The plastic bag war

The number of times I have juggled an armload of groceries to my car or stuffed items into my handbag and pockets is more a representation of my personal organisation than anything else. However, I refuse to accept plastic shopping bags, so I must live with the consequences of forgetting my reusable bags or doing an impromptu food shop on my way home with no spare bags in the car.

The first time I ever stuffed my pockets, a handbag and loaded the rest of my groceries straight back into the trolley was, believe it or not, at least 7 years before I gave up on plastic bags.

I was travelling in France with my boyfriend at the time and, while I can find no evidence that there was a plastic bag ban there in effect before 2016, for whatever reason, the supermarket we were shopping at had no plastic bags available. This event was well before I had even begun to think about my personal impact on the environment (and only a few months after becoming vegetarian), so my reaction to having to carry all my shopping without a bag was vastly different to how I react these days. I remember being quite miffed at the situation. Nevertheless, that day taught me that it is possible to shop without plastic bags.

Although I have just discovered that the majority of the ‘green’ bags you can purchase at the supermarket can be recycled in the REDcycle soft plastics program (see my last post for more info if you missed it!), when the commercial green bags I already have reach the end of their natural life span and get turned into furniture, I will use home-made cloth bags. For any handy sewers (that’s a funny homograph!) out there, I will be sure to post the instructions/pattern that I end up using, when I get up to making them.

So, there are a few things to mention when it comes to eliminating plastic bags from your regular food shop. I won’t be considering the ‘extra strong’ reuse-me-many-times plastic bags available at Coles and Woolworths (is that still called Safeway in the Eastern States?), as I don’t see it as much of an improvement as ultimately they won’t last as long as alternatives and end up causing problems in landfill anyway (though hopefully you are now going to recycle them instead).

Many people are already using the branded ‘green’ bags I mentioned earlier, and if that’s you, I encourage you to continue to do so until they are too broken to safely carry your goods. I have a mixture of these and cloth bags currently. I think the ideal way to buy groceries would be using string bags or home-made cloth bags (made from fabrics with natural fibres), as they are sure to last the longest and will break down most efficiently when they reach the end of their life span.  If this seems too tricky, especially if you walk to the supermarket, why not get a wheelie trolley? (I always wanted one!) Or, if you have cardboard boxes that would be about the right size, why not take them? Sure, you may get a few funny looks, but this will just mean more people will take notice and think about your motivations for what you’re doing.

Another thing I always do now is whenever someone offers me a plastic bag (or starts to put things in before I have even had a chance to brandish my alternative – this happens mostly in fashion stores) is make a comment other than just saying ‘no thanks’. It’s never rude, and even when someone forgets that I’ve just said to them ‘I’ll put that in my handbag/this bag please,’ I’m not rude. I simply say something like, ‘no bag, thanks. I don’t like using plastic bags.’

Usually, I get a neutral response (let’s face it, people working in retail have a lot of customers in one day), and some cashiers even say ‘well done,’ or something positive.

I think it’s just a little bonus to get someone else thinking about plastic bags. Who knows, maybe some of the people I’ve commented to have since changed their own habits?

The last thing (and probably the toughest challenge) I want to talk about when it comes to shopping plastic bag free is the fresh fruit and veg.

How nostalgic it is to think back to childhood when I would be so keen to get those little bags off the reel just for the joy of separating them at their perforated edges… and more recently, as an adult, the frustration of not being able to open the damned things in order to heap in my string beans, or whatever.

For items like sweet potatoes, pumpkins, garlic cloves and ginger knobs that are fairly tidy and that I usually only buy in ones or twos, I tend to leave them loose. Everything else goes in a bag – just not the ones the supermarket provide.

The best solution if you are handy with a sewing machine would be to make some mesh bags yourself. You may even be able to repurpose old netting or lace curtains to make them even more environmentally sound. Sew them into a pouch and attach some ribbon or fabric to tie them closed. Alternatively, there are a number of mesh produce bags available on the market now, and these work really well and are not that expensive. I think I paid about $20 for a pack of 12 Onya brand reusable produce bags and I’ve not yet needed to use them all in one shop. You’ll probably know how many you are likely to need.

The one disclaimer I need to make when it comes to using reusable produce bags is to be careful about then storing your items in the fridge. Please don’t use these bags to store your things in the fridge the way you may have done with the plastic bags. They are great for carrying but not as good for keeping things fresh. I only had to wash rotten string bean out of my bag once before finding an alternative method of storing my food once I got it home! (If you’re interested, my chosen method at the moment is the ‘Swag Bag’: a padded cloth bag that you dampen before filling with your veggies and putting it in the crisper.)

So, I hope you’ve found some new ideas to avoid plastic bags when shopping. Remember: try not to be embarrassed if you find yourself stuffing your pockets and handbag or reloading everything loose back into your trolley. The more people who see you doing it, the more likely you are to influence a positive change in someone else’s behaviour!


Live better.