In the hierarchy of environmental etiquette, to reuse is even better than to recycle. Recycling, though better than disposing, requires energy consumption; reusing doesn't require anything but discipline.
That's why Salt Lake writer Charlotte Howe came up with the ReBag - a polyester mesh grocery bag that can be used over and over again.Howe and business partner Mary Kenny, owners of Earthly Matters, know all the statistics: That the average family of four uses, and throws away, about 400 paper or plastic grocery bags a year; that 400 paper bags is the equivalent of one 12-year-old tree; that if every American used just one reusable bag once a month it would add up to 100 million fewer plastic or paper bags piled onto American landfills each year.
Since they debuted the ReBag on Earth Day six months ago, Howe and Kenny have sold 75,000 of the brightly colored bags. Orders are now coming in from Europe and Australia, and the national Wal-Mart chain recently ordered 5,500 bags for its stores, including one planned in the Salt Lake area.
Also, Smith's Foods is selling the ReBag, after analyzing more than 15 different bags from around the country. The chain hopes to have the bag in all of its 96 stores in seven states before the end of the year.
A portion of the profits from the bags will go toward Project 2000, a non-profit community organization that examines critical choices facing Utahns in the decade ahead.
Howe created the ReBag after writing an article last year about environmental causes. "I was so discouraged to find out what the problems are that I decided I had to do something positive for the environment, otherwise I'd be too depressed." The world's rain forests were a little hard to tackle, but Howe figured maybe she could do something on a smaller scale that still would have a big impact - like maybe grocery bags.
She had been using reusable canvas grocery bags when she shopped, but found them too bulky and hard to store. She had also tried a cotton string bag her mother-in-law had brought back from Europe, but it proved too flimsy for once-a-week shopping.
So she got a list of mesh manufacturers, 10 pages' worth, in fact, and began calling. "Most of them couldn't envision what we wanted," she says. One manufacturer sent her a huge fisherman's net.
By that time Howe had teamed up with Kenny, a public relations specialist. The two decided to premiere the bags at an Earth Day Fair but couldn't afford the fee of a booth. So Howe contacted Project 2000, Project 2000 bought 2,500 of the bags and the rest is ReBag history.
The beauty of the bags, say Howe and Kenny, is that they are flexible enough to be scrunched up in a tiny ball when not in use, but are sturdy enough to hold one-and-a-half times what a plastic bag could. Because the handle is just a continuation of the bag, rather than a separate piece, it is more comfortable to carry, says Howe, and is stronger than other reusable bags.
"We're hoping middle America will use it, not just hard-core environmentalists," says Kenny. "If we want people to start doing something we have to make it easy and fun." The women have made a point of making the bags in bright colors.
The latest version of the ReBag also comes with a loop that fits on grocery store bagging frames so the bags are easy to load. Smith's Foods has begun training its employees how to use the bags - and how to respond to customers who shop with the bags.
Howe and Kenny, who has since moved to Buffalo, N.Y., plan to donate a percentage of their profits to a different environmental group each year.