Avoiding an excess of tote bags

When I first started working as a professional organizer I often found people had what seemed to be an excessive number of grocery bags — paper, plastic, or both. If they agreed, I would often take those excess bags and donate them to charities doing food giveaways.

However, starting in 2007, laws in California changed — first in certain cities and counties, and then at the statewide level. California now bans many stores from providing single-use plastic bags at check-out (with a few exceptions), and stores now charge a small fee for paper bags.

There’s good reason for such bans, as Chelsea Harvey explained in The Washington Post:

Plastic bags are infamous non-biodegradable sources of pollution — although they will eventually break down into tiny pieces, scientists believe this process can take hundreds of years, or even up to a millennium, in landfills.

Many scientists are growing particularly concerned about plastic pollution in the oceans. Research suggests that 5 million to 12 million metric tons of plastic may have been dumped into the ocean in 2010 alone. There, the waste is frequently eaten by seabirds and other marine animals — or it breaks down into tiny pieces known as microplastics, which scientists believe can be harmful or even toxic to sea creatures who ingest it.

If you want to know more, Ed Yong wrote a fascinating article for The Atlantic explaining why some seabirds are attracted to this plastic. If you still use plastic grocery bags, you’ll want to be sure they get reused (by you or others) or disposed of responsibly so they don’t wind up in the ocean. Bags that are left in the street often get washed into gutters, and go from there into various waterways.

As a result of these new laws restricting single-use bags, reusable tote bags have become popular. And now I often see people with an excess of those bags, partly because tote bags get given away so often. I’ve gotten bags at conferences and received bags as gifts from charities. I got one when I subscribed to a certain newspaper.

I use a lot of bags in my work — they’re handy for hauling away items my clients want to donate, recycle, or give away. But even I wound up with more bags than I could possibly use, without buying a single one. This is a common problem, as Noah Dillon noted in The Atlantic:

In a 2009 article about the bags for Design Observer, the Urban Outfitters designer Dmitri Siegel claimed to have found 23 tote bags in his house, collected from various organizations, stores, and brands. …

He notes that because the bags are large, flat, and easily printed on, they’re great for embellishment and product placement. They’re given away with purchases at galleries, bookstores, eyeglass boutiques, grocers, tattoo parlors.

Besides cluttering our homes, these bags have another problem: They take a lot of resources to produce. Dillon noted that a bag made of recycled polypropylene plastic would need to be reused 26 times to be as environmentally sound (from a resource usage standpoint) as a plastic bag. And a cotton tote bag would need to be used 327 times!

So what can someone trying to live a green and uncluttered life do? For one thing, you can decline to take extra bags you don’t need when they are offered. If you always carry a tote bag with you, it’s easy to tell a store that you don’t need theirs for your purchase. (Small bags that have limited reuse possibilities are especially annoying.) Get in the habit of always having bags in your car or carrying one or more with you when you walk, bicycle, or take public transit to any place where you might do some shopping. Many bags fold up to a very small size and can fit in a backpack, purse, briefcase, etc.

Similarly, if a charity offers a bag as a reward for making a donation, decline that offer if you don’t need any more bags. When you see clever tote bags on sale (and there are certainly many that I’ve found tempting), consider whether it’s something you’ll really use or if will just become clutter — just as you would with any purchase.

Finally, you can give away excess bags. It seems that not everyone has too many, because I successfully freecycled about a dozen a few months ago.

7 Comments for “Avoiding an excess of tote bags”

  1. posted by Brian Witt on

    I fill excess bags with donations to go to my local thrift store. Kills 2 birds with 1 stone.

  2. posted by Haggie on

    And wash your reusable totes regularly. They accumulated all kinds dirts and germs.

  3. posted by Jen on

    I’ve been using the same ones for years. New ones rarely come in to the house. I find it very easy to say no thank you when someone tries to give me something for free – it’s not free, I need to find a home for it, care for it and finally get rid of it. I do seem to lose the odd one, so there have been replacements, but few and far between.

  4. posted by laura ann on

    I have an assortment of tote bags, a real nice one given away from a car dealer. I gladly take them all and give some to group homes for the kids. Tractor supply has nice heavy duty large ones for 1.49 well worth it. They can be used for trips in the car, beach bags, etc. I have even used them for putting gifts in. I spray 7th Generation antibacterial spray into them as needed. I thought the newer plastic bags were made from corn products and bio degradable.

  5. posted by Marion on

    My dentist gives me a cute little plastic bag each time I have my teeth cleaned, every six months. The bag is filled with a free toothbrush, toothpaste and dental floss, which I definitely can use. But I don’t need the plastic bag, so I take out the 3 items and return to him the cute plastic bag. I also do that with any other commercial business, such as the bank. They hand me my money in a little paper envelope. I take out the money and hand them their envelope!

  6. posted by SkiptheBS on

    Patterns for making totes from an old T-shirt (or any other fabric) are available online. My preference is for the pricey but durable Workhorse from reuseit.com. They fold into a small bag which is sewn into the side of the tote, and are available in ripstop nylon or mesh. Mine are still going strong at nearly five years old. I carry four and gave four to my boss’s wife. Totes are not given away in small town flyover country so we don’t accumulate them.

  7. posted by Vanessa on

    Lightbulb moment for me. I am a cloth bag hoarder. Like most things in life, I suppose, you have to look at the big picture. A cloth bag is far better for the environment than plastic if, say, you are reusing some old fabric you already have. But if (like me) you have purchased many a cute tote in the name of thinking it “helps” the environment or supporting a charming independent bookstore (and, of course, never really using half of them because they are so cute) – you’re probably better off using plastic. The manufacturing process of cheap cotton and dyes is brutal and it is money (and chemicals) down the drain it they’re never used.

    I’m off to organize my pile (and I suspect donate many). And I vow to make a huge effort to use the ones I have and resist getting more, from the bookstore fundraisers to the conference freebies. Thank you for the eye opening piece.

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