The Problem with Cheap Reusable Shopping Bags

You get what you pay for - cheap bags quickly end up in the waste basket or sitting in a closet, contributing to more wasteful consumption. People are carrying reusable bags everywhere now. Not surprisingly, big-corporate America has jumped on the bandwagon, offering cheap or free reusable shopping bags as a badge of being green.

Unfortunately cheap reusable shopping bags are often more of a marketing ploy than a great choice for the environment. The real heavy lifting required from retailers to put a dent in consumption - like charging for plastic bags and retraining checkout staff to ask for reusable bags - takes far more work than offering a cheap bag made of plastic. Digging a little deeper reveals that many reusable bags are nothing more than another example of green-washing.

Three key questions can prevent you from mindlessly consuming a cheap or free reusable bag:

- Are you going to use it? - Will it last? - Do you trust the company producing it?

Consider this before purchasing:

Who's making the bag and where?

Perhaps the most important question to ask a retailer when considering whether to add a free or cheap reusable bag to your collection is: How are the bags being produced so inexpensively? Fair Trade and Fair Labor practices ensure that employees get a healthy work environment and living wages, and that the goods are produced in a manner that protects natural resources. Such practices usually mean a higher bottom line, which makes inexpensive reusable bags suspect at best and a harmful contradiction at worst if people or natural resources are being exploited to produce them.

Will the bag last?

Even if a cheap or free reusable bag is made according to Fair Labor practices, chances are, the materials and/or the construction of the bag are of poor quality. Cheaper construction may include using toxic or unsafe materials. Or, the bags simply may not last. A cheap reusable bag will break after a few uses - bags that are more flimsy than sturdy will start to give way as you load them up with gallons of milk, cantaloupes and other weekly essentials. Soon, they end up in the garbage can or the recycling bin, minimizing the number of uses and, paradoxically, increasing bag consumption.

A high quality reusable bag eliminates hundreds of cheap reusable bags, and thousands of paper and plastic bags, over its lifetime.

Just because it's free doesn't mean you need it.

When something is free, we tend to take it, whether or not we need it. Then it sits in the back of a closet or cabinet, taking up space and contributing to more wasteful consumption. Cheap reusable bags run the risk of becoming glorified one-timer bags. Soon, you could have a cabinet or closet full of cheap reusable bags that aren't being used, which ends up rivaling your former plastic and paper bag collection - and adds more trash to landfills.

Does Trader Joe know you're cheating on him with Whole Foods?

Many cheap reusable bags have a design or logo, usually the company's name. It's there for a reason - in addition to providing you with a feel-good reminder of where the bag came from, the company also hopes you'll spread the word by donning their bag all around town. Are you comfortable being a walking advertisement for the company that gave you the bag?

Perhaps more importantly, would you walk into one store with another store's logo-emblazoned reusable bag? Many people feel uncomfortable using a Wal-Mart bag at Whole Foods, for example, and end up collecting bags according to store, which defeats the spirit of reusability.

Quality, not quantity.

Instead of more and more bags, our advice is to own a small handful that are attractive, practical, high-quality bag, that you really like and will really use. Durable bags from a trusted source will minimize waste and minimize headaches. Instead of choosing from a heaping pile of cheap or free reusable bags, you'll have your tried and true favorites and be on your way to reducing consumption. Simple and efficient.

Buy a handful of high quality "everyday" reusable bags you will use for years and years from a company you trust - that way you'll know they are responsibly made, built to last and made from quality materials.

Manuel Martinez

Project GreenBag, 2200 Market St, San Francisco, CA, 94114, United States