The Environmental Cost of a Free Canvas Bag
When it comes to the environment, free canvas bags aren’t free
image designed by Genevieve Guackler / www.partofit.org
It’s difficult to pinpoint when the canvas tote craze really started. The concept isn’t new, of course. Public television stations have been giving them away during fundraisers for decades, and L.L. Bean’s “Boat and Tote” has been a New England staple even longer. Sometime during the past few years, however, the environmental appeal of reusable bags and the easy application of graphics catapulted canvas sacks from health food stores to the runway.
Graphic designers embraced the form as a venue for messages on a par with the T-shirt. Design blogs became enthralled by the never-ending stream of totes—each one made unique by a clever or beautiful graphic. This glut of bags raises questions about the sustainability of any product regardless of the intentions behind it.
The ascension of canvas, after all, was fueled by the totes’ compelling social benefits. Not only is canvas a renewable resource, but the bags are biodegradable and sturdy enough to stand up to years of use. With global warming emerging as an everyday anxiety, designers and consumers alike latched on to the reusable tote as a tangible step they could take to help the environment. Reusing canvas bags could reduce—and eventually eliminate—the billions of plastic bags that are discarded every year.
The thought is noble, but it’s worth considering the irony: The plastic bag itself began as an environmental salve. Before the introduction of ultra-thin plastic bags in the 1980s, groceries were primarily packed in paper. Plastic was touted as a way to save trees. Within a few years plastic dominated the market. Comparing plastic to paper, it’s easy to see why; the plastic bag is a vastly superior design. It consumes 40 to 70 percent less energy to manufacture, generates 80 percent less solid waste, and produces 60 percent fewer atmospheric emissions. A plastic bag costs a quarter as much to produce and is substantially lighter (so it takes far less fuel to transport).
What is marvelous about an individual bag, however, becomes menacing when it is multiplied to accommodate a global economy. The low cost allowed merchants to give plastic bags away and, despite their strength, they’re routinely double-bagged. Their incredible durability means it can take up to hundreds of years for them to decompose. Although plastic bags are recyclable, in-store programs have barely managed to achieve a 1 percent recycle rate. It is simply too easy and efficient to keep making and distributing more plastic bags.
We could be headed for the same kind of catch-22 with the adoption of the canvas tote. I’m certainly an outlier in this case, but I recently found 23 of them in my house. Most were given to me as promotional materials for design studios, start-ups, and boutique shops; more than one came from an environmental organization; one even commemorates a friend’s wedding. A community group recently delivered a reusable bag to every house in my neighborhood to promote local holiday shopping.