Stashed in cupboards, crammed under car seats and collected in cozies on the backs of pantry doors, those plastic grocery bags seem to breed like roaches -- and like the cockroach, these ubiquitous byproducts of the modern age seem unlikely to vanish any time soon.
After all, they're a cheap and convenient way for stores to pack up your purchases, and compared with old-fashioned paper sacks, they are surprisingly eco-friendly. Plastic bags require 40 percent less energy to produce than paper grocery bags and generate 80 percent less solid waste, according to the Film and Bag Federation, an industry trade group, but they still require energy to produce and recycle. And if not recycled, they clog landfills and litter the landscape.
"The single most important thing shoppers can do to minimize their environmental impact is to use reusable bags instead of single-use plastic and paper bags. This applies to not only grocery bags but also bags from department stores and other retailers," says Rupa Wickrama, founder of Saky Sacks reusable totes.
"Plastic bags that get buried in landfills may take up to 1,000 years to break down and can contaminate soil and water," Wickrama says. "Furthermore, the production of single-use plastic bags consumes millions of gallons of oil that could be used for fuel and heating."
Those inexpensive totes from groceries and mass retailers are a great way to reduce the number of plastic bags you bring home -- but only if you use them. Let's face it; they're cumbersome and not that attractive. Plus the cheap totes have limited life spans, which means they, too, will end up in a landfill eventually.
Instead, invest in totes that go the distance -- and go for style. The more you like the bag the likelier you are to use it.
"Women don't have to give up style for the perfect reusable bag," Wickrama says. "If a reusable bag is as beautiful and stylish as a fashion accessory, more women will use them and make a point of carrying one at all times."
Saky Sacks, for example, blend sophisticated prints with designer details for a look that's more handbag than grocery bag. The Tyvek totes are crease-resistant, washable and strong enough to carry 25 pounds, plus they're recyclable. Features include padded handles, a key ring, inside pockets and portability; each bag folds up small enough to fit in a purse or a pocket. Prices start at $20. Visit http://www.SakySacks.com for retail locations.
RuMe Bags Co. offers similar stylish totes. Available in 19 fashion-forward colors and nearly 30 modern prints, each bag features a patent-pending enclosure system that allows three bags to roll up together for compact carrying. Made of thick recyclable polyester, the bags are water-resistant, machine washable and capable of toting 50 pounds each, the equivalent of three plastic grocery bags. They are available at specialty retailers, including The Container Store, or online at http://www.rumebags.com. Prices start at $9.95.
Before you buy, be sure the totes are washable, or you may bring home more than groceries.
"Studies have shown that reusable grocery bags can serve as breeding grounds for dangerous food-borne bacteria -- especially coliform bacteria, such as E. coli -- so make sure the reusable bags are washable," Wickrama cautions.
*Bring Home Less
Greener grocery shopping goes beyond the bag you tote your food in. When it's time to stock the pantry, reduce your environmental impact even further by limiting the amount of packaging you bring home.
"Packaging makes up about one-third of what is thrown away every year. Most of this ends up in landfills because it is not recycled or is not recyclable," says Lynn Colwell, co-author of "Celebrate Green! Creating Eco-Savvy Holidays, Celebrations & Traditions for the Whole Family."
Even if you do recycle all those cans, bottles and boxboard cartons, they still have an impact.
"Recycling takes energy, so it's better to take steps to lessen the amount of packaging you're buying," Colwell says. "Buy in bulk; take your own bags and other containers to the store; ask for meat and chicken to be wrapped without Styrofoam; and purchase each item in the largest size you know you'll consume before it goes bad."
To lessen the amount of packaging you bring home:
--Go big, but only buy as much as you can use. If your family snacks on a steady supply of potato chips, opt for the large bag, which requires far less packaging than several snack-size bags. If you only crave the salty snacks on occasion, the smaller bags may be smarter, as you would waste less food in the long run.
--Pack your own produce. Invest in reusable drawstring pouches, such as the Flip & Tumble reusable produce bag, to transport your favorite fruits and veggies. Made from fine mesh polyester, the breathable bags are see-through for easy checkout and washable so you can rinse fruits and veggies right in the bag. Each bag holds 8 pounds of produce or bulk food items. Available at Reuseit.com, a set of five costs $10.95.
--Pick post-consumer products. Look for packaging made from recycled materials, often called post-consumer waste, but be wary of "greenwashing," or misleading green claims. For example, that square plastic bottle may be touted as earth-friendly -- and square bottles do require less plastic than similarly sized round bottles -- but plastic is still plastic.
--Choose glass. When possible, buy items in glass containers versus plastic or metal. "Glass is one of the few materials that can be recycled infinitely without losing strength, purity or quality," according to Earth911.com.
--Stow on the go. Use your purchases to pack your purchases. Stocking up on new linens and tableware? Skip the tissue paper and wrap fragile dishes in tablecloths or towels instead. Need a new mop and bucket? Save a bag and load the bucket with smaller odds and ends for the trip home -- and don't let the clerk bag the mop. If you can carry it easily, do so.