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Margaret Hartley's Greenpoint
by Margaret Hartley


A Daily Gazette community blog
Ideas on greener living

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.

Have a question or a topic you’d like addressed on Greenpoint? Email

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April 5, 2012
11:29 a.m.

[ Flag Post ]

A reader comments:

Re: the scourge of plastic bags at the grocery store, to me the obvious solution is to use them as trash bags. If I'm going to put my trash in bags, I may as well use bags I get for free and that have already been used once.
Perhaps this is more practical for a single person than a family of four, but I like the T-shirt bags in the kitchen because they force me to take the
trash out more frequently, before it starts to smell. Also, I have a small trash can in the bathroom that fits the produce bags very handily.

I use reusable bags at the grocery store as often as I can, but always end up with some T-shirt bags anyway because I forget or want the meat wrapped
separately. But by using them as trash bags I never have leftover grocery bags to recycle or throw away. And I don't have to buy trash bags!

My mom does this too, and said she will be bummed if they outlaw plastic bags in grocery stores because then she'll have to buy trash bags.

April 6, 2012
11:50 a.m.

[ Flag Post ]

And another reader offers these suggestions:

We use canvas tote bags in our household and they do become soiled or torn after many uses. I remember to wash them hang them in the sun to dry and deodorize.

We still accumulate plastic bags and I save them up and return them to recycle containers at the supermarkets.

Some warehouse stores and ALDI do not provide bags. When I go to Aldi, I bring my extra plastic bags and leave them on the a counter where customer bags their own groceries. Shoppers will spot them as they come through the line and be relieved that they do not have to pay for a bag.

Remember the "REUSE" factor of the recycling equation. Have a torn bag? Double it up with another bag to make both stronger.

Two years ago we became a dog owner for the first time in our lives. Many parks have dispensers containing plastic bags to pick up your dog's deposits. Is there a way you can provide pet owners with these plastic bags? Once, I had a pet owner allowing their dog to make multiple deposits on my front lawn. So, in the area where the dog liked to deposit, I surrounded the perimeter with plastic bags laid out in a nice circle and weighted down with stones. The next time that owner walked the dog and the dog returned to its dumping ground, the owner could not avoid the plastic bags. Education, education, education.

You mention other plastic that comes with produce as well. The strawberry containers can be re-used to hold hobby items, spools of thread, crayons, legos, binder clips, or other items that you need to corral at home into one container with some visibility.

Did you ever go somewhere and buy a drawer organizer? Instead, use the plastic trays that cookies and produce comes in as drawer compartments or organizers. If it wears out or gets soied, no biggie, you can discard it or recycle it knowing that you did re-purpose it.

The trays that meat comes wrapped on can be washed and recycled or used as project trays. If you are doing a painting or gluing project or some other tasks, having a few of these plastic trays around can be handy. Even if you are doing a project with nails or screws or straight pins in sewing, the tray can be a convenient surface to hold those items.

Also, the strawberry containers can be used to house certain items in school lunches like cupcakes or fruit that you want to protect from crushing.

Styrofoam and plastic containers can be using as packing material lining the inside of boxes if you need to ship something by UPS that is fragile. REUSE.

Using your imagination can provide many REUSE options. Families with children who do crafts often use Styrofoam egg containers to compartmentalize
materials for sorting items used in crafting or kids' rock collections, marbles, etc.

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