Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Let's Stop and Think About Why We Have Reusable Shopping Bags in the First Place

I have long been an advocate of reusable grocery bags. In addition to reducing waste and toxins from plastic manufacturing, reusable bags have the benefits of being inexpensive, durable, versatile, and convenient. Before today, I couldn't come up with a single reason not to use them. But this morning I learned that cloth bags are bacteria traps (if one doesn't wash them).

According to a University of Arizona and Loma Linda University survey, 97% of shoppers do not wash their reusable bags, thus creating "the potential for cross-contamination of foods." In particular uncooked meats leave behind bacteria, including E-coli, that can befoul other foods.

The obvious solution to the bacteria problem is to wash one's shopping bags. But doing extra loads of laundry uses a lot of water and power and introduces detergents into the water supply. So if you use more than a dozen cloth bags each time you go to the grocery store, and if you faithfully wash these bags after each trip, you're really just trading one environmentally questionable practice for another.

The obvious eco-friendly solution, then, would be to designate one or two bag(s) the meat bag(s) and one or two bag(s) the fresh veggie bag(s) and wash these bags regularly while washing the other bags infrequently. Two or three bags could squeeze into existing loads of laundry without requiring one to use additional water, power, or detergent. Problem solved, more or less.

As I was researching the bacteria-in-bags problem, I came across this post from Pocket Change's Be Green blog. (Pocket Change, from what I can gather, is a network of websites devoted to shopping.) It suggests two things: First, it recommends washing all one's shopping bags weekly with a powerful detergent. Again, I think this undoes a lot of the good that comes from using cloth bags in the first place, especially since Be Green uses this suggestion to promote regular All detergents instead of recommending eco-friendly alternatives. Second, it recommends anti-bacterial wipes. The disposable kind. The kind that you use once and throw away. Be Green doesn't even make the effort to recommend biodegradable wipes.

I fear that, for the Be Green blogger (and many, many others out there, possibly including myself), going green is more about trends and appearances than about conservation or making sacrifices in the interest of preserving the natural world (including the air we breathe and the water we drink). Two years ago, at its General Conference, The United Methodist Church voted to fight global warming through a campaign that includes "printing and mailings." In other words, my denomination decided to save the environment by wasting paper. But I don't mean to pick on Be Green or the UMC. As a culture, we're becoming a society of greenwashers. We buy products and join campaigns that make us feel green, but too often don't consider the actual environmental impact of our purchases and actions.

Preserving the natural world isn't about following trends. It's about what we use and what we waste, what we do and how we do it.


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