Q Do you know an ethical source for canvas bags? I can't imagine that the people who make the $2 ones in China are getting a fair wage.
A Let's face it - we're a nation of bag junkies. If we popped pills the way we snag plastic sacks, we'd all be in rehab confessing our addiction to the white plastic.
Each of us goes through roughly 200 of these bags a year (about 7 million a day in Ontario alone), and most municipalities don't recycle the buggers.
The good news is that just last week the Ontario government announced plans to slash plastic bag use in half within the next five years. Just how are they planning to do this? Well, the province finagled a deal with the retail, plastics and recycling sectors so you'll soon start getting discounts, rebates and even Air Miles points for saying no to single-use bags.
Supermarkets even promise to retrain cashiers to stop with all the double-bagging insanity and put more than three apples and a box of crackers in one bag (simply by adding one more item to the average bag, Sobeys says it'll reduce plastic bag use by up to 20 per cent). Ontario's move doesn't go as far as San Fran or Leaf Rapids, Manitoba, both of which have banned plastic shopping bags altogether, but it's a start.
Of course, there'll still be plenty of plastic bags in our future, and most are made with virgin petroleum. Even if Toronto starts recyling them by 2008, as it says it will, they won't go into making new plastic bags, but instead will be downcycled into plastic lumber or patio chairs and get one last kick at the can before they end up in landfill.
Yes, many Canadians say they reuse their grocery and liquor store bags and such, but, really, they just become one-time vessels for kitchen trash or dog doo. The city might let you put your green bin gunk in plastic, but you have to keep in mind that all that petrol-based stuff isn't biodegradable, so it just gets separated out from the compostable material and sent to Michigan, where it'll sit in a dump for as close to an eternity as you can get.
When it comes to lining your trash or green bin, the planet's much better off if you use biodegradable cornstarch based ones like BioBags, available at health stores and No Frills.
But what about reusable carry-alls? In the last six months, they've exploded onto the market. Nearly every grocer offers a logo-emblazoned version for 99 cents or so. How can they be so cheap? Well, for one, some grocers do subsidize the cost of the bags in an attempt to get people to buy them - and it's working. Rock-bottom prices are persuading people to make the switch and buy three or four.
Still, there's no guarantee most bags are sweatshop-free. Indeed, if you sneak a peek at your bag's label, it probably says it was made in China, which doesn't necessarily mean it was made in a sweatshop but does suggest low wages, lack of freedom of association - and thousands of polluting kilometres just to get it to you. A redeeming feature of some of these bags is their recycled content. Of course, that content differs at each store. Foodland (aka Sobeys , IGA , Price Chopper ) sacks are made with either 5 or 20 per cent recycled material, depending on the store. Not the greatest, but the cool thing is they're "guaranteed for life." If the bag wears out, you can return it to any participating store for a free replacement. Nice, but you have to wonder how long it'll last.
Loblaws gives its customers a clearer idea of their bags' longevity. The grocer's snazzy black-and-green bags (which I heard a stylist on TV calling the new "it" bag) are made from 85 per cent post-consumer recycled plastic soft drink and water bottles and should last about a year. When they wear thin, they tell you to take them back to the store for recycling. Though Loblaws claims it has the greenest bag around, Dominion and A&P bags are actually greener: they're 100 per cent post-consumer . Plus they hold more. Is better to use recycled plastic-based sacks that break down after a year or cloth bags that can last a lifetime, especially if you get sturdy ones? The only problems with cloth are that the beige types get kind of nasty after a while, and set-in stains can be hard to remove, and again, they aren't necessarily sweatshop free.
Grassroots (GrassrootsStore.com) sells unbleached cloth bags in all shapes and sizes. They're not all made locally, but they are made fairly. These are pretty simple in their aesthetic, but if you want to shell out for a jazzier option, Bring Your Own Bag (Bringyourownbag.ca) offers dozens of beautifully screenprinted canvas shopping totes in black, unbleached or organic canvas. The site even sells some with sassy messages like "F*@k! plastic!" or the sermonizing "Stop Using Plastic Bags."
Be warned, though, these cost $25 to $35, but they are sweatshop-free and made in Vancouver.
If you want bags custom made with your own message or company logo, I'd recommend going to Haween Enterprises (70 Belfield, 416-248-9699, www. haween. com). It's a Toronto-based social enterprise that gives local immigrant women fairly paid jobs and happily fills any size order, whether you want two or 2,000 (at prices ranging from $3 to $7). That way you can shop with a clear conscience - well, at least in terms of the bag part.