Time to go greener

Colorful and beneficial to the environment, reusable grocery bags can help our planet regain its health. Photo by Eleni Collins
Colorful and beneficial to the environment, reusable grocery bags can help our planet regain its health. Photo by Eleni Collins

By Eleni Collins - July 27, 2006

Rising global warming levels are headlining our newspapers and online news outlets every day. According to a recent article on the Cable News Network's (CNN) web site, the earth is the hottest it has been in at least the past 2,000 years. The time has come for communities to examine their daily habits that have contributed to the decline of the planet's health.

Lisa Foster, an avid environmentalist who summers in Aquinnah and lives in Los Angeles, has begun to do exactly that by starting 1 Bag at a Time, a reusable grocery bag project. Cronig's Market, of Vineyard Haven and West Tisbury, is the first Island market to fully participate by ordering 5,000 bags from her, in addition to their environmentally-friendly canvas bag program where customers bring in 50 clean paper bags for the store to reuse, and are rewarded with a canvas grocery bag. Other stores on the Island, such as the Chilmark Store and Reliable Market in Oak Bluffs, have also begun to sell Ms. Foster's bags.

Lisa Foster, founder and CEO of 1 Bag at a Time, displays one of her bags at the down-Island Cronig's Market. She is joined by store owner Steve Bernier and store manager Sarah McKay. Photo by Susan Safford
Lisa Foster, founder and CEO of 1 Bag at a Time, displays one of her bags at the down-Island Cronig's Market. She is joined by store owner Steve Bernier (left) and store manager Sarah McKay (right). Photo by Susan Safford

One Bag at a Time is an effort by Ms. Foster to encourage, educate, and enforce the use of reusable grocery bags instead of the plastic and paper options found today in stores across the United States. She has already distributed bags to 16 stores in the United States in California, New York, New Hampshire, and Washington, among other states.

Ms. Foster says the current use of plastic and paper disposable grocery bags pose three major problems concerning the three phases of their lifetime: production, consumption, and disposal. First, to make both types of bags, petroleum and natural gasses are required. This results in a continuing dependency on oil suppliers, and creates pollution that contributes to global warming. "Most people don't know this, but there is enough petroleum in 14 plastic bags to drive your car a mile," Ms. Foster said. "That's the petroleum in the bags and in what's used to manufacture them."

In the past, paper bags were thought to be the answer to the overwhelmingly huge demand for grocery bags. Originally they were considered to be better for the environment than plastic bags. "Steve Bernier had gone out of his way to make a commitment to the environment by switching to paper bags," said Ms. Foster, concerning Cronig's shift to using only paper bags. According to Mr. Bernier, the owner of the store, this change occurred at least 15 years ago. "Paper bags have been the standard in environmental choices in the last 30 years, and not without reason," said Ms. Foster. "They are from renewable resources, they are biodegradable, but environmental priorities have recently shifted. We have a broader view of things and if you take into consideration the whole life cycle of the bag, we now have even better choices." A lesser-known fact, according to Ms. Foster, is that the manufacturing of paper bags requires 70 percent more petroleum than that of plastic bags.

Secondly, the cost to provide the complimentary disposable bags to their customers costs U.S. retailers an estimated $4 billion per year. By selling reusable bags, stores will gain profit and assist in a positive environmental change.

Lastly, one of the biggest problems with the bags is disposal. Burning them creates air pollution, and because of their high volume they take up much-needed space in landfills. "People don't think about how much it costs cities to get rid of bags," said Ms. Foster. "In San Francisco, it costs $.17 per bag for disposal. If New Yorkers alone reduced their bag use by one bag a year, the city would save one-quarter of a million dollars each year." In addition, plastic bags take up to 1,000 years to degrade.

Other countries are already doing their part to reduce the harming effects of disposable grocery bag use. In 2002, the Republic of Ireland introduced "PlasTax," a $.15 tax on every plastic bag used from grocery stores. Consumption dropped by 90 percent, and approximately 18 millions liters of oil have been conserved that would have been used for production, according to the web site www.reusablebags.com.

Ms. Foster thought of the idea to bring reusable bags into the U.S. during a visit to Melbourne, Australia, where she found many supermarkets distributing the bags. "I came back here thinking this is the best product I've ever seen," said Ms. Foster. "The one thing I couldn't leave Australia without was these bags."

Available in black, blue, red, and green, the bags are made out of a petroleum product, polypropylene, the same product used for making paper and plastic bags. The difference is that one reusable bag holds what three to four plastic and two paper bags could, and they are designed to be used two to three times weekly for at least two years. They are made with a durable, removable and washable bottom. "Frankly, I never need to wash mine, and I very rarely fill up three bags when I shop for my family of four."

The bags are available now at both Cronig's Market locations and cost $1.99 plus tax. They are also available at Reliable Market, on Circuit Ave. in Oak Bluffs for $2.99, and at the Chilmark Store for $3.99. For more information about 1 Bag at a Time, visit the web site www.onebagatatime.com or contact Lisa Foster at 310-490-2787.