Think Bringing Your Own Grocery Bags Isn't Worth It? Think Again

by Katy on January 29, 2009 · 20 comments


plastic bag turtle

I love a good win-win situation. I particularly love when businesses find ways to save on expenses while doing a favor to the environment, (all the while garnering kudos and good feelings from their customers.) 

An perfect example of this came today from my local Trader Joe’s grocery store. (A semi-national chain of stores that specialize in higher end/ higher quality food. They are most famous for their Three Buck Chuck, which is decent wine at just $3 per bottle.) 

There are just a few items that I buy from Trader Joe’s, as they specialize in prepackaged meals, and I try and cook from scratch. But I needed olive oil, bleu cheese and chocolate chips, (and life without olive oil is a drab life indeed.) I’m making my way into the store when a wooden sandwich board outside the entrance catches my eye. It reads:

B.Y.O.B. — Bring Your Own Bags. Are your bags still in the car?

I like this. It’s clever, memorable and to the point. And yes, it made me double check my bag stash.

I continue my way into the store and am confronted by an enormous display explaining that Trader Joe shoppers at this one store bring an average of 14,634 reuseable bags to the store per week. There is also a large photo of a boxed-paper-bag-pyramid of that looks to be about eight by ten feet tall, depicting what 14,634 bags look like.


Unlike some stores that give a small monetary reward for bringing their own bags, Trader Joe’s had a monthly prize drawing for a $50 gift certificate, that can only be entered by bringing one’s own bags. I don’t know the exact numbers, but it’s got to be tremendously less expensive to give out a single $50 gift certificate, than to give a nickel per bag as other stores do.

This information and display stick in my mind, and start to wonder why other area stores don’t adopt this strategy. It’s simple, and requires nothing more than a reminder sign, a roll of tickets and a small prize. 

I call up the store in the evening and spoke with Mark Butler, an extremely helpful crew member. He tells me that the reminder sign is specific to their store, and that the bag statistics were compiled by an employee who took it on themselves to research this information. (I do know that the Seattle store also has a bag reminder sign in the parking area.) 

Although Trader Joe’s only uses paper bags, which are recyclable, it’s still better to not take a bag at all. All carrier bags, whether they are paper or plastic have a negative environmental impact that could be easily negated by simply bringing one’s own bags.

It is estimated that 500 billion to 1 trillion plastic bags are now produced annually for the world market. That comes out to over one million per minute. Billions end up as litter every year. 

Although cute reusable bags are widely available for purchase, it’s also perfectly okay to use the ratty bags you most likely already own.

Want to learn more about the effects of plastic bags on the environment? Then click here to read my earlier blog post about how The Time Has Come to Stop Using Plastic Bags.

Are you remembering to bring your own bags when you shop? Perhaps a small reminder sign on the dashboard of the car is in order. I also keep a string bag in my purse for spontaneous small purchases. It takes up next-to-no room whatsoever.

Please share your thoughts and ideas in the comments section below.

Katy Wolk-Stanley

“Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without.”

{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }

mindfulmama January 30, 2009 at 5:34 am

Yes, my Trader Joe’s also has that sign (outside Boston) and it always makes me check twice. I have the problem of forgetting to bring the bags back down to the car. And I hate paying (ok, only a buck, but still) for those papery-plastic-doctor gown type bags to get home and find there is a big rip. I have decided to make my own, when I have the time. I’ll send you a picture!


Joy January 30, 2009 at 7:02 am

I bought my reusable bags at – a wonderful online store. I know, they’re NEW – but their ACME Bag – Workhorse Style 1500 has a tiny pouch attacted to it and you fold the bag up into the pouch and it’s only 2″ x 3″ x 2″. It will hold up to 25 lbs. I bought a bunch a couple years ago and gave them out as gifts.

I use bigger, heavier bags – the size of paper bags – and they hold so much, sometimes they’re too heavy to carry!!

I think plastic bags should be outlawed!


Emily January 30, 2009 at 7:08 am

I’m far from being a sewing expert, but I made at least 20 cloth bags to give as presents this Christmas. I followed the instructions on The best part was using up all the remnants of fabric in the basement (some leftover from my mother’s 70s house decor!).


Sandy January 30, 2009 at 7:13 am

I love my reuseable grocery bags. Besides the fact that it is good for the environment, I also appreciate how much easier it is to get the groceries from the car to the house when using these bags. They are so much sturdier and hold much more than the flimsy, plastic bags.


Lisa January 30, 2009 at 7:27 am

I started using my own bags a couple of years ago. I had a few around the house and bought more at the thrift store for about $1 each. Since the store I frequent gives a bag credit, the bags have actually paid for themselves.

One odd thing about using the cloth bags, I actually enjoy putting groceries away now. I like folding the bags up and putting them all together versus stuffing plastic bag after plastic bag into the tissue box where I stored them.


CT January 30, 2009 at 7:34 am

Trader Joe’s does actually have plastic bags (at least mine does), they just hide them behind the counter and rarely give them out. I was reminded of this yesterday when I saw a woman stuffing five items into a total of four plastic bags. Many (dare I say most?) people bring their own bags, and I only ever see the plastic bags come out when it’s raining and people are walking, so I was especially surprised.

I make an effort to avoid all plastic bags, but then I have to buy a million garbage bags for my grandmother’s caregivers, because they use those if they don’t have plastic grocery bags to wrap her diapers in. Oh well. At least I don’t have to beat myself up on the rare occasions when I screw up and get handed a bag.


Magdalena January 30, 2009 at 8:19 am

Most grocery store chains here in Canada sell $1 re-usable bags. Some are almost too big. I have about a dozen of them, as well as ordinary canvas bags. If I’m walking, I take my packbasket. Sometimes clerks don’t know how to pack into canvas carriers, which kind of surprises me, since you’d think they got some training when the new canvas bags came into the stores.

For small trash items (such as disposable diapers) you might wrap to go into a larger can, try biodegradable doggie pick-up sacks from the dollar store. I had to throw out some greasy cooked cabbage this week, which couldn’t be composted, and I found that worked well, as they have a light vanilla masking scent.


Tamara January 30, 2009 at 9:18 am

When we donated to our local public radio station, there was a premium of a compact shopping bag in its own little pouch, with a small carabiner for connecting with a key ring. I always have it with me now! I have other string and reusable bags that stay in the car – I hang them on the door knob when they are empty, so that I remember to take them back out with me.


Sharon January 30, 2009 at 9:42 am

PCC Natural Markets in Issaquah WA (outside of Seattle) has a new bag reminder sign out front. Trader Joe’s has started something it seems!


Linda January 30, 2009 at 10:09 am

I have a stash of canvas bags that I have started using, when I remember them. It’s hard to break old habits. I like the idea of reminders in front of the stores & in the parking lots. I should also put one on my dashboard. Plastic bags present a problem not only in landfills & the ocean but on the manufacturing side as well. To put “a billion” into perspective, here’s an excerpt of an interesting email I received:

A billion is a difficult number to comprehend, but one advertising agency did a good job of
putting that figure into some perspective in one of it’s releases:

A billion seconds ago it was 1959.
A billion minutes ago Jesus was alive.
A billion hours ago our ancestors were living in the Stone Age.
A billion days ago no-one walked on the earth on two feet.
A billion dollars ago was only 8 hours and 20 minutes, at the rate our (U.S.) government is spending it.


ruth January 30, 2009 at 10:10 am

The Whole Foods near my house gives 10 cents back for every bag your bring yourself, but you can also donate that 10 cents per bag to a local food pantry. I don’t know how much money is collected this way each month, but I like to think I’m not alone in telling them to donate my dimes! I like that using my cloth bags (which I’ve had forever) can help the hungry.


highmountainmuse January 30, 2009 at 10:21 am

Well, I’ve been to a Trader Joe’s once. It’ was neat. So much to buy! Nothing I really needed, though. Yes, I admit, I’m pretty back woods up here, but I’m thinking if I shop at little as possible, I’m doing the best I can for myself, my family, my planet. When I do visit the city, I’m saddened to see how alive and well consumerism is. But all we can do is start, and we need to be aware before we can start. Thank you for sharing ideas and thoughts and comments to encourage us all to think. There is no one doing it all right out there, but if all of us try just a little bit more…

Gin at High Mountain Muse (talk about simple living…)


Jean January 30, 2009 at 10:35 am

This is one of the reasons I am a fan of Aldi’s-they encourage you to bring your own bags by charging for theirs, 5 cents for paper and 10 cents for plastic. They also have the boxes they received the groceries in available, which we frequently use. My cats enjoy playing with them until our next trip to the city recycle center.


Kristen @TheFrugalGirl January 30, 2009 at 11:52 am

I used to always forget mine. Now I fold them up as soon as I unpack my groceries, and then I hang them up on the hook next to my purse. The next time I go out to the car, I just grab the bag and bring it out to the van. This works great for me…I think I’ve only forgotten them once this way(which was yesterday! lol)


Mandy January 30, 2009 at 1:14 pm

Two years ago I started to bring my own bags. I can’t say that I’ve been faithful about it, but I have greatly improved. It was mainly a problem when I would find myself at the grocery store unexpectedly. I may put a sign on my door out of my apartment as a reminder to bring them. My mainstream room mates don’t know what to do with me.

I do ask when I am at retail stores if I can just carry my purchase to the car. I’ve only been told I couldn’t once and it was only at that one location – I’ve been to the same store in other places with no problems.

The bags I initially purchased were very well made ( but quite costly. I’ve lost one of them and very sad about it, but I love the one I have left and like to use it more than any others. I also got a deal from some website that selling reusable bags made from recycled plastic – part of the proceeds went to some sort of children’s organization. They were cute bags, but most of them have started falling apart. I also purchased one when I visited Seattle two years ago (I am from the South). I like to use that one a lot as we. I’ve decided that when I visit places if I must buy a souvenier (which I rarely do – I just take pictures) it has to be practical. So canvas bags are a nice compromise.

I plan to start making my own bags. When my mother was alive, she crafted professionally on the side. I have yet to do anything with her craft supplies. So I am going to pick up the sewing machine and some of the fabric she was always buying for me and make a bunch of bags.


Jeanne January 30, 2009 at 2:37 pm

I started using canvas bags from Real Goods ten years ago and got a lot of sneers from clerks and shoppers since it slowed down the line. Now I have an eclectic collection from many sources (and people are far more accepting.) I keep a few in my car, my husband keeps a couple in his truck and the rest are in a basket under the table near the front door. It’s become a habit to grab them as I’m grabbing the grocery list. I also try to make a point of thanking fellow shoppers I see who are bringing and using reusable bags. Positive reinforcement!


Di Hickman January 30, 2009 at 6:12 pm

Yup our Trader Joes has one of those signs too 🙂 Always makes me double check 🙂
I love using my own bags, and plan on making a few more to add to my stash!


Pennie February 2, 2009 at 11:12 am

Like Jeanne I now keep all my reusable bags in the car–before I was always forgetting them! (I’m rural so walking or bike riding for groceries is unfortunately out of the question).

The bags are a fun and eclectic mix, all free from various vendors or travel/membership kudos. One even has an image of my two grandkids on the side!


Greenstrivings October 6, 2012 at 7:05 am

Late again to the party here, but recently I won the Trader Joe’s raffle! So exciting. In our town they draw names 2x/ week for $25 each. I did a victory dance when I got the phone call and ran around the house gloating at the Other Adult who always sighs heavily when I yell a reeminder about the reusable bags.


Katy October 6, 2012 at 9:08 am

Too funny, congratulations!

One of the fun things about hosting giveaways is how excited the winners are. I know exactly how they feel, as I get super excited when I win stuff as well.



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