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.