Overrun with plastic bags
Trying to reduce the amount of plastic we use is a constant theme at my house, but every time I think I’m making progress, I’m reminded of how far I have to go.
Last week I filled my shopping cart with fresh fruits and produce at a discount grocery store, filling two big reusable shopping bags. That probably saved six or seven plastic shopping bags.
But so what? Just about everything in my bag was wrapped in its own little plastic bag — red peppers and lettuce, avocados and onions, oranges and apples. The seltzer comes in plastic bottles, strawberries come in plastic boxes, each block of cheese is separately wrapped in its own plastic covering.
It’s bad enough that this is the time of year that makes me feel most dependent on petroleum — from the fertilizers that grow all this discount produce to the fuel that ships it to me from Florida and California, or Chile. Add to that the plastic bags made of petroleum, the gas I used to drive to the store, the fact that we’ve had another cold snap and the oil heat’s running again at my house . . .
This time of year is the exact opposite of harvest time; instead of living off our own garden vegetables and feeling close to self-sufficient, we’re buying produce from across the country and world. What’s left of last year’s garden season is on the shelves in jars of salsa and jellies, and in the freezer — yes! in plastic freezer bags!
But all that’s left in the freezer is corn, string beans and carrots, and some bags of mixed vegetables. Even the mixed vegetables tend heavily toward corn, string beans and carrots, since we seem to have eaten all the broccoli, cauliflower, spinach, kale and everything else that seemed so plentiful when we were filling the freezer last summer.
So that brings me back to the discount grocery store, which I drive by while burning petroleum taking the high-school kids to community college on my way to work. There are only so many ways to serve frozen string beans. And the kids need fruits and vegetables in their lunches every day. And I can’t grow them in March.
So my latest question is, how can I avoid putting all that produce I buy into plastic? Or maybe I should start with a backtrack — why should I be trying to avoid plastic bags?
Besides being made of a dwindling resource, petroleum, plastic bags are a ubiquitous and spreading pollutant. There are acres of plastic refuse forming an island in the North Pacific, so big that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has named it the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. It threatens marine life and the ocean floor, interferes with fishing, and washes ashore, polluting shorelines and impacting shore birds and tourism.
Closer to home, you’ll find plastic bags as floating garbage on roadsides and in parks and fields. I can’t take a walk without finding plastic bags tangled into weeds or the lower branches of trees and bushes. Drive around anywhere and you’ll spot them stuck in culverts, tangled into and fences, or blowing across the road like tumbleweed.
My daughter watched one get stuck under someone else’s car last week and asked me, “What is the name of that religion that thinks the Earth is a living being and people are like parasites, trying to kill it?”
I didn’t know the answer. But I’m thinking of answers to bringing home fewer plastic bags.
For one, if I’m picking up, say, two avocados or three peppers, I don’t need to wrap them in anything. And if I can use reusable shopping bags, can’t I also find smaller, reusable produce bags?
Online you can find small polyester mesh bags with drawstrings that are light, washable and a handy size for fresh fruits and vegetables. You could stash them in your reusable grocery bags, and have them handy when you head to the store.
There are also cotton mesh bags that serve the same purpose, and aren’t made of plastic of any sort. I could probably find some lightweight cotton at a fabric store and make my own.
Then there are small knit string bags, which I also think I could make myself. Another online search yielded some patterns for knit and crocheted string bags, made of cotton. If you’re handy with needles and so inclined, you could make your own.
At the very least, I could keep those plastic produce bags in my grocery bags and reuse them a few times until they fall apart. Then they can be recycled — more and more grocery stores have recycling bins at their entrances.
There’s plenty of plastic you just can’t avoid bringing home from the store — meat and cheese is wrapped in it, there are yogurt tubs and detergent bottles. The more you can buy in bulk and the more you can make your own products, the more you can reduce your use plastic.
Eliminating it entirely? I can’t see how. Any ideas?
Margaret Hartley is the Gazette’s Sunday and features editor. Greenpoint appears in the Gazette’s print edition Sundays on the Environment page.
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