My Crazy Mixed Up Plastic Bags

Plastic BagIn recent months, I have been making an effort to use reusable bags for my shopping. Believe it or not, despite the barrage of mass marketing that has indicated that I can single handedly save the planet merely by scoffing at the often asked philosophical question of “paper or plastic?”, I am not doing this to go green. I have 3 totally not environmentally related reasons:

  1. Money — Plastic bags cost the retail industry a small fortune every year. Since these bags are provided “free”, the cost gets handed to back to us in the cost of the item. On top of that, it costs money to dispose of plastic bags when you are done with them. Many people may think that the nice garbage men stop by your house because they are trash fairies with a chronic problem, but this is simply not the case. You pay taxes and your taxes pay the trashmen (or women, just to be PC). I know, I am being just a bit unrealistic in thinking that either the store or the city would be so kind as to return that money to me now that I am using reusable bags, but a girl can dream, cant’s she?
  2. Resources — This past summer gas cost $4 a gallon and threatened with a sawed off shotgun to go to $5. My natural gas bill is now big enough that it rivals the operating budgets of small countries. While granted, the plastic for plastic bags is a by-product of petroleum and natural gas, I really think it is time we weaned ourselves off the non-renewable resource crack pipe all together. I often shutter to think what would happen if we somehow pissed off the Saudis. And no matter how you look at it, there is only so much of it left. Sure, maybe we have enough to use them for the next 200 years, but do you really want to have to tell your great-great-great-grandkid that the reason they are just SOL on the natural resources front is because YOU felt the need to carry your Twinkies home in a onetime use bag? I did not think so.
  3. Space — You might think that I am going to say landfill space, but I fooled you. I am not. I am talking about the space in my kitchen. I am a Scottish packrat. You think that I am going to throw a perfectly good plastic bag in the trash!?! No way. I am going to keep it and use it as a trash bag, or a lunch bag or a suitcase (they love me at security, I can tell you that). Problem is that I had more plastic bags than I could actually ever use and half of my kitchen was lost to an avalanche of plastic. We still can’t find one of the kids.

Long and short of it, I decided that enough was enough and started carrying reusable bags (at least until I have used up my current horde of plastic bags and we finally local the missing offspring).

And, much to my dismay, using reusable bags comes with its own set of problems. *sigh*

Given that every store from here to China has been touting (or would that be toting?) these “green” bags, I am surprised by this.

I am sure you have seen these bags for sale. You know, the ones where they advertise that you can save the planet, combat evil and avenge the deaths of lemmings, all while getting low, low prices. Never mind that the silly things could barely fit a carton of eggs, let alone a week’s worth of groceries… But I digress. Let’s just say that I did not buy my reusable bags from these stores (I am fortunate enough to have several awesome Ikea bags.)

While the store owner thought far enough ahead to offer these useless little totes, they failed to think far enough ahead to actually explain to their employees what the hell they were for. My reusable bags are often met with a combination of bafflement, annoyance and occasional open hostility.

Through the use of reusable bags, I have learned that one of the most disdainful things you can do to a cashier is to disrupt her workflow (which is apparently only slightly less disdainful than interrupting the riveting conversation she was having with the cashier next to her simply because you would like to pay and leave the store). Some of the cashiers so thoroughly fail to grasp the point of reusable bags that they will attempt to place the groceries in the plastic bags before placing them in my reusable bags. One cashier insisted that he might lose his job if my groceries were not safely and hygienically ensconced in plastic upon leaving..

So this is the current state of reusable bags, at least here in Cleveland. You are crazy if you use ’em and crazy if you don’t.

38 thoughts on “My Crazy Mixed Up Plastic Bags
  1. Marci on

    Nope, that’s about the state of reusable bags here in Dallas, too. I am constantly dumbfounded that I have to explain to every cashier what the bag I’ve handed them is for.
    *sigh*

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  2. Rachel on

    I have been carrying reusable bags to grocery stores for over a year now. I usually put them on the belt before the groceries so that they get filled instead of the plastic ones. Chain stores are more of a problem and I usually don’t even try. I still need a very small supply of disposable bags for my husband’s lunch as I have yet to find a reusable one he will carry. Even if I did find one he would lose it the first time he didn’t have dishes to bring home. I got a couple bags from Trader Joes that are larger then the average ‘green’ bag I have seen. I save them for the multiple boxes of cereal or loaves of bread.

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  3. In Boston, it depends on where you go, but even in places where you are rewarded a few cents for each reusable bag you bring, you have to jump in and tell them at the beginning of the transaction that you have brought your own bags, because, like you said, they have this flow and will automatically put each item in its own plastic bag if you don’t make a little noise.

    I’m impressed that at IKEA, they don’t even offer throwaway bags…

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  4. I’ve been doing the reusable bags down here in Akron now for over two years. The places I shop have learned to deal with me and my bags. Lots of times I bag my own groceries while the clerk scans the items.

    The thing that never ceases to amaze me is how ingrained a habit it is to reach for a plastic bag. The clerk’s motions are on autopilot as s/he turns to dip into the plastic bag and open it up for the next load of groceries. I’ve learned to plop my bags quickly on the counter ahead of my groceries so that the clerk sees right away that the routine is now going to be broken.

    If you ask me, all three reasons you give above for not using plastic bags are appropriately environmental or “green” if you want. Thrifty with resources is a very good practice for all of us and I do think it can lead to an opening of eyes as to all the waste that goes on daily.

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  5. Holly on

    I try to put them on the belt before my purchases and offer to bag items myself. If the cashier is on autopilot and reaches for plastic, (s)he usually corrects her/himself quickly. My favorite part about the reusable bags is how many cat food cans I can cram into one without having to worry about the bag breaking. Yes, sad, I know.

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  6. I am a big fan of the Meijer reusable bags. The big advantage to these bags are that they have a flat bottom. It is extremely difficult for the cashier to ring items up and try to put them into a bag that isn’t standing up, it requires 3 hands! The cashiers where I shop are very good with these bags, as long as you have them on the belt first.

    I sometimes have to encourage the cashier to put more in the bag however, because they really hold a lot and can get quite heavy, but I prefer it that way. I also like to have a small box in my cart to put my fresh fruits and vegetables in instead of those awful little produce bags. Then I just put the veggies on the belt and have the cashier put them in the box after ringing.

    I was a cashier for 3 years, and you are right about being on autopilot, but try to remember, the cashier is timed from the minute they ring the first item to the time payment is completed. If you make things easy for them it will help them alot.

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  7. I am happy to say that over here in jolly ol’ England things are a bit better. While most of the supermarkets still offer disposable bags they are not supposed to display them, and they have trained their cashiers to ask ‘do you have your own bags with you?’ Which if you have a tendency towards a guilt complex, like I do, means that if I forgot then I have to apologise that no, I forgot them this time and feel like a doofus.

    And also, the reusable bags are a decent size and are often made of canvas, which can hold a whole lot of tin-cans without the handles breaking! You might rip your arms off trying to lift them, but that’s another problem entirely.

    AND, seeing that it has got to the stage where a lot of the stores are going for the ‘greener than thou’ status you even find bags made of recycled pop bottles, or fair-trade organic cotton! And they’re pretty too, and not always covered in logos, so you can use them without feeling like a bag lady trying to earn her daily bread from advertising!

    So anyway, it takes time, it takes persistence, but it does happen eventually. Take heart!

    If only reusing bags was enough to ‘save the planet’… unfortunately (fortunately?) my guilt complex extends much further than forgetting my bags!

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  8. Here in Montana it’s catching on — for the first six months of the year or so the checkers at the big grocery were always a little off their game if you brought your own bag, but they’re catching on. And our other grocery store has always offered recycled boxes as an alternative to bags — they’re known for low prices, and they cut back on offering bags years ago. Funny thing was I was in Seattle last week, and since I drove, I stocked up at Trader Joes and the Asian grocery — I kept apologizing for not having my own bags — they were in my kitchen in MT. It was sort of funny how guilty I felt after a year of really working to take my own bags with me.

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  9. Here in St. Louis, my local Schnuck’s just ran a drawing for a bicycle that could only be entered if you brought your reusable bag(s). So the idea is catching on. We’ve been using a reusable bag from Whole Foods for a couple years now, its canvas and holds a ton.

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  10. In Davis it is the norm for people to bring their own bags and the cashiers never think twice. Most stores even ask if you need a bag if you’re only buying one thing…expecting you to say no. But that’s why some people call Davis the City of AL Things Right and Relevant, even thought it’s not always meant as a compliment.

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  11. I’ve been using my reusable bags for a while now. I had some canvas totes from trade shows I attended, and made a larger tote bag from a pillowcase. recently I purchased two bags from walmart which are really good.

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  12. Shayna on

    I have been using reusable bags for several reasons, one being that I hate having a large supply of plastic ones under my kitchen sink. But I must say I agree that the reaction of cashiers is something else. It takes them twice as long to bag the groceries and they look way too confused. Perhaps these stores should be training them on how to handle such a perplexing situation.

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  13. Here in southern Louisiana we are still trying to get the grocers to understand that we aren’t asking them to to cut their right arm off, just to use OUR bags, not theirs. I decided to make my own about a year ago out of re-purposed vinyl wallcovering (commercial grade wallpaper). They are just as big as brown paper bag and hold tons. I, too, have to tell the cashiers to fill them to the brim. I recently created a new, smaller eco-tote that I had letterpressed by an artist friend. Check them out on etsy: http://www.etsy.com/shop.php?user_id=5185597
    They should be up on my real website in about a week, http://www.urban-kitty.com.

    On another note, I really enjoy your blog and even have you in my blogroll on my blog, http://green.urban-kitty.com. Even though I don’t eat tomatoes, I enjoy reading about your tastings. Keep up the good work!

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  14. Michele McHenry on

    Rachel Says:
    December 3rd, 2008 at 10:34 pm
    I still need a very small supply of disposable bags for my husband’s lunch as I have yet to find a reusable one he will carry. Even if I did find one he would lose it the first time he didn’t have dishes to bring home. I got a couple bags from Trader Joes that are larger then the average ‘green’ bag I have seen. I save them for the multiple boxes of cereal or loaves of bread.

    Had to laugh, you sound like US! Papa finally found a lunch bag he carries and loves..it is HUGE and insulated. I also love the bags from Trader Joes..My daughter works there, especially the insulated ones. But, I have not yet purchased one! Why? Because for years I worked at a Cancer Center and recieved so many different types of totes of every kind through the years, it is not necessary to buy. I got HUGE plastic ones that fold up and snap closed with heavy duty handles. I can pile in big bottles of juice and cans to where I can’t lift it, but, Papa can!
    And since we are in the PNW, tree hugger land..I never have problems when I whip them out of my little wheeled walker that has all kinds of pockets and storage itself! I think most the cashiers are happy since I usually will do my own bagging, if I don’t go through the self checkouts. Which I love! The only thing is you can’t put the bags on the counter since the computer has a fit and says to remove it. So, I just pile up stuff on the counter, them bag after.
    I am hoping one day to buy some fancy, “Green” bags, especially ones that don’t say “Viagra” on the sides!
    I did find that we got ourselves into a pickle when we ran out of the shopping bags, since we used them for small trash cans and for picking up doggy droppings. So, we had to spend extra money for the biodegradable pet bags..that are not cheap! (sometimes we grab a few extras they provide at parks that the city and Port provide, hey, that is what they are for..I am sure they don’t mind!) And are using cheap plastic trash cans that fit into our “designer” trash cans and just wash them out.
    But, during the cold season, I do ask for Paper bags. Since we do not get or buy newspapers, we use the paper bags to start fires. The bags usually just one, and the pine cones I pick up and collect are the best fire starters you can ever get. The pine cones work, even without the bags! Since I always forget to ask for paper!
    We do keep a cooler in the car, and take those reusable frozen packs to help keep the milk and cream cold when running errands, now that we make sure to run all our errands at one time. Even with gas prices down, every penny counts, especially being disabled and unable to work.
    Ok…I talk to much. Happy holidays!

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  15. A couple months ago I went to Marcs to pick up a few items and since I had forgotten to bring one of my totes with me I bought one of their reuseable bags. While I was digging around in my purse to find my wallet I missed the moment where my cashier put my just purchased reuseable bag into a plastic bag so I could take it home with me. Ridiculous.

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  16. patty on

    I’ve been using reusable bags for about a year now. These are the ones that I use:
    http://www.reusablebags.com/store/acme-bagsâ„¢-workhorse-style-1501-black-mesh-p-906.html
    They really are the best! They scrunch into themselves to a very small size. I carry 3 of them in my purse all the time. They hold an amazing amount of stuff. You are right about the cashiers, many of them are clueless (it seems to me to be related to the number of facial piercings, the more they have the worse it is, as if that’s where the brains/common sense leaks out) Usually, I just pack them myself, which annoys them no end.

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  17. I use regular plastic bags in periods, and after bringing the groceries home I simply use the bag as a bin liner. When I have enough bin-liners I take my textile bag to the stores!

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  18. Kimberly on

    I don’t have this problem. I put my bags at the front of my groceries. The local cashiers and baggers use them with out question. The problem I have is the opposite of others. I need them to NOT fill them up, because it hurts my hands to lift them even with the comfortable handles.

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  19. It is true as a retailer these bags add up and the cost is passed on. I have some of the fabric bags but the hardest part of the transition is remembering to bring the bags back with you. Usually they end up staying back at the house. They are not quite as comefortable as the plastic bags I agree.

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  20. Hi, catching up on my blog reading. We’re lucky here, in that one of the major stores has actually discontinued plastic bags and discounts for reuseable or paper ones that you bring in yourself. The result–the other stores are following suit. Their bags, like Trader Joe’s, are actually roomier than most paper bags. My biggest challenge is remembering to take them in!

    On a related note: do you use those resuseable green produce bags that are supposed to keep produce fresh longer? They seem to work ok–on the other hand, my husband is a little bemused by the sight of plastic bags drying in the dish drainer . . .

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  21. Hanna on

    You know, I have tried to put the bags at the front of the belt, to try to drop the hint that I will be using them and 5 out of 10 times the cashier will attempt to ring the bag up and is truely perplexed when the register does not ring it.

    Another 1 or 2 out of 10 simply move the bags out of the way and continue as usual.

    I have just taken to waving the bags in front of the cashier before they start to scan to make sure I catch them in time.

    I am glad to know that I am not the only one with this problem.

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  22. I watch thrift stores and garage sales for canvas bags with the webbing handles. I have found some in “free” boxes. I have all sizes from mini to LARGE. They fit inside one another and I can usually estimate which ones will work best from my list. After I unpack them at home, they go by my purse for the next time I go out to the car.

    I have had to educate the local checkers what they are for. After almost a year of doing this, most know me and my bags.

    At the self-check stands I try to go to the one nearest the Associate so they can over-ride the system when it detects my bag on the bagging station.

    Good post!

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  23. Wow, don’t have that cahsier problem here in Nebraska. But we do sometimes either forget to put the bags back in the car, or to bring them into the store. Luckily, both places we go recycle their bags (if you bring them back–how many people do? Judging by the 30 gallon container not many). You know, if all grocery stores, at once, stopped using plastic bags and made us buy a couple re-usable ones–and after a few months of flak–everything would be good. I mean, plenty of other businesses forces stuff on us. Look at how ice cream costs more but is in a small container. Same goes for pop, nuts, beans….

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  24. Re-usable bags hit Australia in a big way about 4 years ago and became standard in the space of about a month, after one of the major national newspapers offered one free with every issue of their Saturday edition. Suddenly, every household had one, and suddenly everyone was using them all the time. The supermarkets all started stocking them near the registers and they are now absolutely standard- have never encountered an odd reaction from a cashier for using them.

    We seem to call them ‘green bags’ even when they’re not green because that first flood of them was a particular bright green that became quite iconic. Every household I know of has a stash of ‘green bags’ for the shopping next to the stash of re-usable plastic bags that get used for the trash, and are accumulated on the rare occasions you forget to take your green bags to the shop with you.

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  25. In the Netherlands they are so green conscious it gives me headache at times. In the supermarkets you can bring your own bags (they have the belt going further after checking out so that you can put your groceries in your own way), you can buy a plastic one or a hard duty with a flat bottom one (Ikea bags beat them easily as they are bigger and you van hang them on your shoulder).

    Some supermarkets even place a plastic container where you can bring your surplus bags from home, for others to use without having to buy one.

    But it’s a small country, as everybody else in Europe we pay gas per liter about the amount you Americans pay per gallon (that is 4 and a bit times as much) so we are more than conscious that garbage ends up someplace.

    But really, you destroyed my myth of the service-culture at cashiers coutners in the USA. I mean, placing your groceries in the bag for you it is great service we are not used to (although a bit patronizing in my opinion, I am not handicapped and I know better what is practical for me to place first or last in a bag), but hey, they are not supposed to contradict you on which bags you use? I am surprised by this.

    Anyway, they are experimenting a lot with self-service checkouts and I find it a great idea.

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  26. Marci on

    Personally, unless I am using the self-checkout line (which I do when its an option), I expect a cashier or bagger to bag my items for me. After all, they are the one getting paid for working there, not me. But that’s just my opinion!

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  27. Since I do my grocery shopping where I have to do my own bagging, they are not a problem for me. The biggest problem for me is to get others in the house to use them (and remembering to use them in stores other than the grocery).

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  28. Michele McHenry on

    Since I love the self check outs I was glad to hear they could over ride the weight to provide for my bags. I like doing it myself..there are usually no lines! Plus I can pack how I like.
    It took me a while to remember to bring them with us, but, now we keep them by the door and put them in the car, when ever we go out so they are there. And since my rolling walker has pouches on it…I just stick them in there. Now I have to find out or invent something to use for my small trash cans since I don’t have the plastic ones anymore. Maybe biodegradable bags, like the poop bags.
    Great blog! Love reading all the responses.

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  29. We are a blue collar family and much as I love Whole Foods for the bulk grains, we buy most of our groceries at Aldi’s and local Vegetable/Fruit Market.

    Now Aldi’s policy is that you have to pay to use your own shopping cart, bag your own groceries and pay for any plastic or paper bags used from their store. Now, if any grocery stores got it right, this one does. BTW – they also own the more upscale Trader Joes which is another “green minded” grocery store. The majority, not the minority of people coming in to Aldis bring their own bags, paper, plastic, cloth, old lady shopping carts and sometimes boxes to cart their groceries away. This keeps costs down – especially important these days.

    My method is to bring my own cloth bags and then anything that doesn’t fit into the bags just gets carefully stacked unbagged into the trunk and hey this is why I have 3 kids, they are in charge of unloading car I’m no worse for it.

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  30. Michele McHenry on

    My daughter works at Trader Joes…it is a fabulous store and have the insulated reusable bags that I would like to have.

    But, does anyone remember how they use to do it back in the days before paper bags? They would use baskets. But, they only work if you are going for just a few items now. You use it to as the shopping cart and then your bag to carry them home. I have often wanted to do this when getting my produce at the produce stand…but, always forget to have one with me.

    Love baskets! But, not the real expensive ones.

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  31. Sam’s Club doesn’t have bags, but you can use leftover packaging boxes if you want.

    I like paper bags, personally–they don’t fall over in the car. With plastic bags, I end up with tomatoes and lemons rolling all over my car, every time.

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  32. I picked up the habit of reusable bags after visiting England. Here in Austin, Whole Foods offers a discount of 5 cents a bag if your bring your own. But reusables didn’t really catch on until about a year ago when HEB gave away 20,000 bags to people who brought their plastics to trade.

    These foldable bags with a plastic bottom insert are much tougher and more capacious than any old plastic or paper bag. I first started using them to be green but now use them because they are by far the best way to get groceries home.

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  33. I’m late as usual, Hanna, to your timely and thoughtful post. Philo & I still have a few of the original cloth bags sold by High School ecology groups in the late 1980’s-early 1990’s, but they didn’t catch on with the stores or the shoppers. For one thing they were tall and deep instead of broadbased. The newer bags have the longest side running horizontally instead of vertically, and I think MSS is right, that their ability to fold up and reinforcing inserts for the bottom makes a huge difference. The cans and bottles fit better and stuff doesn’t get squashed.

    The stores have better attitudes now, too. Dotted around the parking lot of my Austin grocery stores, signs remind you to bring in your green bags, the staff is practiced and some places sell a slightly more expensive ziptop version with insulation for cold food. That’s a real plus in Texas, where a January day like today can top 80 degrees.

    Happy 2009, Hanna – tomato days will come again.

    Annie at the Transplantable Rose

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  34. Another big waste of plastic is the clear bags people put their vegetables in, even if they buy just 2 tomatoes. For some reason nobody talks about these! I bought some fruits and veggies prebagged in those red plastic net type bags that are very light. I’m taking those to the grocery store with me as well, so I don’t bring home ANY plastic bags at all!

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  35. robyn on

    In Australia they are phasing out the plastic bag so we are getting used to bringing the reusable ones with us to the shops. Actually.. thinking about it, it might only be in South Australia, where I live. Anyway.. they have advertised it heaps and the shops have signs everywhere but people still forget their bags and get pissed off at not being able to get plastic. Pretty funny. I’m aiming to go all year without forgetting my bags.. so far so good!

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  36. Denise Markowitz on

    I love using the green bags sold in the supermarkets and now even Target/WalMart sells them. I have a (ridiculous) problem that I can’t seem to find an answer to. What happens when these bags fall apart? Do you throw them out, recycle at the curbside with plastic or put them in the plastic bag recycling bins at the supermarket? I’ve got quite a few that have their wear & tear beyond repair. What is everyone doing with them?

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