What to Do About Those Grocery Store Plastic Bags

July 12, 2009

Those plastic bags you get at the grocery store and everywhere else?

They're a part of everyday life, as ubiquitous as cellphones, potholes and Lindsay Lohan scandals.

We love 'em. Or at least we use 'em.

And yes, they're an easy target. Why keep harping about plastic bags?

Because we keep using them, but don't have to. Some countries and cities have banned them or apply a surcharge for using them.

  • Plastic bags are a petroleum product and a waste of a nonrenewable resource. Americans use 100 billion bags a year, requiring 12 million barrels of oil.
  • They don't biodegrade. They photodegrade, becoming bits of plastic dust, a contaminant, and even that takes many, many decades.
  • They are rarely recycled (only about 1 percent) and become litter pollution. They sully streams and clog roadside drains. Plastic bags are a top debris item encountered during coastal cleanups.
  • They endanger wildlife, particularly sea life. Animals become entangled in them, get suffocated by them or ingest them. Every square kilometer in the ocean contains an estimated 18,000 pieces of plastic.


  • Bring reusable bags to the store. If you have one or two items, don't use a bag.
  • Choose paper instead? No. Manufacturing paper bags creates water and air pollution and uses lots of energy.
  • Recycle or reuse your plastic bags.

Beyond the obvious (taking your lunch, lining your trash cans or tossing diapers), a search of green and crafty websites showed dozens of other ingenious uses. Here is a sampling:

  • Plastic yarn: Make crocheted tote bags, rugs and even clothing by folding bags accordion-style from the side, then cutting loops and hooking them together to make yarn.
  • Pillow stuffing: Pack them in and zip.
  • Packing material: Better than Bubble Wrap?
  • Child's smock: Split the bag from top to bottom between the handles and use as a smock, putting arms through handles and close with a clip.
  • Doggie business: Use them for pooper scoopers.
  • Cutting boards: Chop away, then dispose.
  • Rope: Loop them together.
  • Gardener's friend: Use them to double-bag poison ivy, or when weeding.
  • Overshoes: Tie them around your shoes, keep them clean and dry.
  • Plastic pants: Put over baby's diaper in an emergency.
  • Halloween dummies: Stuff them with bags, not straw.
  • Disposable gloves: Great for handling the grimy or gross.
  • Paintbrush holder: Wrap up your wet paintbrush.
  • In the car: Contain the trash, or be ready for carsickness.
  • Garage sales and flea markets: Sellers and buyers need them.
  • On a walk: Pick up litter.

There are lots of clever ways to store and dispense the bags, too, including with empty paper towel rolls and plastic coffee containers (put a slit in the top). One of our favorites: Put two or three bags in a pill bottle and stick in your purse or diaper bag.

Some grocery stores offer a discount to shoppers who bring their own bags (reusable or plastic); others charge you for new ones. Whole Foods Market, for example, stopped using plastic bags a year ago. (Paper bags are still available.) Customers who bring reusable bags get a 10-cent credit per bag.

And don't forget: The bags are recyclable. Many supermarkets and big-box stores provide bins.