Are you putting the ‘ick’ in eco-bag?

Enviro options made of remnants of virgin forests and stitched in sweatshops—uh oh

What’s in your bag? Now that eco-chic is setting the tone for fashion, so-called green options for shopping bags are sprouting like weeds. We’re told by environmentalists to “Just say no!” to those nasty, petroleum-based, disposable bags that sit in landfills, leach into soils, clog lakes and oceans, and kill marine life. But those alternative totes come with their own mess of issues. What’s best? There’s organic cotton and fair-trade hemp, nylon and paper made from recycled materials—even plastic, disposable bags that are made from corn instead of oil.

Some say it’s enough to show up at the store with your own, reusable bag. Many of these are convenient—small and lightweight enough to tuck into your purse or pocket—and strong enough to carry heavy groceries. But just how “eco” is a flashy nylon bag that has been treated with environmentally destructive dyes and shipped around the world? And, given that it’s not biodegradable or compostable, won’t it wind up in a landfill along with the oil-based, disposable ones?

“There’s a hierarchy of bags,” explains Pierre Sadik, a senior policy adviser with the David Suzuki Foundation, who has studied the bag quandary for years. “Domestically made, multi-use cloth bags or fair-trade multi-use bags would be the best.” And organic hemp would top the list, since it’s particularly durable and made from a crop that’s easy to grow and uses little water. “The problem is hemp is a restricted crop in the United States,” he says. “It still has a hippy-dippy reputation because of its association with the marijuana plant.”

Meanwhile, grocery chains are selling reusable bags made of recycled plastics or handing out recycled paper ones. When asked about paying for bags, a shopper at a superstore in Toronto grumbled: “Food is getting more expensive, so now I have to pay for the bags too?”

Sadik rates the lifespan of a bag as key, and advises against using plastic. “Plastic has been with us starting about 60 years ago and all of it is still with us, with the exception of the stuff that has been incinerated.” As for the paper, if it isn’t 100 per cent recycled material, you’re carrying around dead remnants of what tree huggers affectionately call virgin forests. Another demerit point: paper weighs more than plastic, so for recycling transported waste (Toronto sends its waste to Michigan, for example), every ounce increases the carbon footprint.

Buying cotton or hemp seems a safe alternative to the single-use plastic carrier. But if it’s made from a pesticide-sprayed crop and stitched together in a sweatshop, that green colour takes on a vile hue.

Thankfully, there are more ethical eco-options: Ten Thousand Villages, a fair-trade-certified retailer in Canada and the U.S. run by the relief agency the Mennonite Central Committee, sells Bangladeshi jute and hemp bags, and recycled plastic ones from Vietnam. Each is at the heart of projects that ensure fair wages and good labour conditions while improving health care and literacy.

And even disposable, plastic bags are going greener. Corn-based plastic bags can be reused a few times and laid to rest in a backyard compost bin where they will break down in about 90 days. In 2005, Mountain Equipment Co-op (MEC), which stocks cloth and nylon bags, began handing out corn-based ones made by Norwegian company Biobags. Spokesman Tim Southam says, “We’re looking at phasing out bags entirely. This was a good start.”

Sadik challenges that notion. “There really is no case for Biobags,” he says. He compares them with multi-use bags: “The biggest problem in a Biobag is that it takes a similar amount of energy in production and distribution than in making a multi-use bag, but since it is used once or twice, it takes many times more energy than the reusable one.” Also, these alternatives can get mixed in with other plastics and contaminate recycling programs. “It’s a sorting nightmare,” says Sadik. (MEC is sensitive to this issue, says Southam.)

Of course, in 2007, some municipalities in Canada banned single-use plastic bags. “There’s going to be a point in time where they will be phased out,” says Sadik. “The solution, the alternatives are so readily at hand.” Now, the stakes to make the most eco-friendly bag are going off the grid. The solar-powered Solar Messenger Handbag charges your laptop. If only someone would figure out how to make one that cooks your food on the way home from the grocer.

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