the elephant in the room of bags

I got my first reusable shopping bags back around 1990. Back then, I mostly used them for putting the plastic shopping bags into on the way back from the supermarket. I lived on-campus in a single-student apartment building, and the nearest place to get groceries required a long bus ride and a long walk to schlep everything back home. Plastic bags often wouldn't survive the trip.

The net bag on the top left is the same design as those early bags, although I probably bought it a few years later because it isn't ripped up. Below it is one of my earliest logo bags. Its original purpose was to hold all the paper I got at the conference advertised on it. In the bottom right is a 90s-style DIY bag I crocheted out of dishcloth cotton, and above that is one of my first retail logo bags. Incidentally, the LCBO bag is equally divided into four pockets on the inside, the better to carry your wine bottles and liquor (although it's awfully heavy if you actually fill all the pockets with bottles of booze).

Sometime in the early noughties, reusable shopping bag manufacturers stopped caring so much about using ecologically-friendly materials like unbleached cotton and starting using stuff that probably originated in an oil refinery somewhere. It's very strong, and since the whole idea is to keep the bags out of the landfills, I suppose I can live with it to some extent. The plastic reusables do seem to be somewhat stronger than the cotton ones, although I suspect the biggest motivator is that they let manufacturers create better advertising for the shops the bags come from.

It's hard to tell from the photo, but this Sainsbury's bag is enormous — I've managed to fit my entire week's worth of groceries into it a few times. It also has a velcro tab at the top of the bag, between the handles, which is convenient.

My favourite bags, though, are the pocket bags. These are made from petroleum-based products, too, but they fold up into a very small package and can easily be shoved into a purse or coat pocket until they're needed. They can have logos, too — the "t-bag" one at the top left comes from a tea shop.

The top two bags have their pockets attached to the bag, which makes them very quick to unfold and to put away. As a bonus, you always know where the pocket is. The two orange bags at the bottom have separate pockets (the dark orange one on the right has a loop to hook the pocket onto, at least). They're still extremely useful. I can fit all of these bags, my wallet, my keys, and my cell phone into a small purse and head off to the market as unencumbered as I was back when plastic bags were the norm.

Back when I first started using those plain-cotton net bags at the top of this post, using reusables meant that you were a radical, tree-hugging, granola-munching eco-freak. I had to fight with checkout cashiers to not give me a shopping bag most places I went. No-one knew how to handle them unless the shop had made being environmentally-friendly part of their marketing and shopping experience and given their staff training on reusable-bag etiquette.

Now, in Toronto at least, plastic bags must be sold at 5 cents apiece, and people are learning to bring their own bags. The reusables have become a fashion accessory, and come in lots of designs and colours. People swap tips on which ones are the most cool-looking/comfortable to carry/strongest.

There's just one little catch, though. Reusable bags are... reusable, and must needs be made to be durable. Except for a few that have been overloaded, or that I lost, or that I dragged across Queen St. whilst trying to catch the streetcar, I still own every single bag I've owned for the last twenty years.

That's a lot of bags. They come in very handy when I move house, but otherwise I only ever really use the pocket bags for shopping. The rest are used in an futile attempt to organise my knitting by project, but even then there are over a dozen spare bags stuffed into my front hall closet.

Most of these were given to me, rather than bought. Shops give them away as promos, or relatives give them to me because they know I don't use plastic bags.

Maybe there are still a lot of people who don't have their full quota of reusable bags yet, but at some point the consumer market is going to be saturated, with only people making a home for the first time and those who finally need replacements creating a demand for bags.

Will the reduced demand for shopping bags teach us to reduce, period? Will the superior quality of reusable over throwaway plastic finally teach North Americans that quality is more important than quantity? What do you think?