Over the past several years, I've adopted one new green habit each Earth Day. With the 40th anniversary of Earth Day on April 22, I'd like to share some of the things that have helped me reduce my family's impact on the Earth, improve our health, and save money. Hopefully you'll find one that you can add to your family's routine.

Traditionally you have two choices at the checkout counter: paper or plastic. Plastic bags are durable and easy to carry, but for some reason it takes two dozen of them to bring your groceries home. If you throw all those bags away, you're greatly increasing your addition to the landfill situation. In some places, you can recycle plastic bags, but the energy and emissions generated to produce and recycle them are hazardous to the air we breath.

Paper bags are another option. Not as durable or easy to carry, but they do biodegrade in a landfill if you throw them away. With paper bags, you still have the energy and emission situation, plus you have to add the number of trees it takes to produce paper bags (about 14 million in 1999, according to the American Forest Association). Since trees improve our air quality, paper bags might be a double-edged sword in your green efforts.
The most generally accepted solution is reusable shopping bags. I have found them to be an easy addition to our family's shopping habit. I simply keep half my bags in the trunk of my car, ready for quick stops at the store. The other half I keep in my pantry, so when I'm in the pantry making my grocery list I can just grab my bags, too.

Once you decide to make the switch to reusable bags, you'll first have to decide how many you'll need. I grocery shop once a week, buying for two adults and two kids. I guessed we'd need about 10 bags (turns out we usually only use about 6 -- you can pack a lot in one of those bags!). You can get them at most major stores for $1-$1.50, not much individually, but if you buy them all at once it could really skew your weekly grocery bill. So I bought 1-2 bags each week for a few weeks, until I had enough collected.

You may want to scout out the different designs available at different stores. Some are very decorative, others pretty simple. I wasn't sure I wanted to be a walking advertisement for any one store, but found some fairly plain black bags at Wal-Mart, and I've been satisfied with them. You'll want to get bags with a flat bottom so they'll stand up nicely when full of groceries. You also want to get bags with a little loop on the back -- makes it easier to store them hanging, and your grocery clerk can hook them over the plastic bag corral easily.

Some people will suggest you buy organic reusable bags. That way you know the bags were produced from cotton that was grown in a healthy way, avoiding any concerns that chemicals in the bags might contaminate your food. If this is a concern for you, is a great place to buy organic shopping bags. I don't have any of my food that just rolls around in my bags, so I'm not personally concerned about trace amounts of chemicals contaminating it.

Many folks will forget about produce bags. If you're like me, you've always used those thin plastic bags at the grocery to carry home your produce, without really thinking about it. Let me suggest you think about it. That little plastic bag gets thrown away and goes directly to a landfill. If you need a bag, try one of these. I also hear Whole Foods has great reusable bags in a variety of sizes, if you have a Whole Foods nearby.

Other ways we use reusable shopping bags:
  • I allowed the kids to each choose one bag they liked. We use them when I have a short shopping list. Each boy "helps" me shop by carrying his bag through the store and adding items from our list. I usually need to carry a bag, too, for the heavier items. But this keeps the boys occupied and keeps us from needing a cart.
  • When I'm taking dinner to a friend who just had a baby, I will pick up an extra bag to deliver it in. Looks a little nicer than a plastic bag and the new mom can use the bag for other things.
  • Toys R Us has very fun designs for their reusable bags. I like to wrap birthday presents in one of their reusable bags instead of a traditional gift bag. It's usually cheaper, won't sit in a landfill, is very decorative, and gives the birthday kid an extra bag to hold their stuff. I add tissue like I would a traditional gift bag (I know, tissue is not very green, but it looks good).
  • Try to find one bag that can be folded up small and snapped closed. Keep this in the car and you can drop it in your purse if you're going to the mall or running errands. You have the bag if you need it.
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