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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Your Community Parks, Open Spaces, and Gardens Need You

Sign up, then show up.

Picture a place in your community that you visit regularly to relax, walk, play, picnic, or just enjoy being outdoors. Have you ever helped take care of it?

If you answered yes, thank you.

For those of you who answered no (not yet), you are in luck because opportunities abound to do your part in keeping the outdoor spaces in your community beautiful, functional, fun, clean, and safe.

It is easy to talk yourself into believing that someone else will do it, especially when you are feeling overly busy and stressed out (or even when you are not). However, the reality is that public outdoor spaces are chronically underfunded and understaffed. Chances are that the hardworking employees and loyal cadres of volunteers who tend your community parks, gardens, and open spaces would appreciate your help.

Imagine the possibilities if you, me, and everyone else contributed even just one morning or afternoon a year to help care for an outdoor space that we feel is special. The number of trees planted, native plants rescued, playgrounds rehabilitated, walking trails maintained, picnic tables refurbished, weeds pulled, and pieces of litter picked up would be astonishing and wonderful.

Besides the obvious benefits to the community, these kinds of activities are good for your wellbeing, too. They require you to be present and to think about what you are doing not worry about micromanaging bosses, piles of laundry, or bickering family members. Working outside with other like-minded people is fun and gives you a feeling of doing something worthwhile.

Sometimes volunteer activities occur unexpectedly or by chance and turn out to be just the impetus you need to get started. That is what happened to me.

Something Happened on the Way to the Wildflower Show

A few weeks ago, I saw a notice in a newsletter from an environmental nonprofit called ECOSLO with a list of several volunteer opportunities for an event they were calling Seas to Trees Day. After consulting with my spouse, I signed us up in hopes that we would be helping with set up for the Cambria Wildflower Show.

Several days later, I received an enthusiastic email from Erin thanking me for signing up to remove invasive ice plant on the Fiscalini Ranch Preserve. I thought, “Oh no, not ice plant! I have been battling ice plant in our yard for years. Why would I want to volunteer to do it someplace else?” I considered asking for a reassignment or just telling Erin that we had changed our minds about volunteering.

The next day, I was still pondering what to do. “Hmm, we do enjoy walking on Fiscalini Ranch almost every day. This unwanted assignment provides an excellent opportunity for us to give back in a small way.”

We decided to do it.

Before I tell you how the day went, some background about ice plant and the Fiscalini Ranch Preserve might be useful.

Ice Plant

Ice plant is a hardy and fast-growing plant with long-lasting flowers that are quite lovely when it is growing along its native coast in South Africa. It is an unwelcome interloper where I live on the Central California Coast and many other places. Ice plant spreads quickly and has a way of taking over an entire area hogging all the sunlight, water, and soil nutrients for itself. Ice plant chokes out the native plants that are used to playing nicely with their neighbors and do not have a defense against this invader.

When my spouse and I moved to our current home about ten years ago, there were several places in our wild yard that ice plant had completely taken over by stealthily crawling over from neighboring yards. It took me several years with a shovel and a pair of loppers to remove the ice plant from our yard. I have tried explaining to the plants that they should avoid our yard because as soon as they reach over the property line I am going to cut off their new growth, but apparently, we are having a language barrier because they will not stop trying to build a new outpost in our yard.

Our ice plant situation seems insignificant to the enormous incursion at the Fiscalini Ranch Preserve.

Fiscalini Ranch Preserve

The Fiscalini Ranch Preserve encompasses 437 acres in the midst of our small town with trails along the ocean bluffs and through our precious Monterey pine forest. This special place exists because a dedicated group of people worked for years to block development on this land that had been used partly for grazing sheep and cattle. Eventually, they raised enough money to purchase the land and protect it forever.

As I mentioned earlier, my spouse and I walk on the Ranch many times a week, mostly on the bluff trail. During the two-mile round trip, we look for whale spouts, otters, and sea lions, watch a wide variety of local and migratory birds soar and swoop overhead, and observe the landscape as it changes throughout the year.

At some time in the distant past, someone must have planted ice plant on the Ranch. It probably seemed like a good idea at the time, however, it has now spread down over a huge swath of the bluff cliffs and it is continually marching towards the nearby path. In some places, native plants are struggling to survive in the middle of large patches of ice plant or taking a stand along the edges. In other areas, the ice plant has completely taken over.

The nonprofit Friends of the Fiscalini Ranch Preserve and other diligent volunteers have been successful at keeping the ice plant from crossing the path and moving onto the rest of the Ranch. They have also embarked on a massive and probably decades-long project to clear the ice plant growing between the path and the cliff edge. Native plants are making a comeback in the cleared areas.

Occasionally I have had a fleeting thought that I should help with the ice plant removal on the Ranch but I never actually did it, until the Seas and Trees Day event.

Seas and Trees Day Event

When Saturday, April 28 rolled around, I slathered on sunscreen and donned my California Native Plant Society t-shirt and a pair of gauntlet type gloves that I always wear to do yard work because I do not like creepy crawlies. I filled up my reusable water bottle and grabbed a pair of clippers my spouse had thoughtfully gotten out of the garage.

A group of cheerful people including several Cal Poly San Luis Obispo students greeted us at the designated meeting location. After signing waiver forms, we headed down the path a short distance to the day’s ice plant removal spot. Holly, who manages projects on the Ranch, gave us a plastic tarp and explained that the mission was to get rid of the ice plant without damaging the native plants. Clearly, this was going to be a finesse job that did not involve shovels or loppers—a new experience for me.

Ice plant stems are about the thickness of a highlighter marker and attach themselves to the ground with tenacious roots every few inches. Every part of the plant stores water so it is heavy. If you are lucky, you can grab a trailing end and pull up a piece that is three or four feet long. However, most of the work that day required using clippers to cut stems around the native plants and then pull up small pieces. I was surprised at how many itty-bitty native plant seedlings were gamely trying to make a go of it under the ice plant. Freed from a dense and almost impenetrable mat of ice plant they now have a better chance of becoming adult plants.

We tossed pieces of ice plant on the tarp until it looked like it might be getting too heavy to move. Then two people picked up the corners and carefully tried to tiptoe through the native plants and dump it onto one of two piles we were creating at the edge of the cliff. Holly and other regular volunteers had their own one-person sized tarps.

Bending over clipping ice plants stems, standing up and yanking out longer pieces, and hauling a tarp full of ice plant is physically demanding so I was ready to be done when our 2-hour stint was up.

Our work made a tiny dent in the ice plant, but we did meet some delightful people and made a small contribution to the wellbeing of the Ranch. I also gained a greater appreciation for the people who take care of the Ranch day after day, week after week.

Part of the Volunteer Group in Front of One of the Piles of Ice Plant Removed at Fiscalini Ranch on April 28, 2018
Part of the Volunteer Group in Front of One of the Piles of Ice Plant Removed at Fiscalini Ranch on April 28, 2018 – Photo Credit Holly Sletteland (also the 3 above photos)

An hour or so later, wearing the same clothes, my spouse and I enjoyed the wildflower show and I savored a delicious homemade lemon bar I bought at the refreshment stand.

Holly has my name and email address now, so chances are, on some future morning, my spouse and I will find ourselves standing in the midst of another patch of ice plant on the Ranch with clippers at the ready.

Call to Action

Certainly, if an unexpected volunteer opportunity falls in your lap, accept it. However, you can take a more active approach. Choose a garden, park, or open space in your community and find out what volunteer activities are available. Then pick one and do it.

If you do not want to or are not able to contribute your physical labor, there are sure to be other ways you can help.

Do you have an artistic flair? Volunteer to design a flyer for a volunteer day. Are you good at organizing information? Offer to keep track of volunteer responses and forms. Do you know your way around social media? Volunteer to do postings and engage with people on social media. Do you like writing? Offer to write a piece for a website, newsletter, or newspaper. Do you enjoy meeting and talking with new people? Sign up to be a docent or to staff a booth at an event.

Everyone has something to offer and it is up to each one of us to do our part to take care of the community parks, open spaces, and gardens we love.

Featured Image at Top: Bluff Trail at Fiscalini Ranch Preserve in Cambria, CA, May 2018 (notice the ice plant on the left side of the trail) – Photo Credit Green Groundswell.

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