After a year of bringing reusable shopping bags in place of 3 plastic and 2 paper bags a week (and reducing your packaged foods purchasing by 50%), you will save:
52 Pounds Fossil Fuel
104 Pounds Greenhouse Gas Emissions.
& you are doing your part to reduce plastic in our oceans and lessen your impact on the Great Pacific Garbage Patch!
*This post may include affiliate links. I only recommend eco-friendly products I know and love.
Plastic grocery bags only weigh 1/1ooth of a pound each – are they really an issue?
With headlines about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, microplastics in our oceans and other waterways, and the advent of plastic bag bans, most people already realize they should avoid plastic bags. However, the United States consumes an estimated 1 million plastic bags per minute. This equates to 10,000 pounds of plastic waste per minute, 14.5 million pounds a day, 5+ trillion pounds a year.
That s*#t adds up!
There must be a disconnect in the messaging. And with this amount of plastic waste to manage, a portion is bound to make its way into our sensitive ecosystem environments – and it definitely has.
What are microplastics?
All plastic developed since the 19th century is somewhere on the planet, and much of it has ended up in the form of microplastics or large garbage patches lurking in our ocean. Plastic bags are primarily made of polyethylene, and readily break down into smaller and smaller pieces (microplastics). There is now more plastic in the ocean than plankton, with 46,000+ pieces of plastic per square mile of ocean (and this number is growing every day).
If you are the type that prefers to “see it to believe it”, watch the film Plastic Paradise (available on Netflix) – very enlightening and presents the concept that “untouched, pristine islands” may now be a thing of the past.
Even if you don’t live in a coastal area, errant bags can still impact freshwater wildlife, let alone ruin natural views (it amazed me how much litter popped up in the stream near my house as the winter snow melted away). Plastics in the ocean are not only affecting numerous types of marine species (including the fish that end up on our dinner plates). Recent studies have found microplastics in table salt from china undetectable to the naked eye! Plastic may be a more dominant part of our “food chain” than we could ever imagine.
Can’t everyone just vow to reuse or recycle plastic bags?
Although plastic bags are often reused in the home, the plastic bag recycling rate remains between 3% and 15%, with recycling rates increasing by only 1% when a plastic bag recycling bin is placed at the store entrance. Even if plastic bag recycling rates were higher, it is simply not economical. Recycling plastics bags costs approximately $4,000 per ton, which can then be sold on the commodities market for $32), limiting the growth of any real market for recycled plastic film.
That being said, still recycle the plastic bags that inadvertently end up in your home 🙂 To find locations to recycle in your area, go to plasticfilmrecycling.org
Are paper bags or compostable green produce bags better than their plastic counterparts?
Many people turn to paper bags believing they are the better choice, since they don’t directly lead to plastic pollution in our oceans. However, when compared to plastic bags, paper bag manufacturing requires 4 times the energy, contributes 80% more greenhouse gas emissions, and causes 50 times the amount of water pollution through the chemical paper pulping process. And, since all rivers eventually meet the ocean, paper bag manufacturing also directly contributes to ocean pollution.
Compostable plastic bags are estimated to emit more greenhouse gas emissions during production when compared to traditional plastic bags and only truly break down into workable “compost” when exposed to the temperature conditions typically achievable only in large-scale, municipal composting systems.
If your sole motivation is to reduce the amount of toxins in contact with your food, then these alternatives are a better choice than plastic. However, if you want to reduce your overall impact on the planet, it would be better to start creating an arsenal of plastic-free, reusable bags for all stages of the grocery shopping process.
Does zero waste shopping simply involve avoiding paper and plastic bags at the checkout?
As you start bringing your own bags to the grocery store, you quickly realize that the checkout lane is only the beginning of the zero waste shopping spectrum.
When I moved back to the Midwest (from the San Francisco Bay Area where a plastic bag ban was already in effect), I had already decided to finally start living a truly green, sustainable, and zero-waste lifestyle. Naturally, one of the first books to catch my eye at the local library was Bea Johnson’s book Zero Waste Home*. Her book is eye-opening, honest, and charming, while providing simple solutions for a family of four to live a sustainable, zero-waste lifestyle. Certain portions made me laugh, like when she admits to giving up the apple cider vinegar hair rinse (eco-friendly hair conditioning method) because she couldn’t handle the smell on her pillow (and felt a slight tinge of guilt for making her husband also suffer through the smell). I’m not yet ready for the apple cider vinegar rinse myself, and I believe “imperfect environmentalism” allows room for introspection and steady improvement.
Some eco-friendly habits may be more difficult to take on than others, but – bringing your own bags to the grocery store and being more conscious of the amount of packaging waste in your cart is not one of them.
It seems like everything at the grocery store is in some sort of packaging. Is it truly avoidable?
You can incorporate zero waste shopping into your routine by following some of these basic principles:
- Support stores which minimize produce packaging and excessive labeling. Now that I barely generate any trash, I’m fairly amazed by how much of my current waste stream consists of produce labels and rubber bands. The small produce stickers are typically unavoidable unless you are one of the lucky ones to have farmers markets available year-round in your area.
- Bring reusable produce bags to avoid reaching for the plastic or compostable ones offered at the store (I use these organic cotton bags*). Storing fresh produce that prefers to “breathe” (such as lettuce) in organic cotton or hemp produce bags may also extend storage life in your fridge, and not letting your food go to waste may be even more important than how you brought it home.
- Don’t be afraid of the bulk bins. I’m currently practicing a vegan diet, which makes it easy to grab most of my staples from the bulk bins (dry lentils and beans, raw cashews, quinoa, spices, and even chocolate!). By incorporating “vegan days” into your diet (read more about why and take the pledge here), you may naturally be more attracted to the bounty of these areas in the market as well. I personally choose to use cotton reusable bags* to avoid having to lug mason jars to the store, but this does add an extra transfer step when I get home. I know many customer service reps at stores will weigh your storage containers for you to easily be able to use them directly at the bins.
- If you are an omnivore, most delis or butcher shops will be happy to sell you their products in your reusable tupperware or other container. Just ask!
- Seek out other bulk shops in your area that offer products in bulk (you can use the Bulk app to find local bulk store locations if other users have recorded them in your area
- For those items you can only get packaged, use the following decision making:
- Best option: choose glass over plastic
- Next: choose hard plastic over plastic film
- Last: if only plastic film is available, set aside after use and recycle at one of these stations: plasticfilmrecycling.org
- If you don’t already have a stash of reusable shopping bags to replace paper or plastic at the checkout, search recent listings for pre-owned reusable bags on Ebay to reduce the footprint of the bag itself. 🙂
Ready to begin your own zero waste shopping mantra?
Take the pledge to bring your own bag by filling out the form below. As is a common theme on this website, only pledge what you feel you will be capable of achieving at this time. All forms can be revised in the future to update your ecological savings metrics as you gradually shift your habits.