Plastic Reduction Mission 3: Saying “No!” to Plastic Bags

Plastic bags…they can really clog up the earth!

When I first moved to Oregon, my new housemates and I had a long discussion about declining single-use plastic bags whenever we did our personal shopping.  After all, many people really do just use them for one quick trip, so millions of the creatures end up as litter or as landfill fodder.  And, as we all know, it can take months or even hundreds of years for plastic bags to breakdown, and as they decompose, tiny toxic bits seep into soils, lakes, rivers, and the oceans.  One small thing that we could do to make a statement to our area stores was to decline the use of their bags…so that’s what we agreed to do.

At least, that was the intent.  In practice, we ended up forgetting our stash of reusable bags just about every time we went to the stores.  More often than not, we simply bought new reusable bags and ended up with a small hoard of them–which eventually got thrown out.  It was beyond dysfunctional.

Four years later, though, I’ve become more motivated to push through my laziness and find a workable alternative to accumulating tons of plastic bags or limited-life reusable bags.  In some places around the world like Bangladesh, plastic bag clogs have been tied to devastating flooding–flooding that resulted in thousands of human lives lost.  (In 2002, Bangladesh became the first country to ban plastic shopping bags.  South Africa followed suit in 2003.)   In America, the West Coast is slowly becoming bag free, city by city.  San Francisco enacted a bag ban for groceries and pharmacies in 2007.  Though it was challenged in the courts by the Save the Plastic Bag Coalition, the courts upheld and expanded the ban in  September 2012.  Now, all retailers in San Francisco cannot use plastic bags, and restaurants will be brought into the ban in October 2013.  Following the Oregon State Legislature’s failure to enact a statewide plastic bag ban for groceries and pharmacies statewide in June 2011, the city of Portland enacted their own ban that October.  Corvallis followed suit that July and Eugene is set to vote on a ban this October 22nd.  Seattle, Washington also enacted a bag ban in July 2012, and they were quickly followed by metro cities Edmonds, Bellingham, Mukilteo, Bainbridge Island, Issaquah and Port Townsend.  Now, Washington State Legislators have begun drafting a state-wide bag ban.

All the laws in the world, though, can’t insure compliance.  If you want to make a change, you’ve got to figure out what’s keeping you from changing and how to get around that.  In my case, I realized that my issue wasn’t alternative availability:  I always had at least four or five reusable bags in my car trunk.  After I thought about it, I realized I didn’t actually want to use those bags.  They’d get ratty and stained really quickly, and their material was abrasive enough that all manner of dried plants would get stuck in the fabric.  They were gross!  Putting them through the washer just made them floppy, and that really disinclined me to use them.   I’d get embarrassed to give them to the cashier, and when I did, some cashiers actually groaned.  The bags didn’t readily stay open, so they were more difficult to pack.  I needed something attractive, sturdy, and that would stay open.  I needed baskets.

The very baskets I use, lined up in the back of my car’s trunk.

I eventually picked these baskets up at this year’s Pacific Northwest Mushroom Festival in Lacey, WA.  I chose to purchase them at this fair because the vendor was selling them at a ‘two for one’ price:  two fair trade baskets for $55.  However, they are available through any number of online sources as well as in a lot of alternative groceries.  These baskets are often called “Africa Baksets” or “Ghana Baskets” or “Bolga Baskets.”  They’re made in the Bolgatanga region of Ghana, or the northern part of the country bordering Burkina Faso.  Local artisans make them from the elephant grass, and then fair trade vendors distribute them around the world.  The traditional baskets are a more rounded shape and have one large central handle, but the artists make baskets in non traditional shapes for their Western markets, too.

I primarily chose large U-shaped, oval baskets, as their height and profile allow me to fill them up with lots of groceries without worrying about any falling out.  The oval shape also allows me to neatly pack them in my trunk and in my grocery cart without wasting a lot of space as a round basket would.  I have to say, every single time I go shopping with them, I get compliments.  Better yet, grocery clerks love them.  They stay open and hold a lot of produce, which means filling them is a breeze.  When I’m shopping, I go ahead and load right into the basket.  When I unload on the grocery belt, I take everything out of a basket, then put the basket before all the stuff that was packed into it so that the clerk can load it right back up.  It saves a lot of hassle, and I really do look like the most organized shopper on the planet.  Better yet, the bags are a major mental cue.  Since they take up a lot of visual space in my cart, the cart just looks wrong without them, so I run back to get the baskets if I forget.  After a month or so of using the baskets, I found I’d stopped forgetting them.  I’d officially acquired a new, positive habit!

Some people who oppose the use of reusable bags cite some studies–usually the 2010 University of Arizona research–stating that reusable bags can harbor dangerous bacteria such as E. coli.  Here’s the rub:  I’ve got a biology degree.  I’ve taken part in studies.  This study isn’t exactly iron clad.  In the first place, their sample size was a miniscule 84 bags, which is maybe 20 families worth of bags.  In the second place, all that research found was that the bags had some bacteria on them.  Well, EVERYTHING has bacteria on it.  But not all bacteria is pathogenic, or disease causing.  In fact, most of the bacteria found on the bags was Heterotrophic Plate Count Bacteria (HPC), and that bacteria’s been found to help inhibit the growth of pathogenic bacteria.  Twelve percent of the bags in the Arizona study were found to have E. coli, but none of those strains were strains that can harm people.  Naturally, the bag the researchers purposefully contaminated with meat juice did grow pathogenic bacteria…but any person with an ounce of common sense would wash up such a spill.

At any rate, if bacterial growth is a concern, these African baskets are really easy to clean up.  If a major spill occurs, you can swish them around in a vat of bleach water (10% solution) and let them dry in the sun if you’re really worried.  The colors won’t run and the bleach smell will dissipate when the basket is dry.  In fact, their natural grass smell will be intensified.  You can also spray them with an antibacterial spray, a bleach water solution, or a vinegar water solution once a week.  Easy peasy.

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