Breaking Your Bag Habit

By Carrie Chauhan

Talking about a plastic bag ban can make many feel a little nervous or unsure, because plastic bags have been a part of the American shopping experience for decades. But our addiction to plastic bags weighs in to the tune of 12 million barrels of oil, and they are a major source of pollution: one EPA report said that only 8% of plastic bags are recycled. And this is just plastic shopping bags--these numbers aren’t accounting for any other plastic waste. The Zero Waste Gainesville team has come up with some suggestions and problem-solving for daily living without single-use plastic bags. And, stay tuned for Boomerang Bags! coming soon to Gainesville.

The first question I usually hear is “but what about my bathroom trash can? I use store bags to line the bin in the bathroom.” My first response is, do you HAVE to line that bin? Or can it be emptied into the kitchen trash can? I haven’t lined my bathroom bins in years. If they do get messy, it’s easy enough to wash them out. Currently, I use plastic trash bags in my kitchen. Our family of three uses one bag a week. When you are composting organic material and recycling everything that can be recycled, it’s much easier to have less trash. Right now, trash pick-up asks that everything be in a plastic trash bag when it’s at the curb, but a new year’s goal for me is to look into a kitchen trash bag that contains more recycled plastic.

If you need to line a trash can or bin, you can use paper to line the bin. I put any paper I’m going to compost as a liner for my compost holder, to take out to the compost bin easily and with less mess. This could work easily for a bathroom trash can as well. If you want to learn how, here’s an excellent tutorial from GreenBin Ottawa on how to fold a few sheets of newspaper into a bin liner:

Other questions I’ve gotten have been about cleaning up messes from babies or animals--in a word, poop. In the past, a lot of people have reused store bags as doggie poop bags, or used them to wrap up dirty disposable diapers. There are quite a few options out there for compostable, biodegradable vegetable-based poop bags. Another way to dispose of dog poop in an environmentally friendly way is to have an animal waste compost system. As with everything, you can buy a system to put in the ground, or Google and YouTube can show you dozens of ways to make your own.

Just because those doggie poop bags are marketed for dog waste specifically doesn’t mean they couldn’t be perfect for cat litter or disposable diapers. An option for diapers, both baby and adult, is a washable liner. I used BumGenius baby diapers with a reusable liner that held the dirty ones and could be washed and dried with the diapers, then put back to hold more diapers. While researching this blog, I found out that they now make reusable adult diapers, so the washable liner is great for that scenario as well.

Plastic produce bags are another area with some interesting solutions. I took the easy route and purchased a set of 6 cloth drawstring produce bags, made of a thin muslin/cotton material that doesn’t weigh enough to make a difference with weighed purchases. They are also useful for bulk items, as they are sturdier than plastic when holding a few pounds of beans or lentils. They can be easily washed. If you’re creative and can sew, I learned from the Boomerang Bags community that thin curtains (like a sheer or lace curtain) can be remade into these produce bags.  

A last thought is on how, when taking home leftovers from a restaurant, we are often given a styrofoam container AND a plastic bag to put it in. The plastic bag has some merit, because the food could potentially spill on the way home. My personal solution for this is a tiffin--a stainless steel food container that seals well and has a handle, eliminating the need for the styrofoam AND the plastic bag. It doesn’t weigh a lot, can go through the dishwasher, and has the added bonus of having multiple tiers to keep your take-out or leftovers from running together. Today, as my son and I headed out to lunch, I took a reusable cup with lid and straw for him, and the tiffin. He had some leftovers that I scooped into our tiffin--no styrofoam or plastic bag needed.  

We’re in good company, those of us post-breakup with the bag. Many countries have banned bags, including Belgium, Germany, Italy, Kenya, China, Taiwan, Japan, Botswana, Sweden, Bangladesh, Australia. In the US, California, Hawaii and many cities (Austin, Cambridge, Chicago) have all banned plastic bags. The LA Times recently wrote a piece on the ban in California, and how it was easier than many anticipated. Their finding?  “In the end, this momentous change was not a big deal.” (find it on our Facebook feed!)

There are lots of options out there to ease you through your break-up with the plastic bag. Change is always messy at first, but seeing it through is well worth the effort.