The problem with too many tote bags

grocery tote
CC BY 2.0 Mike Linksvayer

Reusable shopping bags were a great idea -- until we all started drowning in them.

While doing my biannual clean-out of my home's entranceway last week, I came across a mountain of reusable tote bags. There was more than a dozen, stuffed inside each other, marked with logos of local businesses and events I've attended in recent years. All of these bags had been put in the usual 'grocery store gear' corner, but because they're so compact, I'd been using just the top four bags on the pile for the past year of shopping, oblivious to the rest.

Not that I could use them, even if I tried. Four bags, combined with my hard plastic grocery bin, is enough for each grocery trip. Who needs 15 tote bags, anyways?

Therein lies a huge problem. In our frantic rush to get away from disposable single-use plastic bags, we've gone overboard with tote production. They're handed out as complimentary gifts, or as packaging for yet more complimentary gifts, by charities and retailers. They're sold in every souvenir store, stamped with the name of whatever city you want everyone to know you've visited. They're available at every grocery store checkout for $1, a quick guilt-free purchase that will save you the embarrassment of walking out the door with plastic-bagged groceries.

Now we have too many. As Heather Dockray wrote for Mashable,

"What makes tote bags so devastatingly cruel to our home environments is how much space they take up in our vulnerable storage spaces. Tell me you don't have a tote bag full of other totes. Maybe you have a closet full of nothing but totes, or maybe just a cabinet stuffed to the gills."

Totes are manufactured almost as if they were disposable bags, which is ironic, considering that they're supposed to be a reusable product with an indefinite lifespan. (Have you ever worn out a tote bag? I have not.) And yet, there appears to be no slowing down or end to the rate at which they're churned out.

Thomas Harlander said in LA Magazine last fall:

"There’s, what, 300 million people in the United States? Let’s suppose the average person consumes enough groceries to fill two reusable tote bags per week. If that’s the case, only 600 million reusable tote bags need to exist in this country at any given time.

Now, this is just a guess, but I suspect there’s at least 600 million reusable tote bags out there, which means we can stop making them. I hate to call for the layoff of thousands of workers at the tote mills, but, guys, we have a sufficient amount of bags. MISSION ACCOMPLISHED."

Then there's the debate about carbon footprints, and the fact that a cotton tote needs to be used 131 times to achieve the same emissions-per-use ratio as a single-use plastic bag, with that number decreasing to 11 uses for recycled plastic tote bags (like those red-and-black Lululemon bags everyone seems to have). Some people use that as a reason not to embrace totes, but I reject it based on the wildlife damage and blight from litter that we know single-use plastics cause in the natural world. (Surfrider Foundation addresses some of these false claims about the so-called benefits of disposable plastic bags.)

Plus, we can totally break even if we're committed to the cause. Think about it: If we all owned only four reusable cotton bags, and used those bags every time we shopped, say once a week, we'd break even in 2.5 years. (Yes, there are totes I've owned for 2.5 years, so I don't think that's an unrealistic suggestion.) And that's if you consider a tote to be equivalent to a plastic bag in terms of carrying capacity, which it most certainly is not. I can fit the equivalent of 3 plastic bags in each of my totes, which would bring the break-even point down to around 10 months. Stick with recycled plastic totes and you'll break even in under 3 months (or just one month, if you're stashing three plastic bags' worth in each one).

The problem is not with reusable totes themselves -- they're a great invention -- but that we own too many. We need to learn to say no to them, in order to curb production. We need to turn down the kindly offer of a bag to take home, which is exactly what Bea Johnson and other zero waste/minimalist experts have been saying all along: "Reject the freebies! Stop that stuff from entering your home!"

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