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More Ways to Cut Your Single-Use Plastic Bag Waste

How many plastic bags are hiding in your home?

If you are truly committed to reducing your single-use plastic bag waste, getting a grip on your household’s out of sight out of mind plastic bags is essential.

What I mean by out of sight out of mind plastic bags are those bags that you store in various places around your home and garage that you have every intention of reusing but forget are there.

The reason I am bringing this up is that while I was writing the previous post entitled Three Easy Ways to Cut Your Single-Use Plastic Bag Waste, I decided to conduct an informal assessment of my own household’s multi-year single-use plastic bag waste reduction effort and discovered a lot more plastic bags than I expected.

At first, I was dismayed, but I quickly decided that my spouse and I had been presented with an excellent opportunity to ratchet up our reduction efforts a notch or two.

Perhaps you have plastic bags hiding in your home, too. Consider doing your own assessment and then decide what actions you can and want to take to reduce your own single-use plastic bag waste.

I began my evaluation by sifting through our household plastic bag and packaging collection so it might help to provide some background on that first.

Plastic Bag and Packaging Collection

Our plastic bag and packaging collection has its roots in our decision to switch to reusable shopping bags back in 2010.

To deal with our now bag-less kitchen garbage can and other household wastebaskets we decided to save and reuse all kinds of plastic bags that had previously held food items like bread, bagels, and tortillas, as well as cereal box liners and takeout bags. We also collected bags that had encased clothing, vinyl sheet bags, and any bag that came in a shipping box.

Single-Use Plastic Bag Collection
The box holds small bags and the crate holds larger bags for us reuse. The round tin stores packaging like toilet paper wrapping or torn plastic bags that we periodically drop off at our grocery market for recycling. Family members put bags in the canister with the “Put Bags Here” sign for later sorting.

When the single-use plastic bag ban came to our town in 2012, it did not affect us because we had already converted to reusable bags.

To help readers facing plastic bag bans in their own towns, I shared our experiences in You Can Live Without Single-Use Plastic Bags – Here’s How and I wrote Kitchen Trash Bags — Green Alternatives about dealing with yucky kitchen garbage.

We also began reusing plastic produce bags and zip-top bags and my spouse made a handy plastic bag drying rack.

Single-Use Plastic Bag Waste Reduction Assessment

For years, we did not bring home disposable grocery shopping bags, did not buy kitchen trash bags, and rarely purchased a box of zip-top bags or plastic cling wrap. Our system seemed to be working. Yet, I was wondering if we really were doing as well as we thought we were in reducing our single-use plastic bag waste and could we do better.

Once I had emptied our plastic bag and packaging collection onto the dining room table, things quickly got out of hand. I found myself scouring the house and garage looking for plastic bags that might not have made it to the laundry room and asking family members if they had any plastic bags tucked away anywhere.

After piling all the plastic bags that I could find on the dining room table, I sorted them into categories and counted them.

Pile of Single-Use Plastic Bags and Packaging on Dining Room Table
I found more single-use plastic bags in our house and garage than I expected.

Of course, the list below is only a snapshot of the plastic bags we had on hand when I did the assessment.

1 – Trash bag (not used)
1 – Seed bag (at 2″ x 4″ this was the smallest bag)
1 – Full-size mattress moving bag (at 54″ x 48″ this was the largest bag)
1 – Extra large bag that had contained a 3D printer
2 – Large rectangular sheets of plastic
5 – 5-pound coffee bean bags
6 – Shipping items (envelope, bubble wrap bag, air packs)
8 – Large bags (big enough for a comforter)
10 – Warranty manual bags (with manuals still in them)
10 – Hotel laundry bags
11 – Food bags that had held things like hamburger buns and spinach
15 – Sheet bags (we reuse to organize clothes and shoes in our luggage)
18 – Produce bags (including zip-top, we reuse these at the market)
19 – Wrappings from things like toilet paper and paper towels
20 – Bags from items bought online like clothes and kayak gear
22 – Shopping bags (mostly for takeout food)
106 – Various size bags that previously held stuff for my spouse’s job
256 – Grand Total

Wow, that is a lot of plastic bags and packaging. Imagine how many plastic bags would have been passing through our house on the way to the dump if we had not been actively trying to reduce plastic bag waste.

Conclusions

First, I had to acknowledge that I had been naive to think we could ever reuse all the single-use plastic bags and packaging coming into our home, even after a massive reduction.

Second, our society definitely has a single-use plastic bag problem. Why does a t-shirt need to be put in a plastic bag before putting it in a plastic shipping envelope or a cardboard box? Who invented freezer burn and do we really need special plastic freezer bags? Why is the default position at most stores to put your purchase in a disposable plastic or paper bag regardless of if it is only one greeting card or a prescription bottle?

Third, I pondered why we were still holding onto the larger bags after more than a decade. Surely, we could have found a use for them or cut them up for other purposes. It was almost as if we were afraid we would never get a large bag again so we needed to hold onto them (for what?).

Lastly, I realized that our highest volume of bags relates to my spouse’s job as a lighting designer who builds prototypes in our garage workshop.  The hardware store in our small town is well stocked but it does not carry all the supplies, materials, and equipment my spouse needs for work. It would be difficult if not impossible to stop the flow of these bags into our garage.

Next, my spouse and I discussed what we could and should do to decrease our single-use plastic bag waste further.

Plastic Bag Reduction Challenge Round Two

Reusing a bag more than once does not wipe out its environmental footprint but it does decrease it and reduces the need for new bags.

To solve the out of sight out of mind problem, we decided to store all plastic bags and packaging in easy to access places in our kitchen and adjoining laundry room. I think any centralized place would work as long as your family members know where it is.

My spouse and I divided the hotel laundry bags and put them in our suitcases so that we will stop collecting new bags. When these bags wear out, we can switch to pillowcases or bags we already have on hand.

I put one of the big plastic sheets in each of our cars so it would already be there when we need to transport something dirty or wet.

To force us to reuse bags I cleared out our small supply of new plastic bags and packaging from a kitchen drawer and put them in the back of a cupboard in the laundry room. This included a box of sandwich bags, a box of freezer bags, and a roll of cling wrap. I filled the drawer with clean bags that had already held food or with other bags that I had washed out with soapy water and dried on my plastic bag dryer.

These are small incremental steps but imagine the positive impact you, me, and everyone else could have if we all cut our single-use plastic bag waste.

Now it is your turn to do your own single-use plastic bag waste reduction challenge.

Featured Image at Top: Earth Globe Inside a Single-Use Plastic Bag – Photo Credit iStock/Irina Krolevetc.

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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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Resources