The Fashionable Choice: Reusables

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"I'm not a plastic bag" bagLondon designer Anya Hindmarch helped to jumpstart the eco-friendly fashion craze in reusable tote bags with her now-iconic “I’m Not a Plastic Bag” bag in 2006 with social movement We Are What We Do.  Celebrities and models alike have been seen sporting these bags everywhere, causing them to sell out within hours of their introduction to the United States through select stores in 2007.  Why this? Why reusables?

Reuse, Reduce, and Recycle

People use plastic bags for many other things once they get home, like lining the trash bin, bringing wet clothes home from the beach, gathering leaves in the fall and winter, and while walking the dog. But what happens when you lose these plastic bags, or one rips?  In 2005, the Environmental Protection Agency found that approximately 5.2% of plastic bags are recycled (1).  On average, Americans use between 300 and 700 million plastic bags per year – 500 billion to one trillion worldwide.  That’s a lot of plastic bags that just ‘disappear’.  Unrecycled plastic that is burned can yield anywhere between 10,000 to 20,000 btu per pound, which can be used to create electricity and help reduce sulfur emissions from coal.

Compared to paper, plastic bags use less energy, oil and water than paper bags, and emit fewer greenhouse gases and less solid waste.   They only make up 18% of waste by volume and 7% by weight.  But burning plastics can create dioxins and emit heavy metals into the air.  They sit in landfills for centuries.  And when they finally photo-degrade small enough, they mix with our water and soils, affecting the ecosystems of those habitats.

http://www.flickr.com/photos/seaotter22/

Paper or Plastic?

Most of the plastic consumed ends up in landfills where it takes hundreds of years to break down.  Even then, plastic bags do not completely biodegrade, rather they photo-degrade, meaning they break down into smaller pieces when exposed to ultraviolet rays.  Even the most conservative scientists have speculated that it will take several hundred years for plastic to photo-degrade even when exposed to the best conditions.  Made from polyethylene, plastic bags are watertight, can be printed on, and reused many times.  They can be melted and reformed into other plastic products, but while they are recyclable, it is not considered “cradle to cradle”, meaning it cannot be returned to an organic state.

A Fashionable Alternative 

Many companies have since jumped on the reusable bandwagon as a better alternative to paper and plastic, and most large grocery chains now offer reusable cloth bags with their names or sponsors printed on them.  They are not the only ones who are becoming more eco-friendly.  Big names in fashion from Proenza Schouler to Dolce and Gabbana have created reusable canvas and cloth bags to keep you in fashion while doing something as mundane as grocery shopping.

– Suzanne Lee

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