The Plastic Bag: To Re-Use or Not to Re-Use

chipsahoy_tote.jpg The Wall Street Journal ran a fascinating piece a couple of weeks ago on the emergence of the reusable bag as the go-to green choice of retailers nationwide – and the eco-disaster these bags represent.
A lot of leading retailers offer reusable bags – they’re the hip new green thing to be doing… and some municipalities (San Francisco) and retailers (Ikea) have taken the initiative to forbid the use of the ubiquitous “disposable” plastic bag.
But at what cost?
Most reusable bags are usually comprised of a percentage of reused content – meaning that most of those reusable bags are using mostly virgin material. And, because reusable bags are designed to be sturdier, they require more raw material and can require up to 28 times as much energy.
Furthermore, the severity of environmental impact of plastic bags has been disputed (while I personally disagree with this argue it is important to mention.) A recent Newsweek article quotes Rob Krebs from the American Chemistry Council, “Only 4 to 5 percent of all fossil fuels produce all the plastics annually consumed in the U.S. Now, 29 percent of those plastics are used in packaging. So if you follow the reasoning, 29 percent of 5 percent of all fossil fuels is about 1.5 percent. So plastic bags are a minuscule percent of our resources,” a statistic that environmental groups do not refute.

Reusable doesn’t imply green
Now the simple argument against this logic is that 100 million plastics bags are used in America annually and a measly one percent of those bags are actually recycled. Plus I have seen various studies that indicate a consumer would need to use their reusable bags anywhere from 100-300 times (depending on the study) just to break environmentally even! Seeing both sides argument I set out to making reusable bags in an more responsible way. I feel that reusable bags are the future, but must be produced and used responsibly to have any affect.
This is why garbage can be so great – because we use mostly materials that would’ve ended up in a dumpster (old plastic bags, juice pouches, and other packaging), the bags we create are often THE most eco-friendly option out there. And we do as little as possible to process them – so there is a minimum of energy used to create the final bag. No nasty shredding/melting/reforming process needed. It’s not that we’ve found THE answer – but we’ve found a process that is closer to an answer.
Switching to reusable plastic bag is an excellent step – but as the article points out it can cause many more environmental issues. It just goes to show that we aren’t going to create fundamental change until we can effect a paradigm shift – a game-changing strategy – in the way we think about developing products…
What are your thoughts on reusable bags and their environmental impact? What examples have you seen of game-changing strategies in the marketplace? What markets need these changes most?

Tom Szaky is CEO of TerraCycle, named by Inc. Magazine as the “Coolest Startup in America — The ultimate growth company, built on garbage, run by a kid, loved by investors.” Tom writes about his experiences as a social entrepreneur and visions for business and technology that leave the world better off on 3p.

Tom Szaky is the Founder and CEO of TerraCycle, Inc. a company that makes eco-revolutionary products entirely from garbage! TerraCycle, since its humble beginnings in a Princeton University dorm room, is committed to being a triple bottom line company. Tom at the ancient age of 19 learned about composting with worms. The concept of using tiny little worms to turn food waste into a powerful, organic fertilizer fascinated Tom, who was appalled by the amount of food discarded by his campus's cafeteria. Tom started TerraCycle with no investors from a friend's garage by building a Worm Gin where he could house millions of worms in a small area. He all but bankrupted himself and maxed out all his credit cards to build the machine. With the help of friends he would shovel pounds of rotten, maggot-infested food from the Princeton cafeterias. Without any money left over, Tom could not afford to buy bottles to package his fertilizer. That's when the sustainability gods smiled on Tom, who was up one night wandering the streets Princeton in search of an answer to his packaging dilemma. It just happened to be recycling night and Tom realized that millions of homes were putting billions of free bottles out on the curb once a week! That serendipitous moment set everything to follow into motion. Slowly he began to finance his infantile start up by winning business plan contests. Finally he hit the pay dirt! He won the million dollar grand prize at the Carrot Capital Business plan contest. However, the financiers of the contest wanted to move TerraCycle away from used bottles and away from it's environmental focus. Despite being on the verge of bankruptcy, Tom turned down the money. In the six years since then TerraCycle has grown to a multi-million dollar company that doubles in size every year. Still we are committed to our triple bottom line beginnings. Still making our products from other's people waste. Still based in an Urban Enterprise Zone in Trenton, NJ. Still a second chance employer. Find out how and why, here at

7 responses

  1. While I think you are right to consider what it takes to make the reusable bags, let’s not forget one important thing…Reusable bags show that consumers are willing to make a change for the better. Like a badge of honor, the reusable bag displays our commitment to the environment.
    That said, if we all could sew, we would be happy to turn an old dress into a nice grocery sack. Meanwhile, all we can do is to purchase what’s available to us at a reasonable cost.

  2. Hi Quinn’s Mom!
    You make totally valid points, with which I couldn’t argue. The point of my posting was to inspire people to look deeper into the issue. I 100% support the use of reusable bags, after all my company makes two different types!
    My issue is that this is one of the many green ideas that people view blindly as a complete answer, when it is not. I think that reusable bags are a step in the right direction, but are only a step.
    If a reusable bag is made in China and then shipped 1000’s of miles to your local store how eco-friendly is it?
    If someone purchases a reusable bag and it sits unused in their trunk for 6 months, how eco-friendly is it?
    My point is that we need more transparency in how consumer goods are made and more follow through in how they are used. These are problems that are hard to tackle, but with responsible consumers like you raising the next generation of earth-defenders, we are going the right direction.

  3. Hmm.. well obviously it depends on what the bag is made of. For example, if they’re making canvas, or hemp bags the whole equation radically changes. Of if they’re just charging you for the regular disposables it makes a huge difference – that’s what’ll get people “incentivized”.

  4. Doesn’t it depend on what else the bags are used for?
    I’ve always carried groceries in a backpack. Which I already own, and use every day to carry other things, whether or not I go shopping.
    A reusable bag presumably is reusable for more than just groceries, so the impact must be averaged over all the uses.

  5. Hi Tom,
    I agree. I had no idea when I purchased all 12 bags at my local grocery store (not including the ones I gave out to friends) that i was just buying into another problem. I guess it’s my naivete that allowed me to think that the bags were completely “Green”. And yes, I must confess that I, too, am not completely in the habit of taking the bags each time I go into the store…sometimes I just have the clerk through the groceries back into the cart and I put them in the bags when I get to my car. That’s worth a funny look from the clerk.
    How can we tell the difference between the bags? Because it would make a big difference to me when I make the purchase. I checked, and there are no lables on my “Green” bags from the grocery store.

  6. How about this one…my disposable grocery bags are reincarnated as garbage bags in our home! I do not purchase garbage can liners.
    So, if you do use reusable canvas sacks, backpacks, what-have-yous AND purchase garbage bags (recycled or not), then as far as I see it, you’re just on same plane as me. It’s a balancing act.
    I also use cat food bags, litter bags, anything that can hold trash as garbage bags.
    We happen to live in a city where we can throw all of our recyclables in one bin: books, paper, plastic, alum, glass, etc.! So quite frankly, we have very little actual “garbage.” YEAH!
    ditto on the CHEERS ;)

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