Forget “Paper or Plastic,” the Answer is Reusable Shopping Bags


Want to do something for the environment and reduce dependence on oil? Stop using plastic shopping bags. A site called notes that the U.S. goes through 100 billion plastic shopping bags each year, and that it takes approximately 12 million barrels of oil to create those throwaway sacks.

Some countries have banned them. Some cities have proposed a “bag tax” to encourage people to switch to reusable models.

These bags are widely available in supermarkets, drugstores and even home-improvement stores, as well as from numerous online vendors. The cheapest ones are about a dollar.

But keep your eyes open for freebies. At least twice in the past few years a local grocery store would trade a cloth bag in exchange for a dozen plastic sacks. I found a canvas bag marked “one cent” at a university’s lost-and-found sale. (Worth every penny I paid!)

When I moved to Seattle six years ago I scored a sturdy nylon bag at a community festival. Lately I’ve noticed that reusable shopping bags have become a popular logo item for businesses, nonprofits and government agencies. (Recently I found one with “U.S. Census 2010″ printed on it .)

You might also want to think outside the bag. My sister bought a gorgeous handmade basket at a farmer’s market and keeps it in her car for shopping trips. A milk crate or plain old cardboard box would work, too. So would an old pillowcase.

Or how about sewing, crocheting or knitting your own bag? offers free patterns and instructions for “35 reusable grocery bags .” Some can be made of items you already have (old T-shirts, curtains or sheets) or that can be found at yard sales. Hint: Start by looking in the “free” box. Or go towards the end of the day, when sellers are anxious to unload leftover wares.

Consider whether you even need a bag. I’ve seen people accept a plastic sack for a single small item, such as a can of soup or a paperback book. Instead, why not put your purchases into a backpack or purse? Or maybe you could just take it out to the car in your hand.

For a bigger shopping trip you’ll definitely need a carry-all–and you’ll need to remember to bring it. As with any other new habit, this will eventually become a part of daily life. You will automatically grab a shopping bag (or whatever) any time you leave the house. Here are some ways to develop that habit:

  • Put one reusable bag, filled with your other reusable bags, on the same hanger that holds your coat.
  • Keep a bag hanging on the knob of the door you use to exit your home, condo or apartment.
  • Stash a few bags in the trunk of your car.
  • Get at least one bag that folds up very small, and keep it in your purse, briefcase, backpack or coat pocket.

Reusable shopping bags aren’t the solution to all pollution. After all, we buy bread, meat, produce and other items in plastic bags. We put our garbage into plastic bags, too.

It’s a start, though–one more way to reduce some of the waste piling up in landfills or blowing along roadsides. Each person who carries a string or canvas bag will make an impact, one flimsy plastic bag at a time.

Donna Freedman writes the “Living With Less ” personal finance column for MSN Money, and blogs at Surviving and Thriving . She owns six reusable shopping bags.

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  1. coupiedoll

    4 years ago

    I love this short film on the life of a plastic bag. It makes you think twice about ever getting one again:

  2. stella.louise

    4 years ago

    I have about 4-5 reusable totes to choose from for my trips to Trader Joe’s. And I like how CVS has been asking if you want a bag–if it’s a small item I usually skip the plastic and throw it into my purse.

  3. DonnaFreedman

    4 years ago

    @Stella: I was in a Staples store two days ago and the clerk asked the guy in front of me, “Do you need a bag today?” He said, “No, I guess I don’t” in a surprised way — guess it never occurred to him that he could carry a little piece of software out to the car in his hand.
    I’m glad she asked.
    (I didn’t need a bag, either — I had that U.S. census one in my backpack. It folds up to the size of a wallet and takes up very little room.)

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