How Do You Live Without Plastic Bags?
I had this idea to start a series of posts titled, “How Do you Live Without ________?” and each post I highlight a different waste stream that we’ve found a way to work around (or not). In case you haven’t read my other posts, you might not be aware that I like to keep it real. I don’t want to pretend that we don’t produce any waste. We do. What we have managed to do is cut down our waste….A LOT. It hasn’t been a quick change, but rather one we’ve made over the course of many years of trial and error, living and learning, finding what works and what doesn’t, what’s too hard to change and what isn’t. I want to highlight what those changes are here so that perhaps you’ll find it easier to make a little swap for a more wasteful item or habit for a less wasteful one. Ya just gotta start small.
How Do You Live Without Plastic Bags?
Plastic sucks. Sure it’s an amazing product in many ways, but what isn’t amazing about it is that we have taken something that should be used for the long-haul and turned it into something we dispose of incredibly quickly, sometimes within seconds of using (like those damn coffee stir sticks). So whittling away at our daily use of these readily disposable plastics has meant finding a way to do away with the ubiquitous plastic bag.
We don’t use them! Shocked? I know. It sounds crazy. It started with a desire to get rid of them, so we figured that the real kicker for keeping them was the gross, mecky, wetness of our trash. But what if our trash wasn’t wet and mecky? How could this be achieved? Composting. Once we started backyard composting (and switched to a mostly vegetarian diet), we were no longer putting gross food scraps into our trash can, so we stopped buying plastic trash bags. We started with lining the can with newspaper, then simply sprinkling a little baking soda in the bottom for odor control and now….nothing. Just the trash can itself. When we have meat or cheese to dispose of that we can’t compost we just carry it straight out to the curbside bin. If this seems ludicrous to you, then there are such things as reusable trash can liners, which you can wash out between uses. We haven’t tried them, so if you have and can share any thoughts that would be great!
At the Grocery Store:
Years ago the controversy between whether to choose paper or plastic at the checkout counter pushed this issue to the forefront of our daily conversations. Today it is about the increasingly-present plastic bag bans sweeping the world. This movement has been incredibly powerful and today we see more and more folks grabbing their reusable tote bags as they enter the grocery store, or kicking themselves when they forget to bring them along. For us, we have just made a point of keeping totes everywhere. In my purse, the car, a backpack. Having them handy means we are almost never without and now, if we don’t have them on hand, well then we rearrange our plans in order to make that trip to the store when we DO have a tote on hand. Or, if we can’t rearrange, then maybe we just carry our groceries out in a chaotic handful (as long as it isn’t too much!).
Often we are asked what we do about our produce. “What do you do instead of plastic bags to separate your produce?” Ok. I hope no one curses me for saying this, but why do we need to individually bag our produce? We don’t and haven’t for years. When we put the produce down on the conveyor belt at the counter, we group all of the similar loose produce together and the cashier is able to weigh and ring them up together without having them in a plastic bag. Then we pack them loose into our tote or basket and voila-no plastic bag! If you prefer to separate them for any reason, then more and more reusable produce bags are out there to do the work of that plastic bag for you. Just keep them with your totes and baskets ready for your next grocery run.
Skipping the plastic bag when buying in bulk is made easy by either using your own reusable bulk bags or even taking it a step further by bringing your own jars or containers. You can use the same ones you use to store your goods in your pantry. My husband is a fan of this method and, if you want to see how he does it, check out this post about grocery shopping. Me? I prefer the simplicity of the bulk bag, but he tends to do the lion’s share of the grocery shopping, so whatever works for him!
We do have a few ziplock bags we’ve been washing out and reusing for this purpose, but otherwise we just use a mason jar. I know glass in the freezer sounds scary, but really it isn’t. Just make sure to leave enough space for the expansion of the liquid and don’t put that lid on too tight.
We use a series of snapping lid containers that attach to glass bases for leftovers or even getting deli slices of cheese and meats from the butcher. You can microwave them, which saves you having to transfer from a plastic container when re-heating. We’ve slowly phased out our plastic containers bit by bit in exchange for glass.
About a month ago we were asked to pack a disposable lunch for our daughter for a trip to the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Huh? I don’t know whether this instruction originated with the school or the aquarium, but regardless it certainly didn’t make any sense to me. In my never-ending desire to not make huge waves and just go-with-the-flow, I did my best to oblige, but found we were struggling to rustle up enough plastic bags and a paper sack in order to all of a sudden flip our philosophy on its head and MAKE TRASH. We cobbled it together and I cringed as I handed her a sack full of trash (and food) to take with her. (Side note: it seems word got out about how ridiculous this policy was and it has since changed so they no longer need to bring a disposable lunch with them. Phew.)
I’m bringing this experience up, because it highlighted for me the ease with which we have made the transition away from those throwaway lunches. What do we do now? Well, a few years ago we made the (hefty) investment (around $50) in a Planetbox lunchbox (no, I’m not getting paid for this) for each girl. These lunchboxes are stainless steel, indestructible, and are compartmentalized so you don’t have to go digging around for the right size containers with the lids that fit for each aspect of your kids lunch OR use a plastic bag! So what’s in their lunches that’s plastic and package-free? Typically a PB & Honey, cucumber slices, carrots, cheese, chocolate chips, bell peppers, jicama, strawberries, pasta….a whole combo of things. And honestly, not searching for different containers is really nice.
When you order, bring your reusable tote and ask them if they can pack your order in there instead of a plastic bag. We’ve never had anyone refuse to do this, though we have forgotten a million times and ended up with the plastic bag. Again, the key is having those totes on hand ALL THE TIME, oh, and remembering to ask :)
This we struggle with. We still use plastic baggies, albeit ones we are reusing from our weekly newspaper subscription, but we haven’t found a great solution. Those biodegradable or compostable bags? Those would be great if we had curbside composting, but we don’t, which means they are no better than a plastic bag, only they give us a false sense of do-gooderness (I know, that’s not a word!) that we don’t deserve. Flushable? Nope. Also not a great solution as my understanding is that the flushable bags need to reach a certain temperature to break down, which does not happen during the water treatment process. (If I’m wrong and you have other info, call me out!)
Please, if anyone has found a great solution to avoiding plastic baggies while walking your pups, let me know!
At home we do have a doggie waste composter and have created a small compost pile in order to keep the waste out of the landfill. Thank your lucky stars if you have municipal composting and can just toss it in there! I envy you!
What else? Am I forgetting any other plastic bag uses in daily life? If I am, please comment below!
P.S. The post photo under the rainbow was taken one morning in Bali as we picked up over-flowing bags of trash off the beach. Our experience and exposure to how radically our planet is being impacted by plastic and our waste was never more in our faces than in Bali. You can read more on our thoughts about traveling to Bali here. Where zero waste had seemed like a fun challenge, it changed to having great importance as we realized that our actions truly do have a direct impact on the world, far and wide.