Three Easy Ways to Cut Your Single-Use Plastic Bag Waste

One small step leads to the next one.

Drastically reducing your single-use plastic bag waste is easier than you may think.

Consider the purpose of single-use plastic items like bags, food wrappings, bottles, cups, plates, bowls, lids, straws, stirrers, cutlery, take-out containers (including foam), shipping envelopes, and all the things you, me, and everyone else buys either in a store or online that come in plastic packaging inside a cardboard box.

By design, a single-use plastic (or paper) item is intended to be used once and then disposed of often within minutes of opening it or using it for the first time.

Convenience items like single-use plastics have gotten way out of control and are trashing our planet, literally. Tossing things in the garbage does not make them magically disappear and putting them in a recycle bin does not wipe out the environmental footprint of making disposable products and recycling them.

If you agree, even a little bit, decreasing your own single-use plastic bag waste is a good place to start.

My spouse and I probably began our quest to reduce our contribution to single-use plastic bag waste in 2010. That is the year I joined the Sierra Club and received four roll-up reusable bags as a gift for becoming a member (I still use them).

We took the low hanging fruit approach meaning we tackled the easy actions first. This resulted in a significant reduction in our use of plastic bags over the years.

In this post, I hope to demonstrate that it is possible to make reducing single-use plastic bag waste part of your normal life.

Before we move on, let’s do a quick refresher on why you and I should care about single-use plastic in the first place.

Why is Single-Use Plastic a Problem?

I think the United Nations report entitled Single-use Plastics: A roadmap for Sustainability gives a good worldview of the issue and provides some thoughts on how to address it (the whole report is worth reading).

Global Primary Plastics Waste Generation, 1950-2015 Chart

A few of the environmental problems associated with single-use plastic include:

  • Most plastic is a made from petroleum and natural gas.
  • Plastic packaging makes up nearly 50% of all plastic waste in the world.
  • Of all the plastic produced in the world, only 9% of the 9 billion metric tons made so far has been recycled.
  • Plastic does not biodegrade but slowly breaks down into smaller and smaller fragments that find their way into the soil, water, land and aquatic animals, and humans.
  • When plastic waste is burned, it releases toxic gases like furan and dioxin.

Dealing with plastic waste is left up to individuals like you and me and cash-strapped municipalities. Economic damage to tourism, fishing, and marine ecosystems runs in the billions of dollars every year and will continue to grow as the problem of plastic waste grows.

If you are interested in learning more about plastic waste and its impacts on people and the environment, you will find links in the resources section at the end of this post.

Next, we will explore what you can do about single-use plastic waste specifically plastic bags.

Reducing Your Single-Use Plastic Bag Waste

Personally, I could never see the appeal of using plastic bags for groceries because they seem small, difficult to put things into, and constantly in danger of disgorging their contents into the trunk of your car. We were paper bag users. I know this is a post about plastic but single-use paper bags also have a significant environmental footprint.

Reusable Shopping Bags

We soon realized that our roll-up Sierra Club reusable shopping bags worked great for everything except buying groceries. I missed flat-bottom paper bags.

Flat-Bottom and Roll-Up Reusable Bags
We obtained these flat-bottom and roll-up reusable bags in 2010 and 2011 and we still use them.

Fortunately, during an out of town visit, I spotted a flat-bottom reusable bag at an REI store for $1.00 so I bought a couple of bags to try. These bags have both shoulder straps and handles, which I like, so I bought several more. When I joined the Audubon Society in 2011, they sent me four reusable shopping bags with flat bottoms and sturdy handles sporting pictures of pelicans and owls. We added a few more roll-up bags to complete our reusable shopping bag stock.

If necessary, I wash the grocery bags in the kitchen sick or toss the roll-up bags in with a load of laundry and then put them outside to dry.

If you can remember your keys and your wallet, you can learn to remember your reusable bags but we decided to make it easy for ourselves. When not in use, most of the grocery market bags hang out in the trunk of our car and we keep a couple stashed in the hall closet. Roll-up bags reside in a bowl near the front door and in the car door pocket.

On the rare occasion that I do not have a bag with me at the store, I carry the item out naked.

You do not need to make a large financial outlay to obtain reusable bags. Many stores offer low cost or free bags with their name and logo and nonprofit organizations sometimes give them out at events.

When the single-use plastic bag ban came to our town in San Luis Obispo County, CA in 2012, it was a non-event for us.

Reusing and Reusable Produce Bags

Not long after the shopping bag conversion, I purchased a dozen or so reusable and washable mesh bags in an effort to reduce our use of plastic produce bags. We are still using the same bags years later.

Reusable Mesh and Plastic Produce Bags
We supplement our washable mesh produce bags with rinsed out and dried single-use plastic bags.

The mesh bags are excellent for a wide variety of whole fruits and vegetables including, onions, apples, potatoes, tomatoes, bell peppers, and green beans. I do not like using the mesh bags for vegetables that tend to be wet from misting in the produce section like lettuce, green onions, and carrots because they get other things in my shopping cart and grocery bags damp.

That led me to begin rinsing out plastic produce bags or zip-top bags and hanging them to dry on various things around the kitchen like the utensils sticking out of the ceramic crock next to the range.

East DIY Plastic Bag Drying Rack

Once the bags dried, I stuck them in one of the grocery bags along with the mesh bags.

This method worked but it was not convenient so my handy spouse made a DIY plastic bag dryer that was so simple I could probably have made it.

Reusing plastic bags is not an ideal solution because they are still plastic bags; however, it is a step in the right direction.

Bring Your Own Containers

Several years ago, my spouse and I joined the SLO Natural Foods Co-op so we could buy organic food that is grown and made by local and regional farmers and food producers.

The Co-op’s bulk bins are a major attraction housing a wide array of food items including flour, granola, almonds, dried cranberries, rice, sugar, and Zen party mix (now a favorite snack).

Various Sizes of Reusable Plastic and Glass Containers
Brown rice, flour, raisins, smoked paprika, pink salt, sugar, and brown sugar in a variety of reusable plastic and glass containers.

Scooping rice into a plastic bag from the bulk bin seemed to defeat part of the purpose of buying in bulk so we began bringing our own containers. At the store, you weigh the container empty and put a label on it so the checkout clerk knows how much weight to subtract from your purchase of granola or kidney beans. Now, when we get home from the Co-op, we unload our bulk purchase containers from our reusable shopping bags and put them directly in our kitchen cupboards.

Not long ago, I decided to try a similar strategy at the farmers market.

I was tired of bringing home food like mushrooms and strawberries in plastic or cardboard containers, storing the empty containers on the kitchen counter, and then returning them to the farmers the next week.

One week I took my own containers with me and asked the farmers if they would mind if I emptied their containers into my containers. No one said no. A couple of farmers thanked me and said that packaging is expensive so reusing it saves them money and they could refill them on the spot for other customers.

Granted you do have to take containers with you to the grocery market and farmers market, but I think it is worth it.

I hope you can see how you can easily reduce your own single-use plastic bag waste with a little effort and that you decide to try one or two of the above ideas or come up with your own.

While I was writing this post, I thought it would be fun to assess our multi-year single-use plastic bag waste reduction effort. This led to an unexpected discovery that you can read about in the next post if you want to.

Featured Image at Top: Single-use Plastic Shopping Bag Flying through the Air with Trees and Sky in the Background – Photo Credit iStock/Spiderstock

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Coolest and Greenest Gift for Kids this Holiday Season

Give a gift they will never forget.

This holiday season, give the kids on your list an eco-friendly gift that is appropriate for kids of all ages and that they will enjoy for years to come.

If you are expecting to read a post about toy dump trucks made of recycled plastic, organic cotton t-shirts that say “Save the Bees,” or kid-size gardening tools, you may be disappointed because you will not find them here.

Literally, the coolest and greenest gift you can give your children, grandchildren, nieces, and nephews is to act like global warming and climate change is real.

“Really, you have got to be kidding me. I do not want to think about global warming during the holiday season!” is a reasonable response to the above statement.

It could be that I am just a perverse person, but I believe the holiday season presents you and me with the perfect opportunity to consider our holiday traditions and habits and how we might change them to live more lightly on Earth. A habitable planet now and in the future is the best gift we can give the children we love.

My goal for this post is to interrupt your business-as-usual holiday preparations and mine before they get too far along so that we can decide what we want to do differently and then do it before the holiday season kicks into high gear.

Greening Your Holiday Season

Giving your holiday season a green makeover is one thing you can do to reduce your environmental footprint. Some of the ideas below are easy and some are hard. Feel free to come up with your own. There is no right answer.

One thing to keep in mind is that we humans excel at justifying our behavior so do not be surprised if you find yourself coming up with really good reasons why you cannot change and do things differently this year. If this happens, go grab a photo of the children in your life and try again.

Of course, I am not immune to justifying my actions either and as you will see, I do not always go for the eco-friendly option. I am constantly striving to live more lightly on Earth, sometimes succeeding and sometimes failing.

Travel

This time of year, the USS Enterprise would come in handy (hopefully it is a zero-emissions spaceship). Imagine saying, “Beam me up Scotty,” and being magically transported across the country without the hassle of flying or its enormous carbon footprint.

Amtrak California Zephyr Traveling Along the Colorado River
Amtrak California Zephyr train traveling along the Colorado River – photo credit Amtrak.

Before you go online to book your flight, please seriously consider taking the train, riding on a bus, or carpooling. It could be a wonderful adventure and the start of a new holiday travel tradition. While not carbon-free methods of travel (unless the vehicle is electric), trains, buses, and carpools have significantly smaller carbon footprints than flying.

Even if you have already made a reservation to fly you could change your mind and choose a greener travel alternative.

Christmas Trees

Christmas trees are the quintessential symbol of the holiday season for me and about a hundred million other people. This year ask yourself if you can and want to green your Christmas tree tradition if you have one.

I have been a real Christmas tree enthusiast ever since I was a small child. But about five years ago, I began worrying about the environmental impact of real trees and wondering if an artificial tree would be better. After researching the issue, I concluded that the best choice as far as the environment is concerned is not having a Christmas tree at all.

My love for real Christmas trees overcame my inner environmentalist and I bought a real tree, but I also began a new holiday tradition, “A Tree for a Tree.” I asked readers to join me in planting a tree each year that we buy a real or artificial tree or put up an existing artificial tree. That year my spouse and I rescued a tiny cypress seedling from certain death on a street median and planted it in our yard (now it is about twelve feet tall).

Two years later, I upped the ante to “Buy One, Plant Two.” That year we planted two Big Sur coast redwood seedlings in our yard and last year we planted two small toyons.

Property developers and readers who follow climate change will recognize this tree planting as a mitigating action, which is when you do something to make up for doing something else.

Food and Drink

During the 6-week holiday season, you and I will have 126 meals (not including snacks) to try out environmentally friendly menu ideas and dining practices. No, I am not suggesting that you serve tofurky for Christmas dinner unless you want to try it.

Healthy Eating Vegetable Stir-Fry Dish
Stir-fry vegetable dish – photo credit iStock/Mizina.

Feeding the people you love with healthful, nutritious food is an act of love. What better time than the holiday season to try out some new meatless or low meat recipes and include more plant-based foods like vegetables, fruits, grains, nuts, and seeds into your menu planning? Eating a healthy diet does not preclude you from making Christmas cookies with your grandchildren.

This holiday season set your table with reusable dishes, glasses, cups, flatware, and serving pieces that you already own. Give yourself extra credit for using cloth tablecloths and napkins. Ask guests to bring extra tableware and reusable containers for leftovers. Use the time you spend washing dishes to catch up with family members and friends.

You can accomplish another green holiday action while shopping at the grocery market. Leave plastic bottles of water and anything that comes in an aluminum can on the store shelf or in the cooler. No amount of recycling can ever alleviate the environmental damage caused by single-use beverage containers.

Gifts

Living more lightly on Earth requires amassing less stuff. Yes, that includes gifts.

In 2013, my spouse and I made the decision to stop exchanging Christmas gifts with our family and friends. We have never regretted it. Now, each year, we look forward to a stress-free holiday season with time to enjoy it.

If you have ever contemplated opting out of Christmas consumerism, now is the time to do it. You might be surprised how readily your family members and friends accept your suggestion to stop exchanging gifts during the holidays (at least between adults).

For those of you not willing to give up exchanging gifts, please ship your gifts via ground transport. You may not realize it, but when you select 2-day shipping or overnight delivery, your package is probably hopping on an airplane significantly increasing the carbon footprint of your gift

Decorations

Decorating for the holidays is fun and brightens up the cold and dark winter months.

The challenge, at least for me, is to avoid obtaining new items because everything looks so festive and enticing in stores and online marketplaces.

Quilly's Antiques Shop - Dickens Village
Dickens Village Quilly’s Antiques Shop – photo credit Department 56.

Giving decorations to other people or donating them so you can acquire new items is decoration churning and does nothing to curtail the environmental footprint of making, transporting, and distributing new decorations like Christmas tree ornaments, inflatable snowmen, and Santa figurines.

Over the past couple of years, as part of my mission to live happily with less stuff, I have pared down my Christmas decoration collection to the items that I really, really like and can see myself enjoying indefinitely, but there is a hitch.

One of my favorite things is my Dickens Village collection of tiny Victorian-style buildings, trees, and figurines inspired by the books of Charles Dickens, like A Christmas Carol featuring Ebenezer Scrooge.

Recently, after I had donated my London’s Chocolatier Shop and chocolate street vendor figurine to make room for my friend’s Quilly’s Antique Shop, I finally had to acknowledge that I have been engaging in decoration churning for several years. Oops.

My green holiday change this year is to focus on healthy eating, which is also good for the planet, by eating more plants, less meat, and enjoying sweet treats in moderation.

Okay, now it is your turn to evaluate your own holiday traditions and habits and decide what, if anything, you want to change to make your holiday season more environmentally friendly.

Your children, my children, and everyone else’s children are relying on us to keep Earth habitable now and in the future, so everyone can enjoy life and thrive.

Happy Holidays!

Featured Image at Top: Colorful Handprints Surrounding Earth – Photo Credit Shutterstock/Holmes Su

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