What Would Archie Bunker Say?

03 Aug


August 2nd, 2007

Paper, Plastic or Prada?

Paper, plastic or Prada? Grocery shopping gets chic with eco-friendly designer totes to bag your greens, here an Anya Hindmarch bag.

For fashion-conscious women, every season has an It handbag. Shopping blogs, lunch hours and entire episodes of Sex and the City are devoted to discussing the waiting lists, long lines and bribes to key salespeople often required to get an early shot at the most sought-after Birkin, Marc Jacobs, Balenciaga or Fendi baguette. So when the newest must-have tote, designed by British bag guru Anya Hindmarch, went on sale in England in April, it wasn’t terribly unusual that devotees began lining up at 2 a.m. or that all 20,000 coveted pieces were gone by 9 a.m. What was odd was that instead of queuing up in front of department stores or exclusive boutiques, fashion addicts were camped outside of humdrum supermarkets. And the bag in question was not one of Hindmarch’s luxurious metallic clutches but a $15 canvas tote designed for ferrying groceries home and embroidered with the phrase I’M NOT A PLASTIC BAG.

The frenzy surrounding these limited-edition bags–several would-be owners were trampled in Taipei, Taiwan, in July, the same month in which a mob of Hindmarch fans forced police to shut down a mall in Hong Kong–is the result of a calculated effort to encourage shoppers to use fewer disposable plastic sacks, some 88 billion of which are consumed each year in the U.S. alone, with many ending up stuck in trees, clogging roadside drains and killing the birds and sea creatures that accidentally ingest them. As legislators around the globe debate whether to tax or ban outright these petroleum-based products–which experts estimate take up to 1,000 years to decompose–celebrities have been doing their part to steer consumers down a greener path. This year’s trendy eco-tote has been photographed on the arms of actresses Keira Knightley, Alicia Silverstone and Reese Witherspoon.

And Hindmarch isn’t the only high-priced designer–her wares typically cost thousands of dollars apiece–trying to improve the world one purse at a time. Joining her in the attempt to persuade fashionistas to carry their groceries home in a reusable bag is Stella McCartney, the English designer–and daughter of Sir Paul–whose organic cotton shopper retails for $495. Hermes’ collapsible silk bag costs nearly double that, while Louis Vuitton’s canvas tote retails for a staggering $1,720. Of course, people who can handle those kinds of price tags are probably outsourcing their grocery shopping. But Hindmarch thinks such fashion symbols can have a powerful ripple effect. “There was a time when what was cool was drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes,” she says. “Now it’s all healthy living, and I think fashion had a part in that–people seeing photos of models and celebrities–Gwyneth Paltrow walking around carrying yoga mats and bottled water.”

But being the Prius of plastic bags has its pitfalls. After the stampede in Taipei, sales of the Hindmarch bag were canceled in Beijing, Jakarta, Shanghai and Singapore. And to add irony to injury, some of the I’m Not a Plastic Bag totes sold after the near riot in Hong Kong were triple-wrapped in plastic bags in an effort to keep their new owners from being mugged on their way home.

Even so, the antiplastic movement is well under way. Bangladesh, France, Uganda and a few other countries have approved nationwide bans of the flimsy flyaway sacks. San Francisco this spring became the first U.S. city to ban nonbiodegradable bags from large grocery stores and pharmacies, and similar legislation is being debated in Boston; Santa Cruz, Calif.; and Portland, Ore. In Annapolis, Md., alderman Sam Shropshire is pushing for what would be among the strictest plastic regulations in the world: banishing plastic bags not only from big retailers but from small ones too, forcing mom-and-pop restaurants, for example, to abandon leakproof doggie bags. “With our proximity to the Chesapeake Bay, there’s no other option for the protection of our sea life,” says Shropshire.

Environmentalists applaud such efforts but worry about an unsavory side effect: increased use of paper bags. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, demand for paper bags in the U.S. consumes 14 million trees a year. And the Environmental Protection Agency has noted that the production of paper bags involves more energy use and water pollution than that of plastic bags. Paper bags are heavier–and therefore use more fossil fuel during shipping–although they are biodegradable and recyclable. They’re also more expensive for retailers, at 5.7¢ per bag (and up to 17.6¢ for ones with handles) in contrast to 2.2¢ per plastic bag. Given the downside to both paper and plastic, perhaps that $1,720 tote isn’t so outrageous. “Everyone has framed the debate incorrectly,” says Shropshire. “It’s not paper vs. plastic. It’s about getting rid of plastic in favor of recycled paper or reusable bags.”

That will be an uphill battle. Plastic bags have their own lobbyists, who don’t appreciate lectures from the catwalk. The Progressive Bag Alliance, which represents major plastic-bag makers, maintains that bags aren’t the problem. Littering is. In an attempt to turn the tables on the eco-chic movement, the alliance has begun an unsubtle anti-Hindmarch campaign by emblazoning their signature product–using a bubble print strikingly similar to the one on her popular tote–with a defiant message: I AM A PLASTIC BAG, AND I AM 100% RECYCLABLE.

The trouble is that California is one of the few places to mandate that stores offer plastic-bag recycling, and the industry has been slow to volunteer elsewhere. Less than 1% of bags are recycled in the U.S., according to the Washington-based Worldwatch Institute. Major chains like Giant Foods are trying to improve that statistic by giving rebates to shoppers who return plastic bags for recycling, although few consumers take advantage of the policy. In March, Ikea began charging a nickel per plastic bag and selling a reusable tote for 59¢. While it’s still too soon to tell how this strategy has affected U.S. consumers, a similar program launched in the U.K. last year reduced plastic-bag consumption 95%. Ireland has reported a similar decline since the country instituted a roughly 20¢-per-bag “plastax” in 2002.

Designer bags may make such taxes and prohibitions more palatable. But even Hindmarch concedes that her canvas tote has its limits. “I have five kids,” she explains, which adds up to a lot of groceries–and she’s still not willing to ditch the plastic when bringing home a smelly fish or other items with leak potential. But the combination of stylish looks and too-thin wallets may drive real change. Thousands of shoppers camped out in Dublin in July to get a Hindmarch bag. And many of this season’s trendy $15 eco-tote bags have been selling on eBay for more than $400. Which means that this year’s environmental slogan could be reduce, reuse, resell.

Leave a comment

Posted by on August 3, 2007 in General Knowledge, Recylcing


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: