GreenSmart Bags: Eco-Friendly & Stylish

GreenSmart bags

Narwhal, Baringo, and Mandrill bags from GreenSmart.

It must be because I grew up reading Ranger Rick, but I take recycling pretty seriously. You know, I’m that annoying guy who notices the white paper in the office trash can and fishes it out for the recycling bin. At our local library, I got tired of all the paper that was thrown out each week and went and bought some bins for recycling—and I’m usually the one to go pick it up and take it out to the recycling center, too.

Of course, there are limits to my environmentalism, often due to my desire for new technology or inability to give up dead-tree books, but I figure recycling is the least you can do—it’s easy, and it generally uses less energy, water, and materials than making something new. Unfortunately, some recycled-materials products just aren’t as high-quality, and sometimes they have an aesthetic that’s more hippie than hip.

GreenSmart is a company that turns recycled plastic bottles into bags—backpacks, messenger bags, laptop sleeves and so on. They started off using conventional materials (under the company name Shoreline) but in 2006 they began to reassess their manufacturing process, and since then have made their bags much more eco-friendly. All of their bags have a little badge stating how many bottles went into them (the Mandrill backpack, for example used 40 bottles) and comes with a tag that explains briefly how GreenSmart gives plastic bottles a second life. What’s cool is that 100% of the fabric and lining of the bag is made from recycled plastic bottles, but you wouldn’t know it from the bag itself.

Each of the bags is also given the name of an endangered animal, and 10% of the profits are given to the World Wildlife Fund and other organizations devoted to protecting habitat and resource conservation. The designs of the bags are eye-catching, with an abstract river design, and they’re practical, with plenty of pockets and dividers. Also, the laptop sleeves use their NeoGreene substitute for neoprene, a water-based product which functions like neoprene but is less toxic and requires less energy to manufacture.

While GreenSmart bags aren’t cheap, they also aren’t prohibitively expensive the way a lot of eco-friendly gear seems to be—and that’s great, because not everyone wants to shell out extra cash just for the sake of being green.

I got a sample of the Mandrill backpack (pictured above) to try out—sadly, right after my trip to PAX, where it would have been nice to have a good backpack to wear. Since I generally don’t use a bag of any sort on a day-to-day basis, I let my wife try it out … and I don’t think I’m ever getting it back.

Here’s her take on the backpack:

I’m a physician and several times a week I walk a mile or so each way to work. I’m usually carrying my laptop, chargers, a couple folders’ worth of papers, my purse, a large water bottle, a lot of keys, my iPod, you get the idea. And while I wouldn’t call myself a fashionista, I do have a thing for bags. My husband will swear that I have way more than I need, even though each time I buy one I know it is an absolute necessity.

When GreenSmart sent my husband a sample of their eco-friendly Mandrill backpack, the poor guy didn’t even really get a chance to pick it up. Drawn in by the cool blue-and-gray colors with the spicy orange interior (orange is my favorite color), I snatched it up and immediately began filling it with my stuff. That was a few months ago, and it’s significant that during that time not once have I swapped my stuff out into another bag. [Jonathan says: It’s true—when I was making the short trip out to NetDevil Studios for the Lego Universe demo, I thought it would be the perfect opportunity to try out the backpack myself. She wouldn’t even let me borrow it.]

The first thing to know about this bag is that it’s huge. Every single pocket is roomier than you think it is. There are three large zippered pockets—one in the back for your laptop; a center one that could probably have held 3 of my textbooks back in med school; and the smallest front one, which has smaller pockets stitched in and is still big enough to stash my (not small) purse. In addition, one side has an elasticated pocket for your water bottle and the other side a zippered pocket where I stash my iPod but you could put a paperback in there easily. A bungee cord on the front holds your bunched-up windbreaker. A genius zippered pocket on the face of the right shoulder strap can hold your keys or ID but is alas just a touch small for a Smartphone. Despite all this, however, it really doesn’t give the visual impression of being oversized.

The back side of the pack (the part against your body when you wear it) and the shoulder straps are well-padded for comfort. There’s no waist strap if you’re carrying a really heavy load, but with the amount that I carry I have no complaints about digging into my shoulders. My biggest beef with this otherwise-awesome backpack is the carrying handle. It is of a piece with the padded shoulder straps, rather than a separate loop between them. I can see why they made it this way, because I know those loops are often the first thing to come apart. However, it does not make for comfortable wearing as a backpack since the padded carrying handle rubs uncomfortably against the back of my neck.

Wired: Eco-friendly, sweet colors, room for everything without appearing Brobdingnagian.

Tired: No waist strap option for heavy load; carrying handle digs into the neck when wearing. Also, your wife may steal it and you won’t actually get to use it yourself.

Visit GreenSmart to check out their line of bags and laptop sleeves.

Jonathan H. Liu is a stay-at-home dad in Portland, Oregon, who loves to read, is always up for a board game, and has a bit of a Kickstarter habit.