The Incredible, Promotional Green Bag

Dennis Salazar

January 30, 2014

6 Min Read
The Incredible, Promotional Green Bag

I realize the word "incredible" is typically used in the context of something that is excellent or amazing, such as “the incredible catch our right fielder made last night in the sixth inning.”  In this case I prefer to use it in the less common definition “hard to believe” or as some put it, “lacking credibility.”

First, allow me to say that I am NOT a sworn enemy of big box retailers in general or specifically Wal-Mart. I realize there are people and groups for whom criticizing Wal-Mart and other mega retailers, is considered good sport, but I have no such inclination or agenda.

At the same time, when any retailer intentionally or unintentionally deceives and/or confuses the green public they claim to serve, they must be exposed because of the tremendous positive or negative potential impact they have on our environment.  

My Problem with Most Mass Marketed, Reusable Shopping Bags
Almost every large retailer is now selling their own custom printed reusable shopping bags to satisfy consumers’ demand for a solution to the “earth threatening plastic shopping bag problem.” 

These bags are typically printed with the retailer’s logo and at another time, they would have probably been given away to customers for free. However, in the 21st century one of the first rules of retailing is to never, ever give away anything you can sell and if customers are eager to buy, who can possibly blame the retailers for selling? Ironically, while each printed bag in use serves as a walking billboard ad for the selling retailer, that marketing and advertising value does not always appear to result in a lower bag price to the eco-minded consumer.  

Yet cost versus green value is a very personal decision so I would rather focus on these three questions:

- What sort of carbon footprint are we leaving behind when we ship inexpensive, “eco friendly” bags from the other side of the world? 

-What is the composition of the bag? Is it natural or synthetic fiber? Is that fiber virgin or recycled content? 

-What do you do with the bag when it eventually wears out? Is it recyclable? If so under what circumstances?

The Results of my brief, informal analysis … 

1. Where do these bags come from?
I have to wonder how many eco minded customers even bother to notice these bags come from around the world. I took a close look at two different bags Wal-Mart is selling, and those from Meijer’s and Target and they were all manufactured in China. Somewhat surprisingly, at Sam’s Club, they offered a bag made in Vietnam, in a two pack of course. It is going to take someone far brighter than me to calculate the carbon footprint of these shopping bags but let’s assume it is far greater than the almost insignificant cost the large retailers are paying for them.  

2. What are they made of?
The Meijer’s and Target bags are made of 100% non-woven polypropylene. Just for the record, even though these shopping bags are often designed to look like natural fiber fabric, they are not. In fact the process used to make nonwoven PP consists of plastic forced between rollers at high temperature so it is more of a molding or extrusion process.

The Sam’s Club bag is marked with a recycle logo and PP in the middle. I am not sure why they chose to not use the universal recycling code but maybe they did not know polypropylene is a number 5. Or perhaps there is something in the bag that they are not sure of. It just makes me curious when the self proclaimed leader of the green world does not follow the few standards that exist in this area. 

The Wal-Mart reusable bag mystery continues on the black and blue bags they offer at their non-club locations. Those bags are marked as “100% recycled material and 100% recyclable.” We’ll deal with the recyclability question shortly, but since our food is being hauled in them, it would be nice to know what they’re made of. Do they not know the content, do they not want to tell us or do they simply not want their customers to realize Wal-Mart is now selling them a plastic bag to replace the free plastic bags they were getting before? My guess is that the material(s) content is probably not as green as they may lead you to believe.

3. Where will they wind up?
I know these bags are supposed to last a very long time, and generally plastic does. However, they will eventually wear out and then what becomes of them?

I spoke to a contact at Waste Management and was told that not many of these have shown up in their curbside recycling program, yet. I guess that is a good thing but we know it is just a matter of time before they do. They also anticipate them to be a problem because of the construction, protruding handles and often mysterious content. How can anything be recyclable if it does not have a recycle code or if we don’t know what it is made of? Shouldn’t it be mandatory for retailers to mark this somewhere on these bags?  

Keep in mind most recycling centers count on some degree of automated sorting to help reduce cost. If recycled waste requires manual sorting or jams up processing equipment that of course increases the cost of recycling it. At the same time, if the waste is not easily or quickly identifiable in terms of content it must be sold as mixed plastic which reduces the value and limits what that waste can be used for in its next life, if it ever has one.

Product that is never made is probably the most eco friendly of all. If the use of these bags minimizes or reduces the need for new plastic or even paper bags; that is a very good thing. I am confident people feel good when they buy them and believe they are doing a good thing for the environment though I am not sure how many people actually use them regularly. Like most good habits, they are difficult to maintain.  

I attend green conferences and festivals and I have seen some beautiful bags made of natural, renewable fibers but the mega retailers are not buying them. Some will claim it is about cost and price point and perhaps there is some truth to that. Others will claim that the polypropylene bags will last longer and there may be some truth to that as well. 

When they tell us those heavy duty plastic bags are better for us and the environment, well that’s just incredible.


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