The blog formerly known as   Fake Plastic Fish

September 17, 2007

Some of my best friends are plastic bags!

Recently, I’ve been reading quite a few anti-plastic bag articles that contain statements like, “Plastic bags are evil,” and advocate taking all your plastic bags to the local recycler and replacing them immediately with reusable bags.

Now, as you know, I’m all for refusing new plastic bags while shopping and bringing my own reusable bags with me. I don’t see any need for the creation of new plastic bags in this world, not with all the environmental problems associated with their manufacture and disposal.

But once a bag has been created, once it’s already here in this world, is it really evil? I don’t think so. In fact, a few weeks ago I posted an ad to my local Freecycle group requesting used plastic grocery bags from anyone who had a bunch they weren’t going to use. Why? Because far from being evil, plastic grocery bags are quite handy.

Look at it this way. If we’re all trying to reduce the amount of new plastic we buy, what will we use in place of things like plastic cling wrap, freezer bags, sandwich baggies if we’ve given away all our plastic grocery bags to the recycler? Sure, we’ve got our reusable tote. But it doesn’t take the place of produce bags for our cherries and grapes and dirty potatoes.

I’ve already written about the convenience of plastic grocery bags to be reused over and over again as grocery bags. They fold up small, fit in a purse or backpack or even wallet, and can be used in a pinch when we’ve forgotten to bring our organic cotton tote bag into the store with us.

If we switch from buying bread packaged in plastic bags to fresh-baked bread wrapped in paper (or even bake our own), we can store the loaf in a reused plastic grocery bag to keep it from drying out. (It does dry out mighty fast otherwise.) In fact, we can use plastic grocery bags to store all sorts of food in the cupboard or refrigerator or freezer. For freezer storage, I think it’s best to use several layers of bags.

And as I’ve also mentioned, plastic bags can be washed and reused many times before they are ready for the recycle bin. Just rinse them in the sink and hang to dry. I’ve even heard of some folks hanging them on the clothes line. Once you get used to it, cleaning a plastic bag is no different than washing the dishes.

I’ve found quite a few web sites listing alternative uses for plastic grocery bags. And while many of these suggestions are helpful, a few of them seem to miss the point. Plastic grocery bags are too valuable to be used for trashcan liners or for cat litter or dog poop or anything else that will be thrown into the garbage. Let’s use old newspaper or other biodegradable alternatives for that. The landfill is not the place for items that last virtually forever.

Instead, let’s use old plastic bags to carry wet bathing suits, or to separate clean from dirty clothes in a suitcase, or as makeshift rain hats or covers for wet umbrellas, or as packing material for shipping (you could include a note asking the recipient to further reuse or recycle the bags). Check out the following links, but be careful about whether the recommended use will prolong the life of the bag or doom it to landfill hell:

And these are just a few links. The Net is full of them. Just Google “uses for plastic bags” to find ways to reuse plastic grocery bags in place of new plastic items that you might otherwise buy.

What’s that? Oh, Tina wants to chime in about all the crafts we can do with plastic bags, like knitting or crocheting or weaving or even sewing. But I already wrote that post back in July. I’m planning to turn a whole bunch of grocery bags into one knitted reusable tote bag. Soon. When I have nothing else to do.

My point is that in our haste to become “green,” we need to keep our common sense and refrain from discarding things, even into the recycling bin, that might not seem eco-friendly on the outside but could actually help us to save precious resources. Reduce, by not taking home any new plastic bags; Reuse, by finding as many extra uses as we can for the bags we have; Recycle, after our bags are thoroughly used up.

After all, most of the plastic that already exists is not going away. We might as well make friends with as much of it as we can.

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Classic stainless steel bento boxes and cotton lunch bags.

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Kathy G
15 years ago

I usually lurk on your blog, but this post tied in with a thread on a chat group I subscribe to, so I referenced it to the group. Hope you don’t mind!

I’m looking to take the next green step and reduce my use of plastic bags…it just seems like the right thing to do.

15 years ago

While I appreciate the idea of re-use of plastic bags, I have to state that we need to eliminate these gross polluters as a staple of daily life.

The fact is that we currently have a “toxic garbage island” floating in our ocean (Google it) that consists of plastics and is about the size of the state of Texas. The breakdown of plastics in the ocean, including the plastic bag, is of great concern and has been linked to high rates of miscarriage in women in certain asian fishing villages as well as hormonal abnormalities in fish such as males that produce eggs…YIKES!!! The contamination of the food chain should be of utmost concern to all of us.

I also must disagree with the statement that plastic is necessary in our lives. The plastic bag was not invented until the 1970’s. Today between 500 billion and a trillion plastic bags are consumed yearly. It is amazing that in under 40 years our society has forgotten how to live without plastic bags!

It is imperative that we find ways to replace the plastic bags that we are accustomed to using as opposed to re-using them. The ones we have should go to the bag bin, before they make their way to the landfill, or to our precious ocean.

15 years ago

I would like to first reveal my bias in that I have earned a living selling plastic bags for 29 years. I love the planet and want to preserve it as much as anyone.

I have noted some problems with some of the suggestions here which may not be obvious to those without the experience and knowledge of the limitations of re-use, how the bags are produced, etc.

1. The FDA and USDA require manufacturers to use virgin (non-recycled) raw materials for any bags destined for food, pharmaceutical products, medical items, etc. This is because used plastic cannot be cleaned well enough to insure that no contamination will occur in the reprocessing.

2. Re-use of any plastic bag to store a food item would cause the FDA or USDA to shut down any production facility. One a food item is placed in a bag, there is a risk of contamination related to the decay of any residue of the initial item carrying over to the next item. In short, don’t re-use bags to store food unless you want to risk becoming ill.

3. Recycled plastic bags do not result in the same quality as bags made from virgin raw materials. In addition to the possibility of contamination by dirt and debris entering the re-grinders, the molecular structure has been altered with each process. The possibility of pinholes and variations in thickness are greatly increased as a result. Consumer demand for quality prohibits many opportunities for recycled bags.

4. Plastic bags perform in many situations where nothing else will do. It is plastic bags and sheeting that protect your lungs from asbestos when it is being removed from old buildings. Plastic bags keep your bread, cheese and lunch meats fresh. They line the boxes of the beef and poultry that is shipped to your grocer to prevent it from being contaminated. The list goes on and on.

5. Plastics are part of the processing of gas and oil. Not making bags would not eliminate the raw materials, but divert them to other uses. As long as drilling for gas and oil, we will have these byproducts with which to deal.

6. Grocery bags are not FDA/USDA approved for direct contact with food. There is an assumption that the foods placed in these bags will be packaged individually in approved packaging, so it is not recommended that you use them for storage of exposed consumables.

There are many good ideas here for re-using plastic bags. While grocery bags may one day be replaced, plastic bags in general are here to stay. Any re-use will result in less new production, however, and that is a good thing.

Our biggest problem is not those of us researching ways to be more responsible, but with those who dispose of the bags in ways that don’t insure their ultimate destruction or containment. Most of the irresponsible disposers are not in the USA, but in third world countries where they simply don’t know any better. There is little that any of us can do about that.

By the way… Am I the only one who missed paper grocery bags? Those wonderful, biodegradable bags sure did keep my groceries together better than the plastic “t-shirt” bags used today. Why don’t I ever hear “Paper, or plastic?” anymore? I’ll take paper for my groceries and plastic for my bread. Ahhh… Common sense.

Beth Terry
16 years ago

Hi Rejin. You make a good point about finding alternatives to plastic, and I’m all about that. But finding alternatives doesn’t address the plastic that is already with us.

My feeling is that energy and resources have already been expended to create these plastic items. Recycling a perfectly good plastic bag and replacing it with a non-plastic alternative uses more energy and resources to create the new non-plastic item (as well as to recycle the plastic bag.)

For me, slowing the creation of new items and instead reusing items that already exist is the most economical and environmentally-friendly way to manage our resources.

What I’m advocating is far from what corporations do, primarily because no new products are being created and no one is making any money from exploiting new natural resources. In fact, if we all stopped buying new things and stuck with all the products that already exist in the world, quite a few corporations would go out of business.

Rejin L
16 years ago

Beth, you make a good point about finding the best uses for the plastic we already have. But I am uncomfotable about looking for more ways to use it. Doesn’t it prolong our dependence on plastic (bags) if we get creative about how to use them? This feels too much like what corporations do: finding more things to make out of plastic. I prefer the idea of phasing plastic out of our lives, and finding or making non-plastic alternatives.

16 years ago

Great post – keep up the good work you’re doing. It counts!

heather t
16 years ago

Excellent points! I want to make a tote too, but I have TOO MANY PROJECTS!

Radical Garbage Man
16 years ago

Perhaps a key consideration in the landfilling department is volume. If you can use a very small (already used to the point of trashability) plastic bag or small amount of non-recyclable paper, that is probably the superior method for disposing of pet waste or other “untouchable” garbage. Using a whole plastic grocery bag for one bit of pet waste seems wasteful (as would using a whole sheet of newspaper).

My folks have their own little waste management hierarchy for sandwich bags. First they hold people food, then they hold dog food then they hold dog waste. (I’d prefer they find non-plastic alternatives for all three of these functions, but hey at least they’re doing something — they’re not particularly environmentally aware)

I would put out a plea that newspaper and office paper be recycled rather than used to wrap garbage. Paper fiber has a relatively high recycling value and there are other kinds of paper that can’t be recycled (like gently used paper towels or napkins) more suited to pet waste disposal

terrible person
16 years ago

Here is another article on plastic bags not being properly reused…

Beth Terry
16 years ago

Hi, Jesse. You are correct that many things do not biodegrade in a landfill. But the issue about whether to put plastic there or not is multi-fold. Since plastic comes from oil, which is a non-renewable resource, I think it’s important to conserve it as much as possible. Forests can be sustainably managed, but oil wells cannot. Drilling for oil is highly polluting, as is creating new plastic.

I don’t like landfills and I don’t encourage putting things into them. However, if you have something like cat litter and you are not able to compost it and it’s just going into the garbage, I’d rather see people use something renewable like old newspapers or bio-bags to pack it up rather than plastic bags.

(Update: My thoughts on this topic have changed over the years. )

- jesse
16 years ago

I thought that anything that ends up in landfills doesn’t decompose anyway since essentially a giant bin liner is put over the ground first prohibiting any bacteria/microbes needed to decompose things from entering?

I agree with reusing. I reuse ziplocs for bulk items (including bread) but I use some org cotton produce bags for my produce (if any – with the CSA I just use a giant reused vinyl tote I’ve had for 5 years) to carry the stuff home and then reusable Gladware to store it in the ‘fridge.

Your point about newspaper and litter is interesting. I usually recycle my newspaper and put my litter in bags. Hmmm. I guess it would depend on whether stuff actually decomposes in landfills or if it’s just preserved?

16 years ago

You so eloquently stated what I could not when my roommate found me picking plastic bags she threw away out of the trash so I could use them later! Great post.

16 years ago

I love this! Thoughtful, funny, true. The picture of the tea party is hilarious. Thanks for making me re-think the “evil” lurking in my house.

16 years ago

Excellent point, Beth! Plus, I bet if you made a bunch of those “I’M A REUSABLE PLASTIC BAG” bags, you could sell them online at as a trendy, environmentally-friendly alternative. Probably make a nice profit ;-)

Love your blog!

16 years ago

I’m with you on this one Beth! Common sense and frugality should take precedence. Have a great day!