I realized it was time to bite the bullet and start bringing my own bags. I decided to approach the problem like a management consultant (i.e., charge $350/hour to point out the obvious) and quickly realized that my main problem was plain old forgetfulness. Although I'd occasionally remember to grab my canvas tote bags before leaving the house, I'd forget them nine times out of ten (though I was GREAT at remembering them the moment I stepped into the store...) And I was even worse about remembering to bring the smaller produce plastic bags I'd saved with me to the market.
My other problem was that I was loathe to reuse the clear plastic produce bags because they were, well, dirty. The detritus of previous shopping excursions - fragments of old onion skins, clumps of dirt from a bundle of fresh spinach, sticky red strawberry juice, etc., left many of them kind of gross on the inside. So I'd stuff them under the sink in order to avoid the guilt that would inevitably accompany throwing them away. But then I would never actually use them...
Once I had identified these two main obstacles, I channeled my inner management consultant to devise a simple (yet brilliant) two-part plan to overcome them. Here's what I came up with.
Cleaning & Drying the Produce Bags
Although it's probably obvious to all of you rocket scientists, it actually took me a little while to figure out that you have to turn the used bag INSIDE-OUT in order to clean it properly (duh!) I had been trying to wash them without turning them inside out first -- it did not go so well. Flipping them inside out allows you to wash any dirt or gunk off with relative ease. Mostly you can just use your hand but if there's something particularly challenging on there, you can also wipe the bag with a sponge.
Once the bag is clean, it's time to dry it. Since you've already flipped it inside-out, all that's left to do is identify an appropriate protrusion to hang it over. All you need is something kind of tall and thin-shaped that will allow air to circulate in and around the bag. I am planning to buy one of those nifty wooden bag driers very soon but, for now, I use my spray bottle, mortar and pestle, and bottle of hand moisturizer to hang the bags on. It's not the most glamorous solution but it does work.
Making It Impossible To Forget (All) The Bags
My first step on this front was to move my reusable canvas tote bags from the dark hall closet they'd been inhabiting for the past few years to a sunnier, more prominent spot next to the front door where they would be hard to miss.
But just moving the tote bags to the doorway was not enough, I also needed help remembering to bring all those plastic produce bags with me when I went shopping. My husband and I store all our used plastic bags under our kitchen sink in a really great bag holder made by Simple Human. The only downside is that I rarely remembered to grab the bags from under the sink before leaving the house, after all, out of sight, out of mind, right? Luckily, I realized that filling the canvas tote bags by the door with the used plastic bags would eliminate the need to remember to grab them altogether. This brilliant innovation did the trick!
A quick note on bags: I have a veritable army of canvas tote bags at my disposal--one from a nonprofit I worked for, one from a nonprofit a friend worked for (nonprofits LOVE tote bags!), one from L.L. Bean, one from the Berkeley farmers market, and three from Trader Joes. I am partial to canvas bags because they are made of a natural, non-toxic, renewable material (cotton), you can stretch them to bursting, you can wash and dry them if they get stained, you can repair them if they tear, and they're very sturdy. I also appreciate their long straps because I do most of my shopping on foot and need to carry the bags over my shoulders to prevent my poor little hands from falling off on the way home.
However, any kind of large, sturdy bag will work and you've certainly got your pick of reusable bag options nowadays. Reusing bags has become hugely trendy and tons of eco-preneurs are cashing in on the craze. Below are a few examples of some of the bags on offer -- I'm really torn - clever and funny or image-oriented and "eco-elitist"? You decide!
If you don't already have good grocery/tote bags, you can either shell out some cash to get one of these clever, trendy numbers or you can spend $2-$3 to buy a more generic but equally useful bag from Trader Joes, Whole Foods, Andronicos, and many other chain grocery stores.
I won't pretend that changing my ways was quick or easy - it did take me a little while to break the plastic bag habit but, once I did, it became surprisingly easy and actually enjoyable. My feelings of guilt have been replaced with a much more enjoyable sense of self-reliance and environmental responsibility.
Although bringing your own bags may seem like a small action, it will add up to a big difference over time. According to the Worldwatch Institute, it takes 430,000 gallons of oil to produce 100 million non-biodegradable plastic bags. And each year, people use 4 to 5 trillion of these bags worldwide. If we cut down on the demand for these bags by reusing, we can save thousands of gallons of oil and prevent the bags from filling our landfills and waterways for centuries to come.
Ultimately, our governments and corporations should be leading the charge by either heavily taxing or banning the use of plastic bags and providing much stronger incentives to bring your own tote bags (that $0.10 bag credit just does not cut it!) Although San Francisco did become the first city in the U.S. to ban the use of plastic bags in major grocery stores and pharmacies last March, most governments and corporations are still dragging their feet.
Hopefully they'll catch up and passing laws like this one soon. And when they do, you'll already be bringing your own bags!
Good luck with starting to BYOB - I know you can do it! Feel free to contact me if you have any questions.
More Ways To Green Your Kitchen
- Nix the Antibacterials
- Slay the Energy Vampires
- Plant an Herb Garden
- Buy In Bulk
- Grow Your Own Garlic
- Say 'Buh-Bye' to Bottled Water
- How To Choose the "Right" Milk
- Skip the BPA, Switch to Glass Storage Containers
- Forget Free-Range, Buy Pasture-Raised Eggs From a Local Farm
- Buy BPA-Free Tomatoes & Beans