Eco-Challenge: Is Going Bagless Possible?

Of all the worthy eco-habits -- driving less, buying less, recycling more -- stemming the tide of disposable bags has always seemed to me a no-brainer. Americans use billions of paper bags (from millions of trees) every year. Worldwide, people use about a million plastic bags every minute, with devastating consequences to oil resources, landfills, and wildlife. We are utterly, destructively awash in bags.

For years, I've aspired to change my ways. Disturbed by my personal collection of disposable bags -- paper mountains of Whole Foods bags, tornadoes of plastic bags from drugstore visits and takeout dinners -- I've collected canvas bags with the intention of using them for shopping. At one point, I counted 14.

It should have been easy. Yet inevitably, when I'd arrive at the checkout counter, they were nowhere to be found. In my mind's eye, I'd see a canvas bag balled up in my trunk, another hanging from my coat rack. "Um paper, I guess," I'd mumble to the cashier. Am I just lazy? a sheep? a flake? I'd wonder, carrying two more paper-handled offenders to add to my collection (and my guilt).

It felt as if I were chasing the habit. There it was, around every corner -- just out of reach. I'm not an eco-failure in all ways. I'm militant about turning off light switches and conscious of my water use, and I wear sweaters in the winter instead of cranking up the heat. For these habits, though, I received thousands of verbal cues before age 18. In the absence of outside reminders and authority figures, are we destined to follow the path of least resistance? That doesn't bode well for the planet.

One Saturday morning last fall, my superego must have heard the call. It wasn't quite a disembodied voice, but it was close: That's it! said my brain. No more bags. I mean, none. If you leave your canvas bag in the car, go get it. If you leave it at home, buy only what you can carry in your hands. No excuses, no exceptions.

And just like that, I snapped to. The inner mandate gave me momentum, and I immediately cleared three reusable bags and placed them conspicuously in my front seat, hanging from the headrest. After shopping the next day, I practically floated to my car, an ecologically sound bag of food hanging from each shoulder.

I followed my conscience's edict to the letter, somewhat manically, for several weeks. As with cooking or traveling, preparation was critical. Keeping a stash of canvas bags in my car -- and remembering to replenish them -- was crucial. As a backup, I kept a few plastic bags at the bottom of my purse. "I'm cured!" I thought.

Not that it went entirely smoothly. Occasionally, with a quick-on-the-draw bagger, I'd end up awkwardly removing my purchase and handing the bag back -- then wincing as she tossed it into the trash. And in the flurry of a typical workday, I'd nearly always forget to bring a bag along to the local deli at lunchtime. So I'd leave clutching various containers of hummus and tabouli, with perhaps a folded piece of pita bread hanging from a coat pocket. "You sure you don't want a bag?" one of the owners would ask in a thick, Armenian accent, looking at me like I was a little crazy. "Oh, no!" I'd say. "I'm fine!" -- which I was, except for the time chicken soup went splashing all over the sidewalk.

Then, after a few months, I began slipping behind the habit and chasing it again. It started on a holiday shopping venture in Boston. The city's inherent chaos was compounded for me by a wisdom-tooth infection, and I arrived home with not one or two but nine separate bags -- paper, plastic, the works. I stared at them the next day, horrified; it was like a bender.

All-or-nothing mentalities are seductive, but often self-defeating. Not to mention silly. When I come home and realize I've left the lights on -- which of course I do every now and then -- I don't resign myself to being an electricity profligate. I let it go and move on. Perhaps a recalibration -- less superego, more compassion and ease -- would help my bag plight.

While grocery shopping with my girlfriend one night, I had that familiar queasy feeling as I approached the checkout counter: Forgot the bags again. But rather than flog myself, I mentally assessed the contents of my car and calculated the length of the line. Leaving Liz with the cart, I sprinted to the parking lot, fished a canvas bag from my trunk, and returned just in time. Victory. To catch the habit, maybe I'll have to run every now and then.

Plastic-Bag Progress
According to the Worldwatch Institute, Americans use more than 100 billion plastic bags each year, and 99 percent go straight to landfills. To combat these statistics, Whole Foods has pledged to eliminate plastic bags from stores by Earth Day, April 22. The natural-foods chain will still offer free recycled-paper bags, while encouraging consumers to shop with reusable bags.

American cities are starting to take action, too. San Francisco's City Council, for instance, voted in 2007 to ban plastic bags at grocery chains and pharmacies. For more information or to get involved, go to reusablebags.com.

Text by Tania Hannan

Can you give up bags, too? What eco-challenges are you aspiring to complete? Tell us in the Comments section below.

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Comments (46)

  • MrsMutton 17 Aug, 2011

    What do you do with your trash? We use our plastic bags to line trash containers, and that's the only reason I get them.

  • manemmy 14 Jan, 2011

    I dont know but were finding out here in Brownsville, Texas. As of the 1st of the year plastic bags are banned . I think its a great idea. What i dont like is that now the stores are charging $1.00 per bag and up for these cheap plastic/fabric type bags. I dont like them. I want to make my own I have lots of heavy fabric. But i cant find a nice easy square bottom pattern to make my own. anyone have a good easy pattern for me please!!!!

  • tuplinger 21 Apr, 2010

    when i sometimes forget my canvas shopping bags, i use plastic and reuse them as my husbands lunch bags, waste bin liners and even tape them together to put over the table when the kids paint

  • AmyLucy 8 Apr, 2010

    Apparently you can "fuse" plastic bags together and sew OR staple and duct tape a new reusable bag! Its a great way to recycle those grocery bags and a fun craft project! I am going to try this with my kids today! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PNziDXtm1SA

  • mikaseth 28 Apr, 2008

    Hey Martha--Why don't you sponsor a contest to see who can come up with the most ingenuous and easy way to reweave or craft those plastic bags that already exist into something that is Eco Chic!

  • xwalker 22 Apr, 2008

    In response to Eel's question about produce bags, I use cotton mesh bags from Reusable bags.com http://www.reusablebags.com/store/organic-cotton-mesh-produce-bags-p-689...

    I have never had a problem with the grocery store clerks they ask me where I purchased my bags. I also love my Heavy duty hemp grocery bags. http://www.reusablebags.com/store/heavyweight-hemp-organic-cotton-grocer... They hold lots of groceries and are very sturdy.

  • sunshinemaker 22 Apr, 2008

    Another great way to "recycle" reusable canvas bags is to purchase them from your local Goodwill, Savers or other thrift store. They are already made and in the system, might as well save them from the dumpster! I have quite an ecclectic collection of canvas bags!

  • 2heilancats 22 Apr, 2008

    I have a large stash of canvas bags in the trunk of my car, so I'm always prepared. When I do end up with plastic bags (sometimes retrieved from the trash bin at work), I recycle those, and save the non-recyclables for trash (cereal box liners, bulk TP bags, etc.)

  • cjgandy 22 Apr, 2008

    My favorite bags are the Chico Bags. They fold up so small that I can carry a few in my purse. I am never caught without a bag.

  • theal8r 21 Apr, 2008

    I, too have a great collection of reusable bags, but sometimes forget to take them into the store with me. The next time this happens I will use the idea submitted by hillaryz about just putting the groceries back in the cart then taking them to the car and unloading them into the bags there. Any plastic bags that do come into the house do get recycled for doggie waste or taken to the library or thrift store. Especially love the huge bags I got at Costco! And Trader Joes insulated ones.

  • pistachiostac 21 Apr, 2008

    Plastic bags are not all that bad. I recycle my bags by turning them into trash bags. That saves me money also as I can't remember the last time I bought trash bags. Also, consider donating the plastic bags to daycares or other children ministries. Tthey use them after they change a dirty diaper or a child has an accident in their clothes. They really appreciate it.

  • sunbeam 21 Apr, 2008

    I made my own cloth bags out of left over material. As soon as I finish unpacking my bags after shopping I put them back in my car. Now I have made bags for my daughter. I'm starting to work on bags for my three sisters. I keep bags in my car so if I forget to take them in the store with me I just run back out to get them before I check out of the store. People have commented on my bright coloured bags . I love it

  • eel 21 Apr, 2008

    I have been using cloth bags for years despite the annoyed look of grocery clerks. My concern now is for the plastic produce bags. I used to try to use my own homemade produce bags but the cashiers complained about tare weight or mangled my produce as they removed it from the bags to weigh it. I hope someone comes up with a solution to that little problem soon. Yes I do reuse the plastic produce bags to scoop up after my pets but that is still not a good solution.

  • Mrs_Younger 21 Apr, 2008

    I use my canvas bag and those special-from-the-store resuable bags. but each week, I make sure I get one or two plastic bags. Those are my trashcan liners! I'd rather not buy bags just as liners and, as we live in an aparment, I don't have a place to wash out trashcans that get ooky. I guess I hope that isn't too "un-eco".

  • Dors 21 Apr, 2008

    Here in Ireland there is a fee for the plastic bags and there's been a huge reduction in bags - it's just second nature to bring a canvas bag or box with you. It'd be great if the whole follows.

  • gailmolinaro 21 Apr, 2008

    I tried the canvas bags and, when I remembered them, I usually bought more than they held. I now keep a storage tote in my trunk. I take it from my trunk and put it directly into the cart. I put my groceries in the tote, then on the conveyor to pay, then directly back in the tote. Tote to trunk, tote to house...I figured I'm not only NOT using ANY plastic, I've shaved a good 15 minutes off my chore by not taking multiple trips back and forth to the house.

  • harper 21 Apr, 2008

    I also had the problem of getting to the counter and realizing my reusable bags were still in my car's trunk. It seems silly, but what finally worked for me was putting several bags that fold up very small in my glove box. Reaching over to grab them out of the glove box has become the habit that opening the trunk never did. I also usually keep one of the bags that fold up small and flat (Baggu) in my purse or backpack.

    I also seem to have less of the problem of using a bag to carry items into the house and then not returning it to the car. I think the smaller bags help there as well since I can stuff them in my purse when I empty them and if I forget to put them ijn the glove box, well, gee, there they are in my purse!

  • basketcaz 21 Apr, 2008

    Martha Stewart has a segment on a bag you can make from a tee-shirt! Check it out. I think I will use seam binding to reinforce the bottom and sides since I have teenagers at home and go through a lot of milk. I have been wanting to use my own bags for quite some time. I always recycle my plastic and paper bags but wanted to take it to the next level. It's a great use for old tee-shirts - GO ECO!

  • kimmeetee 21 Apr, 2008

    I keep a HUGE straw beach bag in my trunk filled with smaller canvas bags that I fold flat, always there when I need them. And as Tania says, it's a maker of routine, remembering when you enter the store to bring them along or being willing to run back to the car and get them.

  • landreson 21 Apr, 2008

    Help for Dog owners!!!!! I'm all for the eco-friendly reuseable bags . . .. but what are dog owners to do? We re-use our store-provided plastic bags for doggie duty pick-up and super-stinky baby diapers. I'm not sure of any eco-friendly alternatives. Any suggestions? -

  • MLuiken 21 Apr, 2008

    My daughter got me hooked on Chico bags. They are so easy to carry in your handbag. They are lightweight but very strong. I find I can get so much in one bag. I like the idea of putting things back in the basket and going to the car with the items if I can't fit them all in my Chico bag. If you can't find them at your local health food store, go online and buy a bunch - I have been giving them as thank you gifts to my friends and they all love them.

  • thonaman 21 Apr, 2008

    strange coincidence - I just opened the e-mail with this article and had just been online this a.m. looking for reusable bags. Found a lot of places to get great bags from...my favorite was onyabags.com - cool colors as well as reusable bags for other tasks, like those used when weighing groceries - bought all I need plus a few for gifts!

  • hillaryz 13 Apr, 2008

    my sister-in-law in the netherlands puts all her items back in the cart at the checkout, walks out to her car and puts them in collapsable crates she keeps in the trunk, which makes it easier to carry the stuff into the house. probably works best when you need to buy a lot of groceries at one time. it was funny, my husband and i were just talking about this topic of plastic bags and then i read this...i am hoping to make this my new habit!

  • hillaryz 13 Apr, 2008

    my sister-in-law in the netherlands puts all her items back in the cart at the checkout, walks out to her car and puts them in collapsable crates she keeps in the trunk, which makes it easier to carry the stuff into the house. probably works best when you need to buy a lot of groceries at one time. it was funny, my husband and i were just talking about this topic of plastic bags and then i read this...i am hoping to make this my new habit!

  • redguide 13 Apr, 2008

    I travel a lot in my work and am always going to various markets in other countries and finding lovely wicker baskets to bring home. I have to use them as a 'carry-on' to carry extra shopping.These are stacked by the door so that whenever anyone goes out or to the corner store they can grab a basket. I have done this for many yaers now, the baskets are pretty and easy to carry. There are also those lovely folded up shopping bags in the same place. I always have one in my purse. Last year I knitted shopping bags for everyone in organic cotton . Easy pattern, I dont knit very well, think that it was on Lion Brand site....rg

  • natrang 11 Apr, 2008

    When you do take store bags n n n n n n if plastic, most are recyclable. If you need them, use them to line trash bins or tote other purchases or belongings. If paper n n n n n n reuse or recycle. I save them to put my paper recycling in and then put the bags out on the curb. You can use cut up paper bags in crafts for kids, to line crisper drawers and shelves, to absorb grease, protect against stains or paint n n n n n n the uses are limitless. You can even put them in your car and take them back to the store to reuse them. Or just avoid the buildup and bring your own! Itn n n n n n s a better solution all around. Cheers!

  • natrang 11 Apr, 2008

    When I get up to the register, I put my basket or bags at the front of my food or hand them to the cashier. No one is surprised. I think grocers etc. are pretty used to it by now, and in many states, legislation is being debated that will effectively ban plastic bags or make people pay for them, so itn n n n n n s not like grocers are unaware of the issue. At other types of stores, I bring in straw baskets or bags and routinely request no tissue, no box and no bag. Often, the salesperson thanks me.

  • natrang 11 Apr, 2008

    . I have a collection of such bags, and a laminated, square-bottomed, long and short webn n n n n n strapped, waterproof bag I got from Flax art supplies in SF (they no longer sell online but you might be able to mail order) n n n n n n worth every penny. Best bag ever and hold tons. My main bag is an old trade show nylon zip-up bag.. After shopping for whatever and unloading, I walk out the back door and return them to the car. When I go to the store, I toss my purse in the bags, or take a collapsible metal-handled market basket with me (they are ubiquitous - you can find these everywhere from as low as $10).

  • natrang 11 Apr, 2008

    I just donn n n n n n t get what is so hard about remembering to bring your own bags. Or for that matter, keeping a supply in your car. Or even finding some to use?! Just do it. It is one of the easiest and cheapest things you can do. It literally requires next to no effort. They are easier to carry and sturdier than the flimsy bags from the store. You can easily find cheap and/or free bags to use: most people have unused beach bags, trade show or conference bags, book bags, small duffels etc. just lying around the house moldering. Most grocers and discount stores sell them very cheaply.

  • TheDesignDiva 11 Apr, 2008

    If stores start charging for the disposable bags, the habit of taking disposable bags home would stop. People would remember to bring the reusable bags.

    Years ago, we bought fabric paint and markers and let kids decorated the canvas bags and I love using them. There are quite a bunch of stylish ones out there to get too.

  • cocoliz 11 Apr, 2008

    My local Shoprite gives you 2 cents for every reusable bag you bring with you to pack your groceries. I collected canvas bags from all sorts of events that give you a free bag with their goodies. I was forced to purchase a really big bag from a purchase at Ikea and I just keep that in the trunk of my car. Persistence!

  • AdrienneMAS 11 Apr, 2008

    Love the bags!
    I have invested in quite a collection...
    My favorite is a "Trader Joe's" bag that zips!
    It even keeps out the Seattle Rain!
    Dedication is the answer. - Adrienne Anderson Smith

  • Sissy 11 Apr, 2008

    I paid $1.99 for very roomy reusable bags at both the grocery store (Kroger) and Target. One of these tote-style bags holds a LOT--the equivalent of 4-6 plastic bags, at least. I've put a hook on the inside of the kitchen/carport door, where I keep the bags, to remind me to take them with me when I shop.

  • mthc 10 Apr, 2008

    I'm crocheting market bags for myself and gifts to family

  • casperboy 10 Apr, 2008

    I have bought the bags at target, wally world

  • dianatreine 10 Apr, 2008

    I am lucky that my favorite grocery store offers re-usable bags for $1 each and $2 for an insulated bag for cold groceries. When I forget to bring a bag with me I make myself buy a new bag and that seems to be working. I am less likely to forget to bring the bag if is going to cost me each trip. My grocery store also gives me .03 cents per re-usable bag used.

  • cocgo 10 Apr, 2008

    I have used my own "bags" for years. I was looked at like I had something wrong with me, but I insisted. Today, I proudly announce no bag(s) thank you at the check out and I feel like I am doing something good. I urge my family and friends to do the same. We all have to pitch in if we want this to count.

  • pinktpulitzer 10 Apr, 2008

    On the market now are a few really thin Nylon re-usable bags that fold up really small and you can keep them in your purse. So even when you "forget" you can remember. I have seen bags called chico bags sold at Bed Bath and Beyond, Acme bags at reusablebags.com but by far my favorites are Baggu Bags available at baggubag.com. Also get some thin muslin "eco-bags" for your produce... the thin plastic bags aren't good for the earth either.

  • BrownBagGourmet 10 Apr, 2008

    you can say it in a friendly way - and hopefully it will stick in their mind. every drop in the bucket matters. you just have to have FAITH. Be a part of the SOLUTION!

  • BrownBagGourmet 10 Apr, 2008

    re-using bags we already have at home is just a matter of habit. make notes to yourself (ie. pick up a pen now) on a sticky note and slap it on the back of your cell phone "grab bags from under sink at home and place in trunk". as in the article, if you forget it, go back to the car and get it! keep in mind that sales clerks... (cont.)

  • BrownBagGourmet 10 Apr, 2008

    are in the habit of not asking whether we need a bag and automatically place our purchases in a new bag. most of the time they do it before i can put my credit card back in my wallet - but i don't hesitate to let them know.. "please, save the bag. I don't need one." i will either put the lipstick, lightbulb or vitamin bottle in my purse, or remind them (if i'm at the grocery store) that i brought my own. (cont.)

  • laralee 10 Apr, 2008

    At several grocery stores now (I bought mine from Albertson's cause I luv the green color) reusable bags are only $1 each. I bought 1/2 a dozen and use them whenever I can remember!

  • laralee 10 Apr, 2008

    At several grocery stores now (I bought mine from Albertson's cause I luv the green color) reusable bags are only $1 each. I bought 1/2 a dozen and use them whenever I can remember!

  • perrekeet 10 Apr, 2008

    RE: Melipoo's comment about the bags being expensive..... Target has reusable red bags that zip up to fit in your purse for about a dollar, Walmart sells their reusable bags (in black) right at the checkout for about a dollar, Whole Foods has a very nice bag for about a dollar. My local grocery store has a great bag that is the equivalent of a paper grocery bag but is made out of recycled plastic bottles and it is 99 cent. There are A LOT of options for just about a dollar each out there.

  • Melipoo 8 Apr, 2008

    I think the bags are expensive. I went online and see some bags around $20. I had lived in the South of France for a few motnhs, and similar bags were about4 euros max, so equivalent to 8 u.s dollars, for a very big, re - usable, resistand ,bag. They were made by grocery and super store Carrefour. My congrats to them for giving the french this options and even before US hade donde it, for a cheap price, reachable to everybody.

  • nikipoozoo 7 Apr, 2008

    With the 2 kids

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