The Benefits of a BYOB (Bring Your Own Bag) Habit

bagmonsterThe following post is by Katie Peige, Herban Lifestyle’s Sustainability Associate.

You are sitting in a park enjoying a lovely picnic. You are taking in the peaceful moment: the birds are chirping, children are playing on the nearby swings, a butterfly flitters by, and then you look up and your stomach lurches. It’s the lurch you feel when you see a plastic bag stuck amongst the highest branches of the maple you are sitting under. You start thinking about the birds that could get tangled in the plastic, the turtle that thinks he is about to chow down on a jelly fish, and your mind starts flashing images you have seen of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, and all you have your mind set on is how long it would take for that bag to eventually break down and where can you find the nearest ladder.

Plastic bag pollution is a serious problem the world over. It is estimated that 1 million plastic bags are used every minute of every day worldwide. Plastics in the ocean is a terrifying situation as today there are more pieces of ocean plastic than plankton (you know the little guys who are responsible for our every other breath). Of the 100 million tons of plastic that are manufactured each year, ten percent finds its way to the ocean, and only 20 percent by means of ships and platforms. That means that 80 percent of the plastic in the ocean comes from the land. With all of this plastic floating in the ocean that does not go away but rather break up into smaller bits (46,000 pieces per every square mile according to the United Nations Environment Program), it is no wonder that a million sea birds and 100,000 sea mammals and turtles die each year from plastic bags and other plastic pollution.

Some quick facts about plastic bags and the environment

Some quick facts about plastic bags and the environment

So what can you do and what should be done? The first thing you should do is bring your own bag to the store. It is estimated that one reusable bag can replace 1,000 plastic bags in the reusable bag’s lifetime. Keep a small foldable bag with you in your purse or on a keychain, so if you are out and about and decide to do some impromptu shopping, you are prepared. ChicoBags makes some really cute ones that fold up super small. Next, keep a stack of bags in the trunk of your car so you have them with you when you head to the grocery store or any other store where you would need more than one bag.  For the non-car owners keeping a stack by the door is a helpful reminder as well. For the ladies, you can get a little drastic and stuff them in your bra, however, I am not exactly sure what the most lady like method of removing the bags would be when you actually need them. Once you have the BYOB habit down, start bugging your friends to remind them as well, you have a vast, powerful network, use it to help the planet out (and while you are at it, get your friends to start a campaign to ban plastic bags in your city!).

If you have a ton of plastic bags under your sink, try to reuse them as trash liners or packaging material. And if you have a desire to get creative, check out these crafts that all use plastic bags! You can also take them to most grocery stores and Staples to recycle them.

Just remember, for every bag you refuse to take you are taking a direct action to help stop the plastic pollution problem and subsequently saving resources, animal lives, and keeping those plastic bags out of our trees and waterways!

Editor’s Note: For more information on the issue of plastic bags, presented in a fun, entertaining way, we highly recommend Bag It!, the movie.

A globe made of plastic bags, as seen at the 2012 Smithsonian Folklife Festival

A globe made of plastic bags, as seen at the 2012 Smithsonian Folklife Festival

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Making Earth-Friendly Practices Second-Nature

Earth-friendly practices can become second-nature if you set up your home to make it easy. Over the past 40 years (since the inception of Earth Day), a whole plethora of products and services have appeared to help make it easier to live a greener lifestyle. Following are some solutions I use that I think look good and do good (for the earth and your family). As a result of these simple practices, my family produces very little actual garbage each week, and our water bill is very reasonable. Hopefully they will inspire you. And please share your ideas with me — I am always up for suggestions of new and better ways to green my home and business.

Compost A couple of years ago, our friends gave us this ceramic compost pail for Christmas. It was an awesome gift that gets continual use. I keep it on the kitchen counter, where it serves as an attractive and practical accessory. It has a charcoal filter in the lid so that smell is never an issue (I run the filter and the pail through the dishwasher after each use), and the handle makes it easy to carry out to the compost pile.

aesthetically pleasing kitchen compost container

Make your own cleaning products. You can insure the purity and safety of the ingredients in your household cleaning products if you make them yourself. Plus it’s a money-saver. Last month I posted an article on the safety of Borax, which contains a recipe for an all-purpose household cleaner. To make your own glass/window cleaner, simply mix 1/4 cup of vinegar with 1 1/2 cups of water. Spray onto windows and wipe immediately with a clean cloth. You just need to make an investment in a good spray bottle (I’ve found that some of the cheaper ones can break with a lot of use, so it’s good to pay a little extra for a sturdy one).

aluminum spray bottle for storing your homemade household cleaners

Use cloth napkins and towels instead of paper I keep a supply of these in my kitchen drawer. I love fabrics in different colors and textures, and not being very handy with a sewing machine, this is a practical and green way to enjoy them. The napkins in the photo were purchased from two of my favorite individually-owned stores – The Muse, an artisan shop in Frederick, MD and Olive Market, a gourmet artisan restaurant and gift shop in Georgetown, CT.

an assortment of cloth napkins and towels

Recycle paper products Although I reuse most of the packaging I receive, I still end up with unwanted paper products each month. So, I keep a wicker basket near the front door where we can easily toss any paper that we have designated for recycling. We are very fortunate that our municipality takes all types of junk mail, chip board, cardboard, magazines, and more.

strategically-placed paper recycling bin

Recycle glass and plastic I have a very small kitchen, so there is no room to keep a recycling bin for bottles cans and plastic. So, we installed a pull-out drawer that contains a built-in trash can with two bins. I use one for garbage (I use biodegradable trash bags) and one for recycling.

Even though my municipality takes number 5 plastic, I feel more confident that it is truly going to be recycled if I take it to the Preserve collection bin at my local Whole Foods. I’ve been a fan of their toothbrushes for several years now.

built-in trash/recycling center

Re-use paper If I make a mistake when printing something out, rather than just throwing the paper into the recycling bin right away, I put it in a stack of paper that I keep next to my printer for use in test prints and drafts. My husband also brings home paper from work. It saves us a lot of paper.

stack of used copy paper ready to be re-used

Use 100% recycled paper When I do need to print on a clean sheet of paper, I only use 100% post-consumer waste paper. Staples offers their own store brand 100% pcw paper that is processed without chlorine. Even though they don’t tout it, Staples does the most of any national office supply chain in terms of green practices.

Staples brand 100% post-consumer waste recycled paper

Replace your incandescent light bulbs Compact florescent bulbs are good investments and they also save you from the hassle of changing bulbs all the time. I have a couple of bulbs that I bought from Real Goods that have lasted me for over 15 years! Make sure that you purchase quality flourescents, which will last a long time. One drawback is that you have to be careful about the disposal of  your used flourescents (they contain mercury), so check your local Home Depot or municipal waste collection website for information.

compact florescent inside a regular lamp

Install a programmable thermostat Programmable thermostats are easy to install and can save a lot of energy over the course of a year. By setting your heating and cooling systems to turn on and off/up and down by themselves, you avoid wasting energy during times when you are out of the house or sleeping. For more information, including an energy savings calculator, visit the Environmental Protection Agency’s programmable thermostats page.

programmable thermostat

Install a rain barrel About 40% of total household water use during the summer goes to watering lawns and gardens. By installing a rain barrel, you can assure your own free supply of water for your gardens, flower pots and other outdoor uses.

According to the EPA, using water collected in your rain barrel can save you approximately 1,300 gallons of water during peak summer months!

55-gallon rain barrel

I ordered the rain barrel for my house in Connecticut through Real Goods, back when they were hard to find. Real Goods still offers some great rain barrels, but now they are also available from many online stores, as well as Home Depot and Whole Foods.

And that’s something that has changed in many areas over the past 20 years. Being green has become easier as products and resources have become more readily available. There is always more than each of us can do to help insure the health of our planet and its inhabitants, but it’s never too late to start with some easy steps, like these.

Happy Earth Day!

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