making the environment trendy," Hindmarch told The New York Times, "but you need to make it cool, and then it becomes a habit."
Other designer shopping bags include Castiglioni's foldable nylon bag, which retails for $843, and Stella McCartney's organic canvas shopper, $495.
Of course, you don't have to spend a lot to get a good shopping bag.
Trader Joe's sells a variety of reusable bags for less than $3. And customers who use any reusable grocery bag at Trader Joe's can enter the store's monthly lottery to win $50 worth of free groceries.
Some bags have double do-gooding incentives.
The West Los Angeles clothing boutique Intuition (www.shopintuition.com) donates $35 from the sale of every $85-$100 Market bag to the humanitarian-relief agency International Rescue Committee.
And, proceeds from the natural burlap and canvas FEED (The Children of the World) bag, designed by presidential niece Lauren Bush, benefit the U.N.'s World Food Program.
"We tried to make it a dual purpose in helping the kids who are hungry and also using fewer plastic bags," said Ellen Gustafson, Bush's partner in FEED Projects (www.feedprojects.org). "If we sell 500,000 bags, we'll be able to feed all the kids in Rwanda's school feeding program in 2008."
And really: You can't get that with a disposable bag.
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company
UPDATE - 09:35 AM
Late Mardi Gras meets spring break for rowdy fete
UPDATE - 09:39 AM
Kate vs. Catherine; the Royal name dilemma
Seattle Times transportation reporter Mike Lindblom describes some of the factors that may have led to the collapse of the I-5 bridge over the Skagit River in Mount Vernon on Thursday, May 23.