The holiday season is almost upon us and that means its time for men and women to test their strength carrying 5, 10, dare we say 20 shopping bags at a time as they rush from store to store to car and back again. Ever wonder, where do all of those bags come from, and more importantly, is there anything environmental about them? Well, I had a chance to sit down with Dave Bock, owner of Earth Pack, the maker of many of the shopping bags you see today. Treehugger mentioned them previously in this packaging QandA. What follows is a fascinating look at the pros and cons of retail packaging and the finding that there are no easy solutions when it comes to retail bags.
Like many small business ideas, this was a fictitious school project that was also an unfulfilled market. Bock grew up as a surfer and was always interested in design, and in the 80’s he noticed that there was a shortage of retail bags at surf shops due to the petroleum shortage. The idea for Earth Pack was then formed and Bock began to design and develop a bag and then rode around via bike power to different surf shops in San Diego offering his bags. The story does not end here though, as there are many iterations of bags in terms of material content, design and just what is better – paper or plastic. First off, while we know that it takes plastic bags hundreds of years to photo-degrade and that every piece of plastic ever made is still out in the environment in some form. But, are there good uses to plastic bags, namely those plastic shopping bags – well, according to Bock, a plastic bag can be reused many times, This assumes that the owner chooses to find multiple uses for it instead of just trashing it after first use and getting a new plastic bag with each purchase. A paper shopping bag on the other hand has a shorter lifespan as its not as durable to the elements or to multiple uses.
Well you might ask, why don’t designers just make those retail plastic bags out of 100% recycled content – sounds good in theory, right? So what about those post consumer recycled plastic bags – well, according to Bock the greater the post-consumer recycled plastic content in the bag, the less durable the bag is, which leads to double bagging or a shortened life-span for said bag.
Next, 100% recycled content bags are not recyclable because latex is added to give them durability thus eliminating any future recycling potential. These bags are also thicker and therefore take up more space and lead to more trucks needed to deliver the product. It’s ultimately a balance of creating bags that have the maximum recycled content without making them overly thick or losing durability.
Then it’s back to the drawing board; how else to make those shopping bags more eco-friendly. Well, Earth Pack recently developed a bag for Vans Shoes that is more ideally designed for what is going into that bag. By cutting off materials around the top and handle of the bag (areas of the bag where items can’t fit anyways) this saves on materials. They also added shrink-wrap into the material mix to create a thinner but durable bag. The bags are also 100% recyclable and use 30% post consumer recycled material.
You might ask about those bio-based bags, made namely out of corn but Bock would tell you that those bags use a lot of fertilization to produce all of the corn necessary. Doesn’t sound very environmental when you add toxins and pollution to the environment just to try and get away from using other toxic products.
The final suggestion, the highly popular canvas bags that can be used almost indefinitely. Well, Bock mentioned that a family of four that may get 20 grocery bags worth of food at a time won’t be bothered to carry 20+ canvas bags into a grocery store. Well, that may be, but as with the canvas bags in general it will require a paradigm shift into how we see our shopping practices, how much we buy at a time, whether we visit farmers markets for smaller portions more often. Maybe someone can come up with a canvas bag sharing program at grocery stores where you bring in bags and get a credit when you enter the store and take home bags as needed and then are again credited for returning said bags. Just a thought.
Earth Pack also ensures that other aspects of product development are earth friendly by using water-based inks, and reusing unused materials for new bags. For the time being Earth Pack plans to stick with the box and bag development as they know how to keep branding consistent when customers order printed materials.
Currently Earth Pack sells bags, boxes, tissue paper and giftwrap. Today Earth Pack continues its environmental stewardship as it donates portions of its profits to several social and environmental causes. For more information on Earth Pack, you can visit them online EarthPack.