Build with Bags Helps the Environment and Communities

The Iowa Grocery Industry Association (IGIA) decided something had to be done about the disposable plastic bag problem. The bags are eyesores which are seldom recycled as they should be, and instead they float around as litter or take up space in landfills. Many municipalities implement bans of the bags, and while that may work for some people in some places the IGIA felt that was not the best fit and solution for the folks of Iowa. The IGIA came up with an ingenious plan of action and created the Build with Bags program. They secured sponsorships from some likeminded organizations, including Keep Iowa Beautiful, the Des Moines Area Metro Waste Authority, Iowa Department of Natural Resources and The Des Moines Register and they laid out a plan.

Core Goals and Objectives

Build with Bags has four objectives. The first is to double the amount of plastic bags recycled over the next 24 months. On the national level recycling rates of plastic bags are low, and Iowa is consistent with the national average. This leaves a lot of room for improvement and would have a tremendous impact on the environment, but doubling the rate is still an ambitious goal. To help achieve this goal collection bins are placed throughout communities. The bins are clearly labeled as being part of the Build with Bags program and they even feature a brief description of the program. This is an easy and smart way to increase recycling. People can just drop their old plastic bags in the bins and it is clear what the bins are for and how the simple act of recycling plastic bags helps out. Research has shown that people cite inconvenience as the main reason they do not recycle so the masterminds at Build with Bags made sure to eliminate this excuse.

The second goal of the Build with Bags program is to reduce the amount of plastic bags in circulation. This too is not easy and the IGIA has their work cut out for themselves. The easiest way to reduce plastic bags is to cut them off at the source, so if they can find a way to stop people from picking up plastic bags at the store than that will help them meet their goal. A sure fire way to get people to stop using disposable plastic bags is to give them another option, and this is where the IGIA’s third goal comes into play. The third goal is to increase the use of reusable grocery bags. If shoppers take advantage of reusable bags then there will be fewer plastic bags out there. The second and third goals are closely related and success on one front will create success on the other goal. To help stores wrap their minds around these goals and give them a path to success the Best Bagging Practices Guide was created. This document explains the goals and gives tips and suggestions on how to succeed with these goals. However, the guide acknowledges that a one size fits all approach is not as likely to work, so they encourage individual stores to customize the goals to fit their operations.

Closing the Plastic Bag Loop

The first three goals are on par with objectives set out in most of the plastic bag bans throughout the country. By increasing reusable bag use you automatically decrease plastic bag use and it is prudent to make sure we properly dispose of the plastic bags we currently have. These are tried and true objectives that are the fundamental aspects of the bans currently in place and the proposed bans people are working to get on the books all over the world. The fourth and final goal is where Build with Bags takes a unique, unexpected, and surprisingly sustainable turn. The program uses recycled plastic bags to create outdoor tables and benches and kits to build raised garden beds. This last goal is to encourage the purchase of furniture and equipment made from recycled plastic bags through a grant program for parks and schools. The grant program was designed to “close the plastic bag loop” and create functional and useful items from plastic bags that were otherwise considered trash. The only catch is that the items must be purchased for a park or school. The grant program has received sponsorship from the American Chemistry Council, who has routinely taken action against plastic bag bans; however, this is an example of the organization using their resources and knowledge to have a positive impact on the environment and local communities.

Sustainable Advantages of Recycled Plastic

The recycled bags create a durable and resilient material that can hold its own against the elements and is not susceptible to the problems and shortcomings of outdoor items made from wood, namely rot and the regular maintenance like painting or staining. Pressure treated wood offers increased longevity, but many people shy away from the chemicals used in the treating process. The recycled plastic material offers the structure without the failings found in other materials. Tables and benches made from this plastic do not require maintenance and do not need to be painted. If necessary the tables and benches can simply be hosed down to clean.

Impact on the Environment and Communities

Build with Bags is designed to have a positive change on the environment and save money by ultimately putting an end to the practice of stores purchasing these nuisance bags and passing that expense along to their customers. Reusable bags definitely cost more per bag; however, the bags pay for themselves after several uses. Most reusable bags are engineered to last up to 3 years under normal use. Even when you factor in having to purchase new bags every few years, reusable bags still save consumers money. Also consider that prices at the supermarket should drop as stores need to stock fewer plastic bags, so the cost of reusable bags will be further offset. Shoppers are not the only ones saving money. Cleaning up the plastic bag problem costs municipalities money; whether picking up litter or hauling trash off to the landfill or sorting and handling recyclables. Build with Bags takes this hassle away from the public sector and over time will continue to decrease the impact of plastic bags on local municipalities.

A perk of the program is giving back to the community. After reviewing the submitted applicants 20 winners were selected recently to receive raised bed garden kits constructed from recycled plastic bags. One of the winners, Goodrell Middle School will use the kits as part of their gardening program that gives students hands on lessons outside of the traditional classroom. These are valuable educational tools that are made available due to the ingenuity of the program and the students are also subtly taught the lesson of sustainability. Michelle Hurd, interim president of the IGIA said “The Build with Bags program has exceeded our expectations in encouraging individuals to recycle their plastic bags so those bags can be turned into products that beautify our communities.”

Turning a Negative into a Positive

What is so remarkable and innovative about this program is that it takes the problem of plastic bags and turns them into a functional solution. Most efforts to reduce plastic bag use and encourage reusable shopping bags just aim to stop the use of disposable bags and maybe they causally encourage recycling.  These efforts are not to be overlooked or taken for granted, but the Build with Bags program takes things to a new level and not only sets ambitious recycling goals but also finds very useful items to create from the recycled bags. The community benefits several times over since their communities and landfills will have fewer plastic bags and local parks and schools get to take advantage of the durable products created from the bags.

Plastic bag bans are tricky business. There are people who think bans are great and whole heartedly support them. There are also people who for one reason or another just do not support these bans; maybe they do not like being told they cannot use plastic bags or maybe they do not take issue with the impact plastic bags have on the environment. Either way, the Build with Bags program avoids these issues because plastic bags are not banished.  Shoppers are encouraged to bring reusable shopping bags when they shop, but folks are free to still lug their groceries home in plastic bags if they so choose. Stepped up efforts are made to recycle plastic bags so those bags still given out in the checkout lane can be properly disposed. Some people may not agree with still allowing plastic bags to be used, and maybe that is not the best solution. What is certain is that Build with Bags is an ambitious program that has reduced the amount of plastic bags in use and there is no reason to think this program will not continue to grow and have even more of a positive change on the environment.

To learn more about the Build with Bags program go to


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