Food / Groceries, Saving Money, Shopping

Grocery Bags Should Be Free!

grocery shopping bag

The boxes were gone. My three-year-old was crestfallen. He had looked forward to his regular job of returning the plastic bags from last week’s grocery shopping trip to the recycling boxes just inside the store. But the boxes are no longer there; an employee told us that the store had discontinued its recycling.

“You know what that’s about,” my husband said cynically. “They want you to buy the reusable bags. The plastic bags won’t be available longer.” Racks of canvas bags for $1.00 apiece had recently appeared in front of the checkout counters. The signs above the bags proclaim the environmentally responsible aspect of using them, a statement that seems a bit hypocritical coming from a store that has just stopped recycling its plastic bags.

I confess that I am not particularly environmentally conscious. Many of the things I do are good for the environment (at least compared to my neighbors), but I do them because they save me money, not because they are good for the environment. Saving money and decreasing waste motivates me; an abstract call to save the environment does not. For this reason, I am willing to return bags to the store to recycle them, but I am not willing to buy grocery bags when I can get them for free. I suspect that most people are like me, though they are not as likely to admit it. (For all the talk I hear about saving the environment, I have not yet seen anyone actually using those canvas bags at the checkout.)

If stores really care about the environment, why don’t they give reusable bags to their customers? Yes, they are initially more expensive than paper or plastic, but if the canvas bags are as sturdy as they are advertised to be, they should be less expensive over time. If stores are concerned that customers won’t bring back “free” bags, perhaps they could consider giving canvas only to customers who have spent a certain amount over a period of time, as a loyalty reward. The cost of the bags could be taken out of the profit already made on those customers, and customers would be more likely to value (and use) something they believe they have earned.

Assuming my husband is right, as he usually is in such matters, we will soon have to bring our own bags to grocery stores. I, for one, will resist buying grocery bags for as long as possible. I would be more likely to bring my own canvas tote bags in awkward and assorted sizes (designed for carrying books and beach gear) or try some suggestions for getting a grip on shopping bags. Forcing me (and budget-minded customers like me) to buy bags would cause ill will toward stores and a potential loss of significant profit over a minor issue. Plus, charging customers for reusable bags may actually decrease public sympathy for environmental causes. Providing an opportunity to reuse grocery bags is a good thing; passing the costs on to customers is not.

Image courtesy of jek in the box

41 thoughts on “Grocery Bags Should Be Free!

  1. My husband and I have canvas shopping bags, but we forget to bring them with us sometimes since they tend to not make it to the car right after we unload them. Even if they do make it to the car, we sometimes forget them there, too.

    I like using them, but I’d hate to have to buy another one just because I forgot them. And I like to have the occasional plastic bag to use around the house for stuff, though we end up recycling the others that come home with us.

    If our store stopped offering plastic bags, it would be a little inconvenient, but then a couple other stores we know of don’t have bags just because they’re too cheap. You either bring your own, or hope you have a box in the car to stop items from rolling around.

  2. Why do they cost $1? Even though it is more of a cost initially for the store, it requires you to continually reuse them to pay off the initial cost. By making you pay, not only do they pay back the cost up front, but they also encourage you to reuse (since it was your money to originally pay for them)

    Bags that are more expensive are useless and hurt the store when they have to keep giving out new ones each time you come in to go shopping.

  3. So far, I haven’t found canvas bags that work as well for me as plastic bags. (Admittedly, I haven’t looked much further than the ones offered by my local stores.) Most of them have stiff, short handles that make it awkward to carry more than one bag in each hand. (The old style string bags have nice handles, but small things tend to fall out of them.)

    I live in a 3rd floor apartment, and I want to be able to carry all my bags up the stairs in one trip – which I can do with as many as 10 plastic bags. But the canvas bags just don’t seem to work as well when you’re trying to carry a lot at once. They seem to be made for someone who is just picking up a few things and only has one or two bags. (Maybe canvas bag users live in a city and shop at the local market every day – but that’s not me.)

    Especially if I have to pay for my bags (and the nicer ones are a lot more than $1 per bag), I want ones that are easy to carry and work for the way I live and shop.

  4. I love the bags they sell for $1. I use them every grocery trip, whether at the store where I bought them or at other stores. I was surprised how many more items I can get in one of them, how much stronger they are than plastic bags, and how much more comfortable they are for me to carry. Unlike a previous commenter, I can carry more of the reusable bags at once than I can the plastic bags, because they don’t cut into my hands.

    As far as using your own (varied size) canvas bags, the stores around here are perfectly ok with that, too.

    I wish I’d started using these bags long before I did!

  5. The store I go to also sells re-usable bags for a dollar, but as a bonus they give you a 10-cent credit for each re-usable bag you bring/use in the checkout line. Depending on how many bags you use, the bags can pay for themselves within a year. Win-win.

  6. So don’t buy the ones at the store if you think they’re expensive. Ther are tons of other places that sell bags.

    We use resuable bags for all of our shopping. It takes about a month to remember every time – but then it’s easy. If you really have issues with this, there are several companies that make bags that roll up to about the size of a pack of cards – you can buy one of these and keep it in your purse.

    Most of the grocery stores around here give you a discount if you use your own bags – if you already have some laying around this will actually save you money.

    And the fact that they stopped recycling will have virtually no effect on the environment b/c the actual recycling rate for shopping bags is around 5-10%. The vast majority of the bags you ‘recycled’ just got sent to the dump anyway.

  7. I have used reusable bags for years since living in a number of countries where plastic bags were thrown everywhere and really mucked up the cities and countryside.

    I have settled on three huge bags – two canvas and one insulated for the frozen stuff. I also have some grocery store ones in case I go over. I find the large bags much easier to handle – all fit over my shoulders. I get a discount every time I use them and have probably made over $20 or more in savings from that.

    I also reuse my bulk food bags and vegetable/fruit bags.

    A note to the author: if you save money by drinking tap water you are doing a lot to save the environment. A top oceanographer quoted in our paper yesterday (on the topic of ocean garbage) says that plastic bottles are really the scourge of the ocean and should be combated stronger than plastic bags. I refuse to buy bottled water for that reason – plus I am cheap! 🙂

  8. I am with d.a. Our store does pay us to use reusable bags. Doesn’t matter where we got them. (Though they do sell them for something like 99 cents).

  9. If paying a single dollar for a reusable bag is such a terrible travisty of justice, then make your own bags. It’s not rocket science. My wife made 2 bags out of old cargo pants and make the handle long enough and supple enough that you can carry several bags in one hand.

    Further, just amortize that dollar over the number of uses you will get out of the bag, minus any discount you get for using the bag (10-cents/bag at Safeway) and you will find that it costs you very little to buy and use a re-usable bag.

  10. Personally, I find it a lot easier to carry purchases in reusable bags. The bags usually have a flat bottom and wide handles, and fit more than an average plastic bag.
    As far as remembering to bring the bag when you go shopping, if you remember to bring your wallet, you can learn to remember to bring a couple of bags.

  11. I hope i’m making a new point here (i didn’t see it in any previous comments), but the average grocery store spends 30k a year on your “free” grocery bags (i work in the industry and am privy to these numbers). Extrapolate that out over a 100 store grocery chain and they’re spending $3 million dollars a year just so you can get your groceries out of the store. That cost of doing business is passed on to you in the cost of your groceries, therefore your bags are not and have never been “free”.

    I have to believe that once they stop providing plastic and paper bags to you at their expense, the price of groceries will be reflected in that shift. (Although the rising cost of gas will more than cancel it out…)

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts and allowing the masses to respond.

  12. Wow, who cares if you save money if you destroy the environment.

    This post is most ridiculous thing i have read in a long time.

    Plastic bags and bottles are some of the worst things that you are can have a direct impact on.

    Rates for recycling paper bags is about 1-3%. And they don’t get recycled into more plastic bags. Most are recycled into fake wood products for siding and decking.

    Do some reading on the subject.

  13. I think the popularity of canvas bags depends on the store. I shop at two stores: Ralph’s and Trader Joe’s. Lots of people bring their own bags to TJ. I hear that you can even win prizes for that in other places, but I guess it’s so popular at mine that they don’t offer the prizes. I bought one of their insulated bags for the cold stuff. For the rest, I use tote bags I already have.

    If you check your closet, you’ll probably find a stash of tote bags. All mine come from various conferences I’ve attended.

    I don’t use them at Ralph’s though, for two reasons: 1. I use their paper bags for trash and their plastic ones to store kitty litter waste. 2. I did once try to bring my own bags and the clerks bagged all my groceries in plastic, and then put my canvas bags in the top of one of the grocery bags. Apparently if it doesn’t say “Ralph’s” on it, they don’t know what to do with it.

  14. In Europe, you pay a small charge for each plastic bag you use (equivalent of 5 cents) or bring your own. It’s not a big deal; it’s time that U.S. consumers step up to environmental responsibility. I live in L.A. and it’s so easy to tote bags in a car. Some markets give you a 5cent credit for bringing a bag but unfortunately people won’t pay attention until it costs them money.

  15. I don’t know why people are so selfish and aren’t willing to spend a little money to help save the environment. Doesn’t it bother you that you are polluting the earth? It’s because people only think about money that the world is in such terrible shape.

  16. I hate listening to “green” folks talking about how you have to spend money to save the enviroment

    I save the enviroment by saving money,I open my blinds for heat turn down my heat wear sweater but my power company every month sends me a envelope so I can donate money to them for developing green energy some how I am not caring unless I give cash to green causes ,actually doing things does not count

    I work at a store and I tell you
    it is great for us we get to sell you a bag and we get to save a lot of money by not giving out free bags

  17. I prefer the model in Ireland where they charge extra for every plastic bag. I think it’s called a bag tax. Grocery stores are under no responsibility to GIVE you bags whether they’re plastic, paper, or canvas. It’s YOUR responsibility to get them out of the store. I, for one, will be glad to see plastic bags no longer stuck in trees along the highway and in grocery store parking lots.

    You don’t have to buy the canvas bags, just bring your own. I’m sure that designer grocery totes will be the next big thing in fashion…

  18. #17: You don’t have to spend money to be environmentally friendly. Most environmentalists agree. The idea that you have to spend money to be “green” is ridiculous. As mentioned here, there is no need to buy the bag at the store. Bring your own. Living more simply in general, and consuming less, are great ways to save money AND help the environment.

    But there’s nothing wrong with giving money to causes you deem worthy. I’m more than happy to pay a little bit to develop cleaner energy. In the long run, it costs less, is safer and is more efficient. A little up front now could yield large benefits down the road. That’s what an investment is all about.

  19. Most often I bring my own bags. Trader Joes sells a nice large insulated bag with a zipper for around $2 to $5. It’s a freakin’ bargain. If that’s too expensive do as one poster suggested – make your own. Or…acquire them at garage/yard sales (folks will usually sell them for a quarter to a dollar), and thrift stores. Hell, you can even go on craigslist and freecycle and ask for bags. I’m sure there are people out there who have extras and would be happy to share. Go to Asian markets or dollar stores and get those compact paper-fabric ones that fold in on themselves and can be thrown in your purse or backpack. Put “reusable shopping bags” on your birthday and Christmas wishlists. Give a heads up to your friends and family.

    And as you acquire bags that work for you distribute them throughout your daily locations. Keep a few stashed in your home, car and office.

    It’s really not such a financial or logistical hardship.

  20. I’m in NYC and reusable bags are getting quite popular. I have some of the ones the grocery stores sell and have purchased some nice recyled plastic totes from It cost more to buy the better bags, but they will last a very long time and some are nice enough to use as a daily tote. I usually don’t forget to bring them. I keep one or two with me all the time (they fold up and go into an attached pouch – very small) for those little trips to the deli on the way home from work. Once you are used to it, it becomes second nature.

    I think the ‘reward’ system is a very good idea. More people would use them. And you don’t have to buy ANY bags – think about bags you get at clothing stores and such – reuse them until they wear out.

  21. IF you do take the plastic bag and have more than you need check you library. Ours need them to send books home.
    Yes I have the canvas bags one I won and the rest were gifts.

  22. I was recently attacked by no less than ten plastic bags while driving my van on the freeway.

    The “Pack n Tote” bags are nice because two bags fit in one grocery cart. So instead of shlepping back and forth to the car for more little white plastic bags, you just carry in two big bags.

    Eventually, we are going to have to do away with all plastic disposable stuff anyway. So, I figure we might as well suck it up and get used to it.

  23. I love my chico bags (yes they cost $5.00), but we’ve had them for over two years and they work like plastic bags, only you can put more in them, and they store so compactly I can fit three in my little purse no problem! Most of the stores around here give a nickel refund for every reusable bag, so 20 uses would pay for a $1.00 bag. However, the greenest store in our area did give the bags away for a month last year for every $25 purchase ($50 netted 2 bags). People were getting a little high and mighty about the bag refund at this store, so they have stopped giving refunds, although they still track reusable bags, and instead donate the nickel to a local charity! BTW I see multiple people using canvass and other sorts of reusable bags EVERY time I shop!

  24. Er… I think you miss the point of the reusable bags.

    “I am not willing to buy grocery bags when I can get them for free,” you say. That’s exactly why the stores are doing what they are doing. You can’t get them for free any more, because it’s a tremendous waste of resources to use a bag for 10 minutes and then throw it away, or even recycle it.

    Why don’t stores give away reusable bags? Because that’s just the same as giving away non-reusable bags, except that reusable bags are a bit more expensive and resource-intensive to produce.

    I don’t buy the idea of “rewarding” repeat customers with a reusable bag. Sounds like a gimmick that would end up in my kitchen closet. Better to force every customer, every time they purchase something, to decide whether they really need that bag badly enough to pay $1.00 for it, and remind them that if they’d bought their own bag, they wouldn’t have to worry about it!

  25. I think $1 is a bargain for a bag you can use over and over again. I have a 4 of those bags. (about 6 of my own canvas bags) You can carry more in a canvas bag and they don’t break like those cheap plastic ones. We need to get rid of those plastic bags. They are a petroleum based product. Just think if 50,000 families switch to canvas bags saving 5 plastic bags a week that’s 250,000 bags not in a landfill. (I honestly don’t believe the majority are recylced) You have kids this is a good lesson for them.

  26. I’ve thought about using canvas bags but I’m scared that I’ll never actually get them into the building. I have a hard enough time remembering to take my shopping list with me let alone bags.

    The other thing that worries me is that one time when I only bring a few cloth bags but end up with more items than will fit in them. These items I’m sure would end up in plastic bags. Wouldn’t that defeat the whole purpose of me bring the cloth bags in the first place?

    I do like the idea of using cloth bags, but I

  27. when our local grocery store chain started to sell their big canvas bags I bought them, even though I had my own smaller canvas bags. I liked the price because you could buy one of their large canvas bags for under $4.00 and they save trips to and from the car to get groceries. we keep our bags in the trunk of our car so they are always available to use at the grocery store or other stores.

    I once forgot to but the bags back in the car and went shopping. When we got there and noticed I stopped at the isle where they had them (craftstore) I put it in the cart and did my shopping. when I got to the check out I paid for it with the rest of my purchases and had them use the new bag to put my merchandise in.

    Unfortunatly the bag I bought at the craftstore was much smaller and cost morethan the bags I bought from the grocery store. But I have never forgotten my bags again.


  28. I believe that everything green green should be free.We would get a bigger response from people and save the Earth faster!

  29. The issue here should be the fact that you are concerned with your childrens’ future and want them to still be able to breath fresh when theyre your age. Youre on the planet, so do something constructive. Save it! Stop bitching about a couple dollars. Stop using plastic bags and stop drinking out of bottled water!

  30. When I lived in Taiwan, legislation was passed that plastic bags needed to be made differently/of a higher grade plastic for environmental reasons. Stores didn’t want to foot the bill, so they started charging for bags.

    Wow, all the sudden I started remembering to bring bags, sticking stuff in my backpack rather than getting a plastic bag for one lone item, or even toting home an armful of groceries, just to avoid spending the money. But I don’t do those things here in America- it appears from my life that I am more motivated by not having to spend money than by receiving a credit back.

  31. I’m sick of people complaining about having to buy bags. It’s only $1, for goodness’ sake. If the store had to supply free reusable bags to all their customers, how much would it cost them? (vs. you just spending $1 for one).

    “For all the talk I hear about saving the environment, I have not yet seen anyone actually using those canvas bags at the checkout”.
    I guess you haven’t been grocery shopping too much. I see tons of people with these, and that’s not when I’m on duty during my former job either.

  32. I like the canvas bags. I didn’t at first then I started using them and now I love them. I use them for groceries, traveling, and anything else I can use them for. I don’t but a lot of groceries at a time(can’t afford them) so they come in handy for what I do get. Thank you

  33. Plastic bags take 1000 years to decompose, they are an oil-based product and use energy and water to produce. In the 1000 years it takes for EVERY SINGLE BAG to decompose, they are eaten by animals and strangle animals or prevent them from eating, causing their painful deaths. 1 BILLION animals are killed every year after digesting plastic bags. I get you are selfish and do not care about the environment in general, but how about caring about animals, specifically. Or if you are really that selfish, how about caring that it will pollute your cityscape? Or how about when they finally do decompose they will leach harmful chemicals that will enter the food chain, polluting the food chain, and ultimately human water and food sources? But, I get it, you are not “environmentally conscious” so it is better for you to convince the supermarkets to continue carrying plastic bags- better for your life, right?

  34. I love my grocery bags, where I live, most of the younger people that bag groceries suck at it when it comes to the plastic bags. They end up ripping, spilling, etc. The plastic bags cut into my hands when they’re heavy.

    When they first came out with the tote style grocery bags, I tried them out, and discovered not only do they fit sooo much stuff in them, they’re easy to carry, never cut into my hands, I can even put them on my shoulder so I can carry more than 2 when unloading into the house. No matter what bagger I have it’s nearly idiot proof. It evenly disperses the weight in the bag pretty well so it doesn’t feel as heavy as it should. And it is good for the environment. So I use them as often as I can for whatever I can.

    My kids even have some they use for sleepovers or carrying in extra items for school.

    I got my bags from winn dixie and publix though, there’s another grocery store that has the shorter handles that aren’t so great like you mentioned in the article. So if you hate the ones at your store, try another kind. 🙂

  35. Please, please use the reusable bags. Sorry for the small inconvenience this may cause for you, but it’s not for some tree hugging granola grinder, this is FOR YOU, AND YOUR KIDS. For our national security, health, environment. Just do it.

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