This entry was posted by Tuesday, 23 November, 2010
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Mister ScienceAintSoBad loves resuseable grocery bags. They’re just nice. They have logos. They don’t fall apart. You can haul yer pet to the groomer in one. And they’re good for the environment, right?

What if they’re not good for the environment? Does that mean the concept of reusable bags blows up?

Before I go on, I should say I hope I’m not trying to be mean. I don’t LIKE discouraging people who are trying to do good but I signed up for science and technology.

My job.

So – the facts.

Let’s start with a widely read journalist who specializes in this stuff, Bob Lillienfield (Use Less Stuff report), who says that even if EVERYBODY used reusable bags, it wouldn’t much matter:

The bag is not the environmental bogey-person that everybody thinks it is,” he says. “If you look at the entire grocery package that you bought, the bag may account for 1 to 2 percent of the environmental impact.

1 or 2 percent? And, maybe 12% of shoppers use ’em? Gee. Let’s look a little deeper into this environmental miracle.

How long do they last?

Maybe MISTER ScienceAintSoBad’s not as careful as he should be but reusable bags seem to wear out  in as little as 15 uses (holes in the bottom) and since the bags are much heavier and fatter than regular plastic bags, they take more space in a landfill and more space in the trucks that carry them (which then  use more fuel per bag). They’re designed to be degradable and that could be a good thing. But we know that even paper bags don’t degrade significantly faster than their plastic cousins in a landfill. Not enough info on reusable bags yet but MISTER ScienceAintSoBad isn’t real optimistic about them, either.

Then there’s food poisoning.

Which only happens if you let yer bags get nasty.

By reusing them.

Karen Hawthorne (National Post) says we should wash ’em with bleach each time to minimize the chances of getting sick. She describes a study by Sporometrics in Canada. Most of the bags were contaminated. Some were pretty bad.

Wash them? Bleach? EACH time? Electricity, detergent, and bleach? HOW much energy did you say these bags save?

And what about your time? That’s worth nothing?


These bags’re good for all kinds of things. But, if you’re motivated by environmental concerns, they’re a bust.


You’re mad at me?

I’m not surprised.

My wife, best friend and, (she’ll be surprised to learn) editor, hasn’t let me run with my religion article yet. She says I gotta tone it down. Too edgy. Easily misinterpreted. Which really surprises me since it’s very supportive of religious belief and believers (it says, mainly,  that the clash between science and religion is overplayed and overly simplistic).

Well, if you think religion is a touchy area, how about environmentalism?

Screw with those guys and out come the tar pots!

I know it isn’t nice to diss the sacred renewable bag and MISTER ScienceAinSoBad wishes he could be more positive.

You want to register your opinion, here’s a good resource for tar. Feathers are available lots of places, but you can try this one.

Our rating for reusable shopping bags: ScienceAintSoBadRating = 2

(And  that’s generous).


  1. Justin Lev-Tov

    Well I think this whole thing about food poisoning from using reusable bags is a red herring. I mean, why should your bags harbor more “nasty” stuff than anything else you touch or wear? Do you wash your coat all the time? How many times do you perhaps rub against someone with an illness — or, oh my god, some food — with your coat on? Do you scrub your refrigerator with bleach weekly? Ever? Isn’t the whole idea of soap and water (if you insist you must so often wash your bags) that bacteria, etc., slips off the surfaces? So who needs bleach? Is there medical evidence suggesting that, say, Germans (who routinely use reusable bags and indeed are charged for getting throwaway ones) are sick more often or more severely, due to bag-spread illnesses? I think this goes back to an ever-increasing American obsession with cleanliness to the point of ridiculousness: how long ago was it that supermarkets started offering hand wipes and anti-bacterial soaps for your hands and to wipe down shopping carts? Are we less sick now? Does the fact that Americans tend to shower at least once/day while Europeans tend to do so less often make us healthier? Do your reusable bags really contribute a significant amount to fuel lost due to increased weight, more so than throwaway bags? This also seems dubious to me. Finally, I don’t know what you do with your reusable bags, but I’ve had some for many years and all are still in great shape.

    Science indeed may not be so bad…try it sometime.

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