Sunday, September 30, 2007

I, Bag Lady: Plastic Bags

Some years ago Jim and I volunteered for a river cleanup on the White River where it meanders through suburban and rural Indiana. It sounded like a fun way to spend a day canoing through the countryside. The White River is known locally for some very severe industrial fishkills, so no one really ever plans on going into it above the knee.

Needless to say, our group ended up filling all the canoes as well as a large flat raft with everything from washing machines to spare tires to every kind of plastic implement ever made so everyone was walking their canoes down the river- and then the river got deeper and deeper (before we were near our final destination), so we all ended up swimming and pushing our barely-above-water garbage skiffs. If Ranger ever develops a third eye it won't be a real mystery.

When we got on the school bus to head to a picnic, the conversation turned to one thing- plastic bags. How had so many of them ended up in the river? Was there a community-wide initiative to dam the river using only Wal-Mart bags? Every volunteer had spent just a little too much time disentangling their own share of thousands of plastic bags from our local flora and fauna.

I've never looked at disposable plastic bags the same way since that river trip.

We became dedicated users of cloth bags overnight. Sure, we still end up with a plastic bag every now and then, but we've substantially reduced our plastic bags consumed. We also try to reuse any plastic bags that make their way into our home.

So here are some of our household's favorite plastic bag tips:
  • KNOT THE BAGS: For bags being stored bunch the bag at the base in one hand and pull it with your other hand toward the handles to push out all the air and make a rope. Then tie it once in the middle. This makes the bag less of an entrapment and choking hazard. It also keeps them more compact in storage. It's good to tie a knot even in bags you're throwing away because it keeps them from blowing into the local landscape.
  • USE A BAG HOLDER: We used to use a cheap plastic one from IKEA that looked pretty bad when the bags eeked their way out the holes. My friend's mom saw fit to make us a very cute cloth one out of a tea towel and some ribbons similar to this. Lifehacker even has an extraordinarily utilitarian one made from a used plastic bottle. Amazon has some sleek steel and plastic ones.
  • MANAGE TRASH STINK: We're notorious for letting take-out move into our fridge on a semi-permanent basis. It gets past the safe consumption zone and I forget to put it out on trash day. So we'll double bag it before putting it in the trash. If you don't live in a hot climate this can buy you a few stink free days. If it's hot here I double bag the hazardous waste and put it in back in the fridge until trash day. That way Ranger's cottage cheese doesn't have to smell like lo mein.
  • MANAGE DIAPER PAIL STINK: Ghastly diapers double bagged do less olfactory damage in even a floundering Diaper Champ.
  • Stow a few in your car for wet clothes, dirty shoes, emergency barf bags, or use as vehicle trash bags.
  • Shopping bags make great liners for small trash cans.
  • Clean plastic shopping bags are usually welcome donations at thrift stores and food banks.
I strongly recommend cloth bags or durable, reusable plastic bags (IKEA and Trader Joes both sell great ones) for every family. Yes, it takes a little bit of time to get used to taking them to the store, but it's well worth the effort. For each ton of plastic bags not used 11 barrels of oil are conserved.

That doesn't sound like much but each plastic bag used ALSO consumes fossil fuels in transportation, storage costs for manufacturers and retailers, more fossil fuels in transportation to landfills, and landfill space. Often these bags are only used once.

Plastic bag recycling is problematic. The EPA estimates that only 1% of America's plastic bags were recycled in 2000. I learned from someone in the recycling industry that a lot of the store shopping bag bins end up contaminated and can't be recycled. It turns out that there are subtle differences in the plastics (including dyes) that make it impossible to recycle say a Target (white with red), a Wal-Mart (blue with multi-color), and a Best Buy bag (yellow with black) in the same lot. Long story short- most of those grocery store plastic recycling barrels are there to ease consumers' consciouses rather than actually recycle. The contents of those plastic bag collection barrels frequently end up in landfills.

To make your own cloth bags (and some friends), see the tutorials at (social guerrilla bagging) or


Michael Davis said...

We love the fabric bags sold at Whole Foods Markets. They are only a few bucks and have good flat bottoms and very sturdy handles.

We also reuse plastic bags in a variety of ways. In fact, we just posted about using them in the car on Family Hack.


Anonymous said...

Here's a really simple way to make a reusable bag:

Im lucky in that in addition to reducing our initial use of plastic, I know where I can take old bags to be reused (a wholefood shop and several charity shops) as well as many supermarkets having a recycling bin for them. It might be worth asking in similar places near you if they would like them your old ones.

indywriter said...

Shortly after moving to our house 5+ years ago, I started using a canvas tote bag for trips to the local supermarket. The store is only equal to about 2-2.5 blocks away, but it was hard to carry milk jugs and bags full of food the short distance (and I refuse to drive there like my husband does). Now most of the checkout clerks know not to put stuff in the plastic bag, 'cause I brought my own tote. I also am the local crazy lady who pulls the all-terrain kiddy wagon through the crocery store giving rides to both my girls and our food (it only took one walk carrying a suddenly tired toddler and two gallons of milk to get me over any embarrassment I might have felt).