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Tote Bags & Environmentalist Performance

At this point, in 2016, using plastic bags seems like you are personally sabotaging the planet with your waste, that your hand is stuffing an obstruction into some poor seabird’s mouth just because you didn’t want to carry a single apple in your hand.

There is a solution though: reusable bags, namely tote bags.

These carryalls have become staples of the modern households, the new take on carrying things intended to go with you everywhere and unintentionally stack up in a closet, unused, like a more weighted and neglected bag-full-of-plastic-bags every mother has under her sink. You go into any city or forward thinking person’s home and you can guarantee that they have a tote bag stuffed with totes somewhere. From free swag to purchased bags, everyone has a ton. They’re a currency of late aughts culture.

But are tote bags doing good for the world? Despite having hoards, we all forget our totes at home, needing to buy a paper or plastic bag in a pinch which we sometimes will reuse. Unfortunately, tote bags aren’t really helping anyone or anything because so many Americans are saying they reuse bags when they’re actually wasting even more, in a different way.

The Atlantic recently covered this subject to answer a simple, obvious question: are tote bags really good for the environment? They can be, yes, but they also cause a lot of trouble. Writer Noah Dillon explains.

Just like plastic bags, totes multiply. In a 2009 article about the bags for Design Observer, the Urban Outfitters designer Dmitri Siegel claimed to have found 23 tote bags in his house, collected from various organizations, stores, and brands. Like plastic sacks, tote bags, too, now seem essentially unending. Because of their ubiquity, tote bags that have been used very little (or not at all) can be found piled on curbs, tossed in trashcans in city parks, in dumpsters, everywhere. Their abundance encourages consumers to see them as disposable, defeating their very purpose.

This abundance, leading to a disposability, is fascinating and one of the most disgustingly American things I’ve ever heard of: we came up with this great solution, the market jumped on to profit, we reached critical mass, and now we’re left with mess of tote bullshit to deal with.

Potentially even worse is the culture of totes, which evolved from a do-gooder, forward thinking conscious decision to something that now represents more than it does. Dillon again points out that the tote bag is a contemporary, easy-to-buy-into relic of the now, that we’ll look back on and think, “Those people used totes.”

Every product is manufactured and consumed with some ideal in mind. Pictures of tote bags—such as those from stock photo websites or advertisements—make the ideals we project on them visible. People are depicted carrying fresh fruits and vegetables in their tote bags at a sunny farmers’ market. These people are seen in intimate groups. They wear casual, modest, warm-weather clothing. They don’t handle digital devices. They take their bags to the beach, the park, art openings, concerts, through cosmopolitan urban communities and idyllic rural escapes. They are fulfilled and creative. They are middle class. They inhabit the landscape of tote-bag dreams: healthy, waste-conscious and ecologically responsible, conservatively ethnically diverse, carefree but productive, connected, affluent, tolerant, adventurous, optimistic.

Sigh. It’s so true. It’s the same people who eat organic food because they think that “helps them and the planet.”

Tote bags are a weird cultural item that need to be refreshed and rethought. However, they aren’t entirely worthless: the basic principle of these bags still hold true. If we minimize how many bags we have, actually using these bags, their value is obvious. Be conscious of your totes. Don’t let them be plastic bags.

Photo via.

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