This post is from KS contributing writer Becca Stallings of The Earthling’s Handbook, with photographs by her son Nicholas Efran.
One Christmas when I was in college, my mom gave me a sturdy canvas tote bag with a picture of the Earth and the words “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.” Great! I would reduce garbage by reusing this bag whenever I walked from campus to the grocery store! I returned to my dorm in the new year, hung up the bag . . . and forgot all about it until I was in the checkout line, every time.
Then one day, I was walking on the sidewalk along the top of a steep hill on campus, carrying groceries in two heavy plastic bags whose narrow handles were twisting painfully around my fingers, when one of the bags abruptly split open. It was the one containing cans of soup, cans of fruit, and little cups of yogurt. I plunked down the other bag and raced downhill, frantically catching my cylindrical food items as they rolled away!
Lumbering back up the hill, I couldn’t hold all those things in my arms; they kept escaping. Luckily, my friend Trevor spotted me and gallantly took off his coat to bundle it around my groceries.
Back in the dorm, I got out that canvas bag and found that all of the groceries from my two plastic bags would fit into that one. I slung its straps over my shoulder, and the load felt lighter than it had when it was dragging down my hands. It was obviously a better bag than the plastic ones from the store. Trevor said, “Well, next time, remember to bring it!”
More than two decades later, I’m still remembering. I almost never set out on a shopping trip without bringing my reusable bags. That particular bag wore out after about 15 years, but imagine how many plastic bags I avoided by using it! Now I have lots of reusable bags. They are great for groceries and so much more!
This story and my love of reusable bags is really what Kitchen Stewardship is all about. They save money, the environment and are a great step towards living a greener lifestyle.
What’s Wrong With Plastic Bags?
Worldwide, one trillion single-use plastic bags are thrown away each year. That’s about 2 million bags per minute! Plastic bags are lightweight, so discarded ones easily blow into places where they’re unwanted.
Animals choke on them or suffocate inside them, and children can, too. Garbage swirling in the ocean breaks into pieces so tiny they slip unnoticed through filters, so we are all drinking and eating plastics that disrupt our bodies’ biochemistry, increasing rates of cancer and infertility.
In addition to harming our environment and health, plastic bags waste resources. The amount of energy required to make just 12 plastic shopping bags could drive a car for a mile. The materials used to make plastic bags are crude oil and natural gas, nonrenewable resources which have so many other uses–why waste them making bags that will be used for just a few minutes?
Recycling doesn’t solve the problem. Plastics can’t be recycled into another of the same type of product; they can only be downcycled into different products like fiberfill stuffing and composite lumber.
Plastic recycling uses lots of energy and creates lots of pollution. Yes, it’s less than the energy used and pollution released by making new plastic, so when you really must use plastic, it’s better to recycle it than landfill or incinerate it. (But please don’t put plastic bags in the same recycling bin with plastic bottles! They cause serious problems at general recycling centers. They need to go into collection bins specifically for plastic film.)
Environmental issues aside, plastic grocery bags simply aren’t good bags! They tear easily. The handles cut into your hands. They don’t hold much. They flop when you set them down, dumping groceries all around the trunk of your car or the aisle of your public transit vehicle. Grrr! Who needs ’em?
Are Reusable Bags Unsanitary?
A few years ago, an organization partially funded by plastic-bag manufacturers did a media blitz about a study that found bacteria in reusable bags that had been used repeatedly without washing. But the study didn’t prove that the bacteria were really dangerous. (We didn’t even get sick that time we ate million-year-old dust from a dirty reusable bag!)
Of course, it’s a good idea to wash your reusable bags once in a while, especially if anything leaked or you bought vegetables with crumbs of dirt on them. I try to wash each bag 3 or 4 times a year even if it doesn’t seem dirty.
It’s also best if you don’t assume your grocery items are clean when you bring them home. Someone in the store might have sneezed on them, or they might have gotten dirty on their journey to the store, or…who knows?
The possibility of reusable bags being contaminated with lead also was exaggerated. Still, that’s one reason to choose cotton or nylon bags instead of those woven-polypropylene reusable bags that are widely available cheap or free–but fall apart a lot sooner than high-quality cloth bags.
How to Get Great Reusable Bags
Lots of organizations give away free tote bags, usually polypropylene, sometimes better materials. We have a mix of freebies and purchased bags.
For me, carrying a heavy bag on my shoulder is much easier than carrying it in my hand. It just doesn’t feel as heavy. About a year after I started using my first reusable grocery bag, I had a repetitive-stress problem in my wrist (similar to carpal tunnel syndrome) and could lift almost nothing in my right hand–but I was still able to do my own shopping with shoulder bags!
So, I look for tote bags with straps long enough for shoulder-carrying and wide enough to be comfortable. Check your bags’ straps occasionally to make sure they’re not fraying or pulling loose from the bag. If a strap pulls loose, sew it back on with a heavy-duty needle and dental floss, which is stronger than typical sewing thread.
One of my favorite bags is this cotton canvas bag from Dharma Trading Company. It has handy pockets for carrying my shopping list. The straps are just the right length and width for easy shoulder carrying. It’s made in USA.
Also, it looks great tie-dyed! I folded it in various directions until I couldn’t fold it any more, tied it up, and soaked it in a bucket of Rit dye. Because a tote bag doesn’t get washed a lot, the color is still vivid after 5 years.
Another great bag is this super-sturdy one with a reinforced bottom and an outer pocket. Unfortunately, I can’t tell you where to get one just like it, because my mom bought it for me in Japan! But I know that L.L.Bean and Lands’ End make super-sturdy canvas bags that last for decades.
Okay, but how do I remember to bring the bags to the store?
Here are my strategies and some that I’ve heard from other people. What will work best for you depends on how you get to the store and whether you shop spontaneously or plan ahead.
- When you’re getting ready to go shopping, select the bags you’ll need and put them near the door. In this house, I hang them on the post at the bottom of the stairs, near the door. Other places, I’ve hung them on the doorknob so that I can’t miss them as I leave.
- Store your bags on the same hook where you hang your purse and/or coat. You’ll see them on your way out and remember to grab one or more bags if you might be shopping.
- Keep your bags in the car. After shopping, unload the bags and then take them back to the car right away.
- If you’re walking to the store or taking public transit, keep your bags on you all the way there.
- If you’re driving, wrap the bag straps around your purse straps–or whatever else you’re going to take into the store with you–so you’ll be certain not to leave them in the car.
- Get bags that fold up small when not in use, to stash in your purse, briefcase, diaper bag, or car glove compartment so they’re always with you.
Once you’re in the store, put the bags in your shopping cart so you’ll see them when you start unloading your cart at checkout. At times when I’m not accompanied by a young child, I put my bags in the child seat for maximum visibility. That also keeps them from getting trapped under the groceries.
Handling Reusable Bags at Checkout
Different stores are more or less accustomed to reusable bags. Especially in stores where most customers take the disposable bags, it’s best to be proactive about getting your purchases into your bags before the cashier auto-pilots and starts using plastic.
Most of my grocery stores expect the customer to place her groceries on the conveyor belt while the customer ahead is checking out. I put the heavy items on the belt first, then cold items, then miscellaneous, and finally the easily-damaged items like fruit.
That way the heavy things are bagged first and go on the bottom, cold things stay together, and fragile stuff is on top. I often do my own bagging, too, and make sure to group things this way.
When it’s my turn to check out, I hold up my bags and say, “I brought my own bags.” Then I put them down in the bagging area while handing over my loyalty card with the other hand. If there isn’t an employee bagging groceries, I jump over there as soon as I’ve gotten my card back and all my items on the conveyor.
As soon as a bag is full, I lift it into my shopping cart to get it out of the way.
Some stores reward you for bringing your own bags, either with a discount (5c or 10c per reusable bag) or by entering you in a drawing to win a gift card. I wish they’d just charge a fee for each disposable bag, instead! (That is how it’s done in some places.) Filling in my name and phone number to enter a drawing is cumbersome. But I want to support rewards for reusing because they encourage more people to do it. Also, I would like to win a gift card–it hasn’t happened yet.
What about produce bags?
Amazon sells reusable produce bags, too! Or you can make your own, repurposing old fabric. If your bags aren’t easy to see through, leave them open at checkout so the cashier can see what kind of food is in there. Wash your reusable produce bags at least as often as your big tote bags.
What I’ve been doing is reusing plastic produce bags. After taking the produce out at home, I drop the bag into one of my cloth shopping bags. In the store, I look in my bags for produce bags and don’t take a new one unless I’ve run out. Yes, these bags must be getting dirtier with each use–so we wash the produce before using it, and if there’s some left over it goes into a glass jar or other container, not back into the bag.
We get about 5 uses out of each bag and then recycle it. But I keep meaning to switch to reusable ones….
But I need plastic bags: I reuse them!
If you’ve been reusing your plastic shopping bags for some of your everyday tasks, how can you switch to reusable bags? Buying new plastic bags for your plastic-bag tasks would be worse for the environment!
Well, even after 20+ years of diligently taking my reusable bags to the store, I’ve always had plenty of plastic shopping bags in my home! I’m not entirely sure where they all come from. People give us things in them, and occasionally we go to stores that frown on reusable bags (like Macy’s). We carefully save every bag that’s still usable, only recycling torn ones.
If you really are running low on bags you need, ask your friends and neighbors to save their bags for you.
Here are some ways you can reuse those plastic bags that do come into your life:
- Line the wastebasket. If the trash is dry, you can just dump it into your big bag when emptying wastebaskets and keep reusing that bag. But when there’s something icky in the trash, you can wrap it up in the bag and discard.
- Line the recycling bin.
- Here in Pittsburgh, the curbside recycling program requires blue bags, so the major local supermarkets offer blue plastic grocery bags. To make sure we’ll have enough bags for our recycling, we never use blue bags for any other purpose.
- If you buy meat, bring previously-used plastic bags to the store, and put one around each package of meat before putting it into your reusable bag. You’ll prevent raw meat juice from getting on your bag or your other groceries, without accumulating still more new plastic bags!
- Toss non-compostable scraps into a bag during kitchen tasks like deboning meat.
- Wrapping the bag around the scraps will contain some of their odor in your garbage.
- Use plastic bags instead of packing peanuts or tissue paper to cushion items in a package you’re mailing. (And if you get a package packed with them, reuse!)
- Pick up dog poop.
- If you don’t have a dog, offer your excess bags to someone who does.
- When a dish breaks, wrap up the fragments in a double layer of plastic bags before putting them into your trash bag. This prevents the sharp pieces from slicing through the bag when you’re carrying it out to the curb.
- If you have a lot of green bags, make your own artificial Christmas tree like we did with the bags from our newspaper!
- Offer the bags to customers at your yard sale, or ask a local thrift store if they need bags.
That said, a lot of people use plastic shopping bags in roles where they’re really not the best choice. A good example is bringing home a wet swimsuit, muddy shoes, messy baby clothes, or cloth diapers–if that flimsy bag tears, the moisture or gunk gets on your other stuff! Instead, get a washable wet bag. My favorites are KangaCare and PlanetWise.
More Ways Cloth Bags Are Greener
Is your grocery store within walking distance?
I’ve lived in several places where my answer was, “Yes, as long as I don’t buy too much at once.”
After I moved from my college dorm to an apartment with a real kitchen and full-size refrigerator, it was possible to stock up on food. But the supermarket was 6 blocks away. That’s why I bought another big canvas bag! With a big bag on each shoulder, I could carry a lot more than in a little plastic bag in each hand.
Your “walking distance” increases when you’re more able to carry a full load of groceries. Driving less is not only good for the environment–it’s also good exercise!
Another advantage to cloth bags is that, once you have them, they’re handy for many tasks other than grocery shopping. Use your cloth bags for these other green activities:
- Bring your own food and reusable dishes on an outing.
- Bring washable dishes to a picnic so you don’t have to use disposable stuff.
- Bring reusable containers for leftovers when you go out to eat.
- Fill a bag with library books to entertain your child on a road trip.
- Shopping bags aren’t the only plastic bags. Check out Katie’s review of reusable sandwich/snack bags!
- Pack lunches in a reusable Bento Box. Katie is an expert when it comes to the best bento lunch box!
- Plastic-free blogger Beth Terry explained in a KS guest post why you shouldn’t store food in plastic, and on her own blog what to use instead.