The evolution of grocery bags

Plastic or paper? I first heard of the question after a couple of days of my arrival to the United States when I was out with my brother for Thanksgiving grocery shopping. I was confused and did not know what to say to the bagger. We did not have such luxurious option in Vietnam. We brought our own grocery bag to the market. And while I was thinking which one would do a better job, my brother yelled out from behind “plastic”. I turned to my brother with a weird puzzled look on my face and without even asking, my brother whispered making sure no one could hear him “they can be used as trash bags later”. After all it is not about which bag is a stronger bag but more about what else we can use them for after all that groceries are unloaded. If it was not about using plastic bag as trash bag or financial issue, which one would you choose? Well, hold your thought for now.

Hundred of years ago, there were “general stores” that sold everything such as meats, groceries, hardware and necessities in bulk. Breaking up in small quantities was a vixen problem. Many people came with baskets or tote bag of jute, if not some asked for brown paper bag. The first paper bag making machine was designed and put into manufacturing in 1852 by a 35 years old schoolmaster, Francis Wolle, in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Today the Union Bag and Paper Corporation, founded by Wolle, his brother and others, is the largest mill of its kind in the world. Each day the company produces 35 million paper bags, which is around 9 billion per year. Each family in the United States uses roughly 250 bags per year. The competition, however, just had begun. In 1977 the plastic industry introduced their version open grocery bags with carrying handles to compete against the brown paper bag. Californians only use more than 19 billion plastic grocery bags (380 billion nation-wide) each year, roughly 552 bags per person, which is twice the amount of paper bag usage. Indeed industry figures show that 90 percent of all grocery bags are plastic. Plastic bags are popular for light weight, easy to handle, convenient, water-resistance and reusable.

Well, the competition finish line does not end there. Many studies have shown that plastic bags do not biodegrade. They can linger in the environment for more than 1,000 years, which means all the early plastic bags are still around. The recycling process is quite energy intensive. Recycling one ton of plastic bags is about the same as using up 11 barrels of oil. According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, only 1% of plastic bags were recycled in 2000. If plastic bags do not clog the storm drains, they would end up in the mouths of sea turtles, whales and other marine animals. An estimate of 3 million tons are floating in the Pacific Ocean 1,000 miles off west of San Francisco. Thus, this enormous amount can cover twice the size of Texas. What about paper bags? Fourteen million trees were cut in 1999 to produce the ten billion paper grocery bags used by Americans that year. The energy required to recycle papers is twice as much for plastic. In response to this issue, on Tuesday 11/20/2007, the city of San Francisco took the lead and banned large grocery stores from giving out traditional plastic bags. Fine can be up to $500 if not comply. Soon after Oakland, CA passed similar ban that went into effect in 2008. Another two big cities, London and Paris, followed San Francisco’s lead in the effort of going green. On January 22, 2008, Whole Foods Market, leading in natural and organic foods grocery store, announced that they will end the plastic bags era at their checkout stands to be plastic free by Earth Day, April 22, 2008. They will be the first supermarket to completely eliminate plastic bags to protect the environment and conserve natural resources.

Consequently, the grocery bags market is yet going through another evolution and design iteration – cloth bag. This time the main focus is about keeping the environment green. Some of these bags are made of 100% natural, unbleached cotton. The fabric weight is a strong 10 ounce canvas duck and can easily hold 40 pounds (19 kg). They can be easily found for as cheap as $1 at Safeway, Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods and even at mom-and-pop grocery stores. They come with different sizes and style. There are cute “pink” cloth bags out there for stylish female shoppers, as well as just plain canvas for macho male shoppers or as green as the environment should be for the environmentalists. The choice is yours.

Going back to my question earlier about your choice between plastic and paper – how’s about cloth? As a matter of fact, I am proud to say that people in Vietnam have long contributed to the effort of going green by bring their own bags to the supermarkets. How can we not apply the same habit and mentality else where? Going green is no longer an option but rather an action that each one of us is responsible for. It just takes one person at a time to start with and others will follow. If you can do one good thing for the environment this Earth Day, go get yourself a cloth bag!

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