Are cloth bags all they’re cracked up to be?

I’m very disappointed to say that I’ve had to throw out at least four of the recycled plastic (cloth) bags I’ve purchased from either Superstore or Safeway over the past 6 months.

Four bags. Each bag is composed of at least 85% post-consumer material plastic material. I wonder how many plastic bags each one represents?

Well, first I decided to determine the volume of each bag. I find it’s intuitive to gauge how much waste something *is* by how much space it takes up. First, I filled a plastic container full of water and marked the meniscus with a marker. After plunging the bag into the water and jostling loose all of the air bubbles trapped within the bag’s folds, I marked the meniscus once more. Using a turkey baster, I sucked out the water displaced by the bag: 100mL. Given 1 cubic centimeter is equal to 1 mL of water, my particular cloth bag takes up 100 cubic centimeters of space.

How does this compare with your run of the mill plastic bag you might be given at a grocery store? Well, after making a few assumptions (see here), one can determine that your average plastic bag takes up about 6.5 cubic centimeters of space – more than 15 times less space than my cloth bags that keep falling apart.

Big freaking deal, says you! Well, assuming I would normally use 2 plastic bags a day (I shop daily for groceries), this means that I would be responsible for 4700 cubic centimeters of plastic waste every year if I didn’t use cloth bags. Given I have thrown away 4 of these bags in 6 months, and assuming this number is a fair representation of how often I’ll go through this particular bags in the future, then I’m only saving around 83% as much plastic as I thought I was.

In short, cloth bags still save a lot of trash – so stop dilly dallying, and pick one up…or bring a duffel bag, or something.

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Dave Semeniuk spends hours locked up in his office, thinking about the role the oceans play in controlling global climate, and unique ways of studying it. He'd also like to shamelessly plug his art practice: