Over the weekend, we took a minivan full of stuff to Goodwill. Included were several reusable cotton bags that we’d been given over the years from businesses and organizations — bags that I never used because we have so many reusable bags, and I’ve discovered which ones meet my needs the best. The rest just sit there.

This morning, I read an interesting piece on Philly.com about reusable bags. Although the reusable bag market has grown, there isn’t any hard evidence that suggests the plastic bag market has decreased. In fact, “indirect measures suggest that plastic bag production has remained relatively steady.”

Reusable bags are supposed to help us consume less, specifically fewer plastic and paper bags. The number of reusable bags being given away at Earth Day events, sporting events, town festivals, banks, grocery stores and more ends up in the millions each year, and not everyone who is given a bag uses it. (Target gave away a million reusable bags just this month.)

Sometimes they go unused because they are of inferior quality. Sometimes they go unused because they end up in a pile of other free, unused reusable bags. Sometimes the person who accepted it never gets into the habit of using it.

With all of these bags going unused, a new environmental problem is developing — bags that end up getting thrown away without having been used. When the Chicago Bears gave away 40,000 bags at a 2009 game, many of them ended up in the stadium trash. I wonder about the bags that I took to Goodwill over the weekend. Is anyone ever going to use them?

Even if the giveaways do get reused, they might not get reused enough. 

A nonwoven polypropylene bag, for example, would have to be used just 11 times to make up for the negative effects of a plastic bag used one time, according to a British Environment Agency study that compared bags. A cotton bag, however, would have to be used 131 times.
So if reusable bags aren’t solving the one-time use problem and they’re causing some environmental problems themselves, what’s the answer?
  • For consumers, stop accepting free reusable bags that won’t get used. Just like we politely decline the free paper or plastic bags at checkout, we need to start politely declining a free reusable bag that we know we’ll never use again.
  • For businesses and organizations wanting to give away bags as freebies for marketing purposes, consider the quality and the usefulness of the bags you’re giving away.
  • For legislators, banning or placing a tax on the use of one-time use bags is proving to be effective, while bag giveaways and small rebates for reusable bags are not. When bans and taxes are enforced, people use those reusable bags more often. The use of plastic bags decreases significantly, and fewer plastic bags end up on the sides of roads and in our waterways.
Do you have reusable bags in your home that go unused? 

Also on MNN:

Robin Shreeves ( @rshreeves ) focuses on food from a family perspective from her home base in New Jersey.

Are reusable bags doing the good we think they are?
As we accumulate more reusable bags, many of them go unused. Reusable bags are creating their own environmental problems. What’s the answer?