Here are some tips for reducing the number of produce bags, bags used to package grocery items, mesh bags, sandwich bags and zip-closure storage bags, and newspaper bags we throw away, both by using fewer and reusing the ones we can’t avoid:
At nearly every grocery store, rolls of plastic bags and stacks of twist ties are plentiful throughout the produce section. But if you think about it, most produce really doesn’t need to be placed in a separate bag. If you want to keep your tomatoes from rolling all over your cart, carry reusable mesh bags with you. If you want to keep your lettuce from dripping all over your baguette, either put it in a separate part of your cart or keep and reuse a few plastic produce bags rather than getting new ones each time. If you’re worried about the person at the checkout handling your produce (ew!) then news flash! Lots of people have already handled that head of broccoli, with or without gloves on, so your best bet is simply to wash it before use.
Sandwich bags and other resealable bags
Try alternate methods for packing lunch items and leftovers, such as reusable sandwich containers and beeswax cloth wrappers. Instead of freezer bags, try heavy-duty freezer containers that you can wash and reuse. If you have food items you feel you must store in a plastic bag, save and the bags that you inevitably end up with (i.e. bread bags). Some foods, like tortillas, are often packaged in re-sealable bags, which can easily be reused after taco night. Cleaning tip: If the bag has only held bread, just shake out the crumbs. Make sure there’s no moisture inside before storing. If you need to use water and/or soap to get a bag clean, turn it inside-out to dry, then turn it back to dry the outside.
Mesh produce bags
These often hold onions, clementines, and other produce. Not surprisingly, they can easily be reused as produce bags for other produce! Some are also really great as pot scrubbers. They can be balled up and used to get stubborn residue off cookware, and when they’re dirty you can even throw them in the washing machine. (If you’re really hardcore, cut them into strips and crochet the strips into a round scrubbing pad. This is not the easiest task, but the resulting pads are durable and washable, and you avoid buying little plastic scrubby things for the same purpose!)
Plastic bags used as packaging for food items
These are bags that hold bread, potatoes, carrots, dry beans and grains, and countless other items. How you deal with them depends on what they are specifically, but here are some ideas to get you started:
- Bags that hold potatoes: These are often large bags made of heavy plastic, but they also likely have ventilation holes making them less useful for certain types of reuse. Avoid them by buying loose potatoes — or buy them in a bag one more time, then use the bag to carry your loose potatoes next time.
- Bags that hold carrots and other produce: Again, avoid them by buying non-bagged items. These bags tend to be too small to be very useful for other things, but if you have them, use your imagination!
- Bread bags: Baking your own bread can be very rewarding. However, it’s a time-consuming activity that might be unrealistic to fit into your schedule right now. If you do end up with bread bags, don’t throw them out; use them for food storage.
This one’s tricky. In many areas, newspaper carriers purchase bags and use them at their discretion to keep their customers’ papers dry. They have a financial incentive to use as few as possible. On the other hand, if they skip the bags and papers do get wet, customers complain and the carrier likely makes a special trip to replace them with fresh newspapers — adding even more waste into the equation. Contact your carrier to find out if they’d like to take your used bags back. Meanwhile, please save your bags and reuse them, or donate them to others who can. Here are some things that they’re particularly useful for:
- Paint rollers. When you’re waiting for the first coat to dry, slip a newspaper bag over your paint roller and all the way up to the roller handle. If it’s going to be a while before you finish the painting project (maybe you have another room to do in the same color, a few days or weeks later?), slip the bag over the roller then remove and wash the handle. Seal the bag (some suggest double-bagging it) and put it in the freezer until you’re ready to continue painting. This way you avoid replacing the roller, which wastes a lot of paint along with the roller itself, and washing the roller, which also wastes paint along with a whole lot of water.
- Paint brushes. If you’re pausing more than an hour or so, it’s probably best to just wash the brush; but a newspaper bag will keep paint from drying on a brush for a little while if you need to interrupt your project to answer the phone or let the dog out.
- Plants. If you have a bare-root tree or a cutting you can’t plant right away, wrap the root end in moist newspaper and slip it inside a newspaper bag.
- Packing. Place glassware, ornaments, and other small, fragile items inside a newspaper bag, before wrapping in newspaper, to keep the newsprint from rubbing off on the item.
- Books. Slip your favorite paperback or journal in a newspaper bag to keep it clean and dry when you take it along to the beach or the pool, or wherever you’re going with it. This is especially nice if you’re borrowing someone else’s book and don’t want it to get messed up.
This graphic from the American Chemistry Council shows a startling increase in the quantity of trash bags used each year between 1980 and 2015.
Depending where you are and how your trash is collected, you may not be able to do without trash bags entirely. However, there is one obvious thing we can all do to cut back on the quantity we use: generate less trash! If you’re not already recycling everything you can, please start there.
Next, start paying close attention to what it is that ends up in your trash receptacles, and start looking for alternatives. Here are a few items commonly filling up trash cans and some suggestions for reducing them:
|Item||Ways to avoid it in the first place||Alternatives to putting it in the trash|
|Focus on wasting less food. Serve smaller portions, monitor and use leftovers, store food carefully.||Compost. If you don’t/can’t compost where you are, arrange with a neighbor who does. If you’re in the Bloomington area, contact Green Camino.|
|Buy less. Buy used. Choose items with less (or recyclable) packaging.||Remove plastic, and recycle cardboard and styrofoam (where possible). Reuse boxes, rather than buying plastic bins. Save or donate bubble wrap and other mailing materials.|
|Tissues, paper napkins, paper towels||Use cloth handkerchiefs, napkins, and rags.||Compost paper tissues, napkins, and paper towels. (Exception: paper towels used for motor oil, paint, etc. should not be composted!)|
|Food containers||Prepare food at home. When purchasing, choose items with reusable or recyclable packaging. Take your own containers for bulk purchases and restaurant leftovers.||If plastic, wash and reuse or recycle. If cardboard, recycle only if clean. Use pizza boxes for weed suppression in a garden (be sure to weight them down). Reuse plastic food bags for food storage.|
|Clothing and other fibers||Purchase less; choose fewer, higher quality items that will last longer.||Mend torn items; swap or donate unwanted items in good condition; cut up worn out items and use as rags; remove zippers and buttons then compost natural fibers; donate worn towels and blankets to animal shelters.|
|Household items||Buy less. Repair rather than replacing.||Donate, swap, or gift excess items.|
What are your ideas for using fewer plastic bags? Please leave a comment below, or contact us!