Out of The Bag? How Do Totes Bags Fit Into a "Culture of Reuse"?

Why totes bags and how do I help you find them?

We collect tote bags for thee simple reasons.

  1. The bag improves access to food. It allows a person and their family to carry heavier loads, especially if they have to walk or ride the bus. It lends dignity because once on the bus, their groceries blend in with everyone elses - they aren't coping with a dozen quadrupled thin plastic bags or carrying groceries in retail clothing bag.
  2. The bags reduce the dependency of food pantries on disposable bags which is good for the environment. We estimate each reusable bag equals 3 disposable bag 3 - granted their is no hard data, this is just a good practical estimate. So the 20,000 bags we've collected has prevented the use of nearly 100,000 disposable bags. That's quite an impact.
  3. Many pantries (and other programs) have to pay for bags. So each dollar we save them on this expense translates into $4 in purchasing power for food. 

So it is a fairly simple idea. Reusable bags are everywhere and most of us have extras. So maing an effort to go through our bags, set aside the ones we don't "need" and donating them matters.  

But what about disposable bags? Well, the reality is that we will probably always need them as long as hunger exists. Our partners serve approximately 140,000 people each month. And as people rotate off, new families sign up -around 3,000 per year (this is across a 12 county region of Southwestern PA.) 

Thus, we would need nearly 500,000 (half a million) bags to meet the base need and then bring in an additional 7,000 bags each month for new clients. As we work our way toward that goal, we invite you to simply think about how you use disposable bags. Most end up in the landfill even if they are "recycled" for an extra use like cat litter before hitting the trash. Estimates range from 2-5% of how many plastic bags we reycle in the US - around 10% of paper bags. There is a lot of debate on which production process and which recycling process is harder on the environment, but the reality is we are NOT recycling these bags at a rate that could be considered a success. 


A few suggestions

  • Use reusable bags to simply reduce the number of disposable bags in your home. Use them at the grocery store, the retailers but why not use them when you go to a convenience store? Or pick up take out food? 
  • When you do have bags, choose dark bags. Dark bags are easier to recycle because of the way the colors bleed together during the recycling process.
  • Identify how you can reuse a bag - this is where language does matter because using a bag for the same purpose (like holding trash) is not recycling. It is reuse. If you fill it with cat litter and put it in the trash, it is never going to biodegrade. Its going to exist that way forever. That's not recycling. It may be better than nothing, but just barely to be honest. Think reuse: how about a trash can liner that's mostly paper so you can use it over and over? how about keeping it in your purse/glove box to carry wet shoes or other items you might want to keep separate? why not rinse it out and use to continue carrying things until it wears out? 
  • Donate bags. Some organizations and community groups will gladly accept clean disposable bags in good condition. Look them up - shelters, soup kitchens, foster care programs, community centers. Food pantries! Call and ask. To be a good neighbor go through the bags, rinse those with a spill, be sure to remove receipts (and coupons) and try to pack them together neatly.  
  • Upcycle/Repurpose - there are thousands of crafting ideas involving plastic. Look it up on YouTube where you'll find lots of "how to" instructions. You can weave plastic (known as "plarn") into sleeping mats to donate to homeless people. You can make jewelry, decorations (wreaths are popular), wrapping and much more. 
  • Finally, recycle. Remember, most curbside recycling centers do not recycle bags. Don't assume - ask. And better yet - take your bags to a recycling center near you. We have a list of nearly 90 places.

What about paper?

  • Remember books covers? Find other items that need a little extra layer or protection. Get the kids involved to decorate. 
  • Lunch sacks can get many uses. When they rip or torn, cut them into notes or even gift tags. 
  • Consider donating these items, too. Thrift stores are a good bet. 
  • Upcycling and Repurposing options are even more substantial - pretty much any project requirig paper is an option. 
  • And, of course, recycle. Our City used to take items IN brown bags. Now we have to put the bags into plastic bags. I try to maximize space by filling up the bag with magazines, papers and other items. 

The key here is that it takes effort and creativity. We hope that the opportunity to help your neighbors will inspire you to tap into both resources. With recycling rates so low, it is important that we find ways to reduce the number of disposable bags that we use. 

How can you help with tote bags?

First, sort through your existing bags and set aside your extras to donate at one of our 18 drop-off spots.

Second, be part of the "culture of reuse" by training yourself to remember your bags. I keep a few rolled p ags in m prse. It took me moths to develop that habit, but its become so hand that I can't imagine why I didn't adopt it sooner.

Next, spread the word. Set up a tote bag drive at your place of worship or your workplace. The great thing about this project is that it doesn't require people to purchase something - it just requires them to share. Some churches add totes to a monthly food drive. Others incorporate into youth programming - a group of teens or a Girl Scout Troop. Some work places make this a holiday project - donating "toteskets" of food to local families in need.  

Fourth, be vigilant for tote bags. Do you attend conferences or conventions? Does your employer give away totes as promotional items? Will you be at a soccer match or a 5K where the little string backpacks will be distribute? Yes, please take one for yourself and set it aside to doate. But why not mention the project? Some vendors have a lot left over and will be happy to share, especially if you offer to transport the donation. 

Finally, we do work directly with corporations and with the promotional products industry to redirect excess items from the landfill. It can work very simply. The event planner or the marketing team calls us to discuss the dates of the event. We plan to have a volunteer there at the end to collect and transport the donation. Some vendors ship to us from all over the nation since they would have to ship it back to their office anyway.  

We'd love to see this practice as part of a routine sustainability effort - donating all excess promotional items. We actually have a little database of other projects and the types of items they need. We'll occasionally do a special drive, but its more likely that we'll accept a corporate donation of travel mugs or water bottles and pass it along.

In conclusion for this week, consider this - donating a tote bag goes further than making one trip to the store easier. Folks relying on these resources - and without a car - have a much higher incentive to reuse the bags. This hasn't been studied yet but the anecdotal reports from the food pantries supports my theory. But its more than that one trip, its also a tool to empower the family to take control of THEIR environment. When you rely on a food pantry, you don't have as much choice about extra packaging and sizes and related things. When there's no major store near you, you may have to buy a lot of smaller items and create more waste. 

But when you have reusable bags, things change. Suddenly it is possible to carry


  a larger bottle of laundry detergent or juice home. You don't have as many bags to "not recycle" because you can't get to the recycling center. Visit a food pantry and you'll see this in action - people "repurpose" laundry baskets, buckets, suitcases, kids backpacks, milk crates strapped to a cart and more.  

The tote bag is a metaphor representing ownership and investment as much as a practical tool. We encourage you to embrace the concept and help us support our neighbors.


The Pittsburgh Tote Bag Project collects new and gently used tote bags for distribution to the region's food pantries. Bags can be donated at any one of 18 permanent drop-off locations, by organizing a tote bag drive or arranging for a corporate donation. For more information, please visit us online.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Mark Trombetta October 11, 2012 at 01:56 PM
JS That is not what I said. Typical of liberals and Communists is the twisting of words. I said the recycling actions were laudable, but if they are done to legitimize an ignoble cause, they are tainted. Medea Benjamin is a Communist by her own action and words. That is a fact. The Merton Society is a group that honors Communists by their own actions and words. No one, nor any group should honor a philosophy responsible for the deaths of 100 million people in the past century, and one which continues to murder and surpress people worldwide. ...
Sandra October 11, 2012 at 02:02 PM
One year later, Mellon Park is fenced up. The public does not have access to the park at this time. It's sad.
Mike Jones October 11, 2012 at 03:10 PM
It's a sad (and pathetic) day in America when Breast Cancer Support groups and reusable bag collection blog posts are politicized.
Ed M October 11, 2012 at 03:43 PM
The park will be reopening in the spring.
JS October 11, 2012 at 07:44 PM
Totally agreed. Religious groups do great things - do I agree with everything they stand for - no. Thomas Merton center does great things - do I agree with everything they stand for - no. A recycling program that is sponsored by a group that advocates world peace - How can we possibly stand it. Some on the fringe of both sides of the political spectrum are just ridiculous and sad.


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