Plastic bags

One of the sections of The World Without Us that caught my attention is the description of the gigantic collection of plastic trash in the middle of the Pacific ocean.  It was running around in the back of my head last week when I read the NY Times article about how Ireland has essentially stopped using disposable shopping bags, driven in large part by a 33 cent per bag tax.  Meanwhile, D has been learning about recycling at school, and I’ve been trying to use that as a starting point for a broader lesson about the environment (and turning off lights when you leave the room, please).

So we’ve decided to see if we can break the plastic bag habit.  We’ll keep track of how many we take in each month, and see how low we can get the number.

I understand that giving up plastic grocery bags isn’t going to save the world.  And there are plenty of things that involve plastics that I have no intention of giving up.  But it strikes me that using disposable plastic bags in no way improves my quality of life.  It’s just a habit.  And one that we can choose to break.

We’ve got some canvas bags already, and I went ahead and ordered some folding ones that I can keep in my purse so I always have one with me.  We’ll see how it goes.

Updated:

So far, so good.  We’ve had some slip-ups, but have been using them more often than not (and often forgoing the plastic bag even when we didn’t bring the grocery bags).

Jo(e) has a great post up about reusable bags.  She argues that the problem is that they’re so convenient that they get used for everything BUT groceries.  But if you buy enough of them, they become ubiquitous, and you stop having to worry about what you did with them.

21 Responses to “Plastic bags”

  1. LizardBreath Says:

    What do you use for trashcan liners? I keep on thinking, I could stop getting bags from the store, but then I’d buy garbage bags. As it is, I use about as many plastic bagsas garbage bags as I get from shopping.

  2. Doug Says:

    I (re-)use them to pick up my dog’s poops. Counts as recycling to me…

  3. Jody Says:

    LizardBreath and Doug, I use plastic bags both for bathroom trash cans and for dog poop and STILL take gigantic wads of them to the grocery store for recycling. [FYI, you can put any #4 plastic into those bins -- most packing-material plastic is #4 which is good for an Amazon addict, I can tell you.]
    Our (not-coop/not-Whole Foods) grocery store has sold fold-up green nylon reusable bags for 99 cents each. I haven’t seen that display for a while yet but I hope they return because I need a few more. They also sell over-the-shoulder canvas bags, one with a lining to keep freezer foods cold. But I love the nylon bags because they stand up so well while filling and they fold so flat when done.
    http://www.europackaging.co.uk/foldatote.htm
    I don’t know if they would fold as small as the ones at Reusable Bags, but they’re perfect for me because I do all my shopping via car.

  4. jen Says:

    My problem with reusable grocery bags is that I ALWAYS seem to forget them. There I am getting out of the car in the Target parking lot, doing the forehead-slap because all the canvas bags are sitting on the kitchen table at home. (It’s the shopping equivalent of leaving your sack lunch on the counter while you head out to the train. Which I also used to do regularly.)
    I really really have to find a better way of reminding myself.

  5. Rachel Says:

    I am trying to do the same, but like Jen, I find it hard to remember to put the reusable bags in the car sometimes. For trash, we use biodegradable bags, but unfortunately not many stores carry them.
    Target sells bags that are washable, and zip into a little purse-sized square.

  6. Elizabeth Says:

    When we had a cat, we used grocery bags for the clumping litter. But, as Jody said, they still pile up.
    We also have the canvas bags, and often forget to put them in the car. But that’s a matter of habit — while I sometimes leave my lunch on the counter, it’s the exception, not the rule. I want to make using disposable bags the exception, not the rule.
    The “world without us” book is pretty skeptical about biodegradable plastics — both because even things like paper don’t biodegrade in the anaerobic context of a landfill, and because he suggests that we don’t necessarily want to support the widespread evolution of bacteria that eat plastic.

  7. trishka Says:

    what lizardbreath said, exactly. i think it’s because we also use reusable canvas bag(s) for our grocery shopping, and only pick up a select quantity of disposable plastic bags, no more than we need for garbage, that they don’t pile up on us.

  8. jen Says:

    I’ve been thinking a lot about the role of plastic in my life. The plastic ziploc bags for snacks, the plastic bags around loaves of bread, garbage bags, toy packaging. Plastic bottles for shampoo, for peanut butter. It goes on and on.
    I really don’t know how to avoid it. The other day I bought chicken breast on sale, and when I got home I automatically put each piece into a separate ziploc for the freezer, as we use it a little at a time. I thought, I honestly don’t know how to do this any other way. Not and keep it clean. We are religious about not generating garbage with the things we use for lunches, for example: cloth napkins, reusable silverware, endlessly-reused tupperwares. But that doesn’t change what you’re bringing home from the store.
    I wish I knew more about how these things used to be packaged before plastic was the norm. Did all of it go into waxed paper? (Is waxed paper any better or worse than plastic wrap?) Did people bring containers from home?

  9. Elizabeth Says:

    Before plastic, lots of things were in glass bottles. Which uses more energy to transport (because they’re heavier) but can be refilled and/or recycled.
    And the chicken probably came as a whole chicken, maybe wrapped in brown paper. But I’ve also read arguments that less is wasted when we buy chicken as parts, because the food factories use the bones and innards and wings to make things like pet food. And a lot of food went bad in the old days before it was used…
    When I ordered the shopping bags, I also ordered some reusable plastic bags for veggies, that are supposed to reduce waste by absorbing ethylene gas…
    But I think the bottom line is that it’s not possible to live in a modern urban society and be environmentally pure.

  10. Megan Says:

    I keep my reusable shopping bags in the trunk of my car — that is where they’re “put away,” instead of anywhere in the house. That’s the only way I can be sure I’ll have them when I stop to shop.

  11. Anjali Says:

    I, too, keep my reusable bags in the car. I try to use ziploc bags minimally — the kids use a bento boxes and reusable containers for lunches, and we use reusable containers for the fridge and freezer.
    But those other bags – what bread comes in and other foods — I take them back to the grocery store to be recycled. Also, I can’t find biodegradable trash bags anywhere. I’ve found bags made out of recycled plastic bags – but the bags themselves are not biodegradable. It’s darn near impossible to avoid plastic bags for everything.

  12. Lee Says:

    I use ziplocs quite a bit and try to reuse them whenever possible. I’ve found they hold up well when thrown inside out in the empty spaces of the dishwasher.

  13. Ailurophile Says:

    Trader Joe’s has some great shopping bags. I have one that is made of plastic that stands up to be filled, and an insulated one especially for frozen and refrigerated goods.
    I use plastic bags for clumping cat litter, but yes, there are still tons left over.

  14. Suzanne Says:

    Why have plastic bags become the emblem of waste? I use up all of the plastic bags I get. I live in an apartment in NYC. I hang a plastic bag (from its convenient handle!) in my kitchen for trash, and take it outside to the bin every morning. I carry yogurt and fruit to work in a plastic bag, because otherwise my purse would be a sticky mess. The teeny bit of oil (or degradable cellulose, from some stores) that gives me a plastic bag is more than balanced by all the fuel I don’t use: I walk or take public transportation everywhere, I get my heat and hot water from efficient central boilers, etc. I think it’s the big things — like fuel efficiency and green roofs and more-sustainable agriculture — which will save us, and not the small, self-denying, symbolic ones. (Though if I could only persuade my dry cleaner to stop swaddling each separate garment in yards of useless plastic …)

  15. jen Says:

    That’s an interesting question, Suzanne — how does something get anointed as the emblem of waste? Six months ago it was water bottles that were taken up as the emblem of waste. Even my office stopped stocking bottled water, there was such an outcry. Now, with that problem largely solved, people have moved on to plastic bags.
    I think things become the emblem of waste in no small part if they’re relatively easy to back away from. There are many larger problems — witness the living pattern of most of us, requiring us to drive everywhere — but they are much harder to change.

  16. Elizabeth Says:

    Suzanne, of course fuel efficiency and living in smaller houses makes a far bigger impact than doing without plastic grocery bags. (And, for what it’s worth, we’ve just invested a fair chunk of change in replacing our windows and our furnace.) But it’s low-hanging fruit, easy to achieve, compared to redoing land-use patterns or something like that. So if we can’t achieve the easy things, it’s hard to see how we’ll manage the big ones. But I agree that it would be worrisome if people felt like they could stop worrying about the environment after they did the easy things.
    Also, I think the concern about plastic bags is not the small amount of petrochemicals that goes into making them, but the fact that they’re so light that they don’t stay put — an enormous fraction of them wind up in the oceans, and caught on trees, and presents a real hazard to wildlife.

  17. Ethel Says:

    We’re sticking with disposable bags because we throw out very few. Plastic is used for trash, as well as lunches and more – I’m guessing each bag is used twice between being used for groceries and ending up in a trash can as a liner. Paper is used for recycling containers. Since we’ve been car-free for the past six months, I don’t worry too much.
    For us, avoiding plastic bags would be a significant inconvenience since it impacts several parts of our lives. Going car-free was about three times as inconvenient, but probably has more than three times the effect on the environment.

  18. Alison Says:

    It’s a habit to create. I thought I needed special bags, and when I realized that I had plenty of tote bags that I could use, something just clicked — I added a few Trader Joe’s $.99 bags to the mix. When I make my shopping list and get ready to go to the store, I also make sure I have my bags. I’m not good at remembering them for other trips — into the drug store or the craft store or whatever. But if I get only one or two things, I decline the bag.
    When I was in England in the 80s, everyone had there own bags — it was just what you did. In England they are also very aware of their hot water — when the heater is on and such. Here, I just wastefully heat water 24×7.

  19. Alison Says:

    It’s a habit to create. I thought I needed special bags, and when I realized that I had plenty of tote bags that I could use, something just clicked — I added a few Trader Joe’s $.99 bags to the mix. When I make my shopping list and get ready to go to the store, I also make sure I have my bags. I’m not good at remembering them for other trips — into the drug store or the craft store or whatever. But if I get only one or two things, I decline the bag.
    When I was in England in the 80s, everyone had there own bags — it was just what you did. In England they are also very aware of their hot water — when the heater is on and such. Here, I just wastefully heat water 24×7.

  20. jen Says:

    I also regularly decline bags at stores. It’s pretty funny to see how shocked the clerks are at that. You know, like they’ll be fired if they don’t put everything in a plastic bag. But they’re getting used to it.

  21. claire Says:

    the foldable bags that you can keep in your purse are much better than canvas bags, they stretch just the tiniest bit and are bigger to begin with. i also use plastic bags for garbage, but my foldable purse bag is so convenient that i find i often run out of plastic shopping bags and have to deliberately remember to get them.
    another advantage of foldable shopping bags is that it limits the amount i can buy in any one shopping trip. this makes it possible for me to walk or take the bus to the store (because i only buy what i can carry) and saves on gas getting there. of course, it takes more time to make two trips per week than one.
    as far as using baggies: tupperware seems like it’s not a good solution at first because it’s not flexible, but it actually works better in the fridge because it’s stackable. i haven’t used, or needed, a ziploc baggie in a year and a half since i committed to buying and using a lot of different sized tupperware. but then, i’m probably using more water washing it …

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