Field Notes: What I learned on my way to buy a sustainable conference bag….

The following article has been re-posted with permission from the author, Shawna McKinley from Meet Green and originally appeared on the Sustainable Destinations Blog.

Field Notes: What I learned on my way to buy a sustainable conference bag….

Yes, I know, I know. There are steps to take before getting to this point; the point of admitting you need a conference bag. You don’t necessarily want it, but, well, eliminating it entirely is not an option. And although it might be cool to experiment with an innovative BYOB program, for some events and attendees bag reuse programs are just not feasible. So, it falls to the planner to source the most sustainable option possible!

Myself and the event team for Canada Media Marketplace recently found ourselves in this situation. Here are some things we’ve learned on our way to buy a new (more sustainable) bag:

A recycled bag claim by any other name would be just as…unreliable. Greenwashing is alive and well in the recycled conference bag market, so it’s tough to be certain if your bag, in fact, used to be a pop bottle. Always look deep into manufacturer claims: ask what kind of recycled material the bag was made from (such as PET or polypropylene plastic), what percent of recycled content your bag includes and if it is pre- or post-consumer material. Alert the media if the distributor has a quick response as I found most do not have the information available at their fingertips. If they do, hey…score one for them for researching their supply chain! If they don’t hopefully they can easily find out for you.

Recyclable? Really? Some conference bags claim to be recyclable. But unlike soda or water bottles, they rarely have that number in a triangle sewn into the bottom to let you know if the bag can be recycled in your city. Many recycled bags are made of #5 plastic, which may or may not be recyclable in some locations. This means that in reality bags are recyclable only where facilities exist that can take them. Even if facilities exist, wear and tear on the recycled plastic fibres in the bag may limit your ability to keep it out of landfill years later if the material is poor quality. So before buying a recycled content bag ask what kind of plastic it is made from so you can tell attendees how to recycle it at the end of its life (if it even can be recycled). Better yet, see if it has a label that reminds them. Manufacturers may also have a takeback program that allows you to return bags at the end of their life cycle for recycling. Try to avoid mixed material bags that have clasps, strings and metal grommets that might prevent recycling, or at least make sure these can be easily removed.

Lead? Not in my recycled bag, sistah. Concern has emerged recently over the presence of lead in reusable bags. Who knew! Ask your conference bag manufacturer what kind of safeguards they have in place to make sure the bags you’re sourcing are safe and healthy for attendees. Specific questions to ask your supplier could include if they are aware of any standards that regulate the presence of lead or other toxic materials in their products. ASTM does have standards for lead content in manufactured products such as toys. Some states also have regulations governing the use of hazardous substances that may be cited. It is also important to ask if bag companies can provide documentation to confirm their products are tested to comply with these standards as awareness of standards does not automatically assume they are followed!

For all the bags in China! Many of the recycled content bags marketed to event planners in North America are manufactured in China. That may concern those who seek to support businesses close to their home. However consider this: some distributors take the initiative to work with manufacturers globally to ensure sound labour practises are used. To ensure you’re working with a reputable company anywhere in the world ask if they inspect plants or work with ethical sourcing organisations to use factories that align with your desire to ensure fair and safe working conditions for the people who make your conference bag. Fairware has a good list of specific ethical sourcing organisations to look for to help with your purchase decision, worldwide.

Toot for jute. While some bags might use conventional or organic cotton, linen, flax or hemp, jute is arguably a more sustainable option for fabric bags. Why? According to Nexus Collections jute is a natural fibre that biodegrades, uses less water to grow and fewer chemical processes to manufacture into a textile. It also produces a usable wood by-product that can be used for other purposes. And when you consider 6.9 million pounds of chemicals are dusted on conventional cotton crops in California every year, that is something to toot about. Organic fibres can be a good option to address pesticide use, but can hide the use of excessive water and chemicals in other areas of processing.

One bag to rule them all! It’s a bit of a grey area and obviously a complex issue to consider, but TreeHugger has ventured an educated guess into which reusable bags are the best.  They reckon that it’s a toss up between polypropylene and polyester, both of which can be sourced with recycled content from some manufacturers. But obviously the difference narrows the more you reuse any non-disposable bag. So you know what that means:.+1 to reuse, +1 to planet karma!

Oh and on a side, note…

“You have enough sense to wash your underwear, right?” Okay all you hypochondriacs! You know those conference bags you may have avoided using for your groceries because they might harbour (eek!) bacteria? Well, in my research I came across Chico Bag’s take on the belief reusing bags may kill you. The short lesson: L2wash’em!

Will keep you posted on other useful info we acquire on the journey and welcome your insights! Happy (sustainable) conference bag shopping!

Bags for Event Camp Made from Reclaimed Materials from Another Event