Tote bags are great. When you remember to bring them to the grocery store you feel so virtuous—and in Brattleboro, you’d better remember, because single-use plastic bags are now illegal.
But totes are also expensive, and cotton ones aren’t such a good deal for the environment. Counterintuitively, they have a big carbon footprint compared to plastic grocery bags. You need to use your cotton tote 327 times to achieve the same per-use carbon ratio. And cotton is uniquely depleting to soil; that’s what propelled slavery west in the 1830s-50s. Cotton had driven soil fertility into the ground, so to speak, all over the South; many lands have still not recovered.
There’s a solution, though. If you feed birds, pets, or livestock, you end up with a big pile of colorful, heavy-duty woven-plastic bags just begging to be repurposed. You can keep them out of the landfill and avoid ever needing a plastic bag or cotton tote again.
There are two ways to go with constructing them, sewing machine or duct tape. Sewing is probably better environmentally. The only new material needed is a little thread. Basically, you cut the top and bottom off the bag, create a square bottom so the bag will stand up, fold over and stitch the top edge and make handles out of the pieces you’ve cut off. There are good instructions online. Go to https://www.instructables.com/id/Feed-Bag-Tote-Bag/.
Sewed totes are great, but not everyone has a sewing machine. Luckily, there’s duct tape. You cut as for a sewn bag but create your square bottom using duct tape ‘seams’. Colored duct tape forms the trim at the top of the bag, and strips of duct tape form the wide strap handles. For complete instructions and a video, go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JepJM6lF2uc.
Because of the broad, colorful trim, the duct tape bags are especially handsome. (One tip: use black for any part that’s not going to be seen, like the bottom, or for bags where that is the handsomest choice. Black tape is a lot less expensive than colors and comes in bigger rolls.) A bag can be made in about half an hour, barring any taping accidents.
Feed bag totes, whether sewn or taped, are durable and able to carry a lot of weight. They are excellent for groceries, library books, gathering vegetables and herbs from the garden—anything you’d use a bag or basket for. They’re also lightweight and waterproof.
You can use any size. It’s possible to get two totes out of a single large bird seed bag, especially if you decide that it’s okay to leave the original, sewn bottom on the bag. Cover it with a couple of strips of duct tape, just for looks. The bag won’t stand up when you set it down, but not every tote has to do that, and it’s worth it sometimes if the decoration is in the right place. Cat food bags make nice smaller totes, as do five pound bird seed bags.
Once you start making totes, you may change your feed-buying habits. Some feed bags are gorgeous, others not so much. Unfortunately, livestock feeds sweetened with molasses stick to the inside of the bags, so you won’t want to use those to make a grocery tote.
However, there are good uses even for sweet feed bags. For a tote to carry flakes of hay, open a grain bag along the bottom and up one side. You’ll end up with a broad flat piece of material. Add duct-tape handles to each long edge, and you’re done. For logs, open one long edge and close the open, top end of the bag by sewing or with duct tape. Add handles to the long edges. Now you have a log tote, one from which the firewood won’t spill out the ends. It won’t look like you bought it at L.L. Bean, but it will bring in a nice load of wood without getting it all over you or the floor.
Some of us are old enough to remember getting grain in sacks made of natural fiber. We would empty the grain into a bin at home and take the sack back to the mill when we needed more. That was more environmentally sound, but in this age of dozens of brands and mixes of feed, it’s probably not something we’re going back to anytime soon. Hemp has been legalized in the new farm bill, and in time, that may start showing up as grain bags, but in the meantime, we can get all the value possible out of those pretty bags we buy. Give your gifts for all occasions wrapped in a lovely new shopping tote—you may find the recipient is most thrilled about the wrapper.
Jessie Haas has written 40 books, mainly for children, and has lived in an off-grid cabin in Westminster West, VT since 1984, www.jessiehaas.com.