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).
A few of the environmental problems associated with single-use plastic include:
- Most plastic is 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 have 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.
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.
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.
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).
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
- America Recycles Day – Start at the Store
- Bags – Paper, Plastic, or Reusable?
- Bags – Paper vs. Plastic: Environmental Impact
- Bags – Then Came Plastic
- Garbology – Book Review
- Kitchen Trash Bags – Green Alternatives
- Plastic Bag Dryer – Save Money and Go Green
- Reduce Comes Before Recycling
- Simple and Eco-Friendly Solutions to Keeping Produce Fresh
- You Can Live Without Single-Use Plastic Bags – Here’s How
- An Analysis of the Impact of Single-Use Plastic Bags – New York State Plastic Bag Task Force, 01/13/18
- How much oil is used to make plastic? – U.S. Energy Information Administration
- How Plastic Bags Are Recycled – Nashville Wraps, 03/18/10 (2-minute video showing the energy-intensive process of recycling plastic bags)
- Let’s Bag Plastic Bags – by Joseph Curtin, The New York Times, 03/03/18
- Single-use Plastics: A roadmap for Sustainability – United Nations Environment Programme, 2018
- We Made Plastic. We Depend on It. Now We’re Drowning in It. – by Laura Parker, Photographs by Randy Olson, National Geographic, June 2018 (read this even if all you do is look at the photos)
- Why can’t you recycle plastic bags in Chicago? – by DNAinfo Chicago, 12/14/16 (2-minute video showing why recycling plastic bags requires specialized equipment that most facilities do not have)
- World Environment Day 2018: ‘Beat Plastic Pollution’ – by Alan Taylor, The Atlantic, 06/05/18 (read this even if all you do is look at the photos)