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Photo courtesy of Susanna Donato
A low down on plastic pollution and some creative ways to keep those bags in check.

Plastic bags, the scourge of our planet. On the one hand, plastic bags are innocuous carriers of stuff. We use them to bring home groceries. A restaurateur ties them carefully around our take-out soup to prevent spills. They keep the wet swimsuit from soaking our clothes in an overnight bag.

Yet they also serve as the modern marker of impending doom. In movies or photographs, every bad neighborhood, every empty stretch of road where evil is surely soon to invade, is populated by a plastic bag impaled on a barbed-wire fence or blowing listlessly across the street.

Photo by Samuel Mann

Plastic Damage

That doom, of course, also applies to our planet. Only about 12 percent of plastic bags and film were reused or recycled in 2007, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The rest were discarded. Plastic bags are lodged in our waterways, creating irreversible harm to animals on a physical level — bags in stomachs or around necks — and on a molecular level as the bags disintegrate, the chemicals they release into the environment can create hormonal changes in living things.

While China has banned plastic bags — reportedly saving 1.6 million tons of petroleum for bag production in just one year — most of the rest of us are offered plastic bags daily. Reduce your plastic-bag impact on the world by taking personal action.

How to Keep the Plastic in Check

First, just don’t take a bag – Bring your own with you. If you travel by car, keep a stash of reusable bags in the car. Carry a knapsack or messenger bag where you can stash purchases. Invest in a few expandable string or nylon bags. Bring along reusable mesh produce bags for fruits and veggies, and reusable muslin bags for bulk buys.

What if the deed is done? Put your stash of bags to good use by reusing them. Here are seven ideas to get you started.

Line the trash

Many people reuse plastic bags as small trash can liners. But don’t use this as a reason to get bags, necessarily — we avoid accepting plastic bags and leave our trash cans unlined, putting all our trash into one larger, recycled plastic bag that we dump each week. It doesn’t smell, because we compost our degradable waste.

Fuse your own plastic “fabric”

If you have a stack of bags, an iron and some parchment or other non-waxed paper, you can fuse layers of plastic bags together to make waterproof linings for other bags, floor cushions, and more. Be sure to open a window and maybe even wear a respiratory mask to keep the fumes out of your body. Watch a tutorial, and visit Craft for ideas of what to do with the fabric — like making a raincoat!

Fill a flowerpot

You can crumple up plastic bags to put in the bottom of a flowerpot, before filling with potting soil. The pot will be lighter, have easier drainage and require less dirt. Best for non-edible annual plants.

Be ready for emergencies

Throw one or two in your bag or luggage to keep dirty shoes off your packed clothes, or keep your notebook dry even with a damp umbrella in the same bag.

Make plarn

If you’re a knitter or crocheter, consider slicing and dicing bags into plastic yarn, or “plarn.” See a tutorial here from Helle Jorgensen, who crochets phenomenal plastic sea creatures from old bags.

Recycle the bags – and other plastic

While the EPA reports that only about 6.8 percent of all plastics were recycled in 2008, many communities now have drop-off sites that accept plastic bags for recycling. And “filmy” plastic includes more than just grocery sacks. In the same bin, you can return dry cleaning bags, shrink-wrap from boxes, clean plastic wrap, newspaper bags or any lightweight plastic to be turned into another product, like lumber, garbage bags or milk jugs.

Buy recycled plastic

If you must buy plastic bags — to carry away major garbage, for instance — buy recycled.

Community Connection

Several countries have banned (or taxed) plastic bags in an effort to reduce plastic bag usage. To learn more check out our page on green living.



About The Author

Susanna Donato

Susanna is based in Denver, Colorado, where she writes, knits, cooks, raises her daughter and drinks beer with her husband. She bought a good tent this year to spend more time getting up close with some of the most beautiful places in the US. She covers living well, cheaply and green at her blog Cheap Like Me.

  • JoAnna

    When I was visiting South Korea, people had to pay for their plastic bags at the grocery store. I think that plastic bags in America are just too easy to get and not consider. If we stores started charging for plastic bags, I’m sure people would be a lot more conscious about how many they were using and go out of their way to reuse the bags they have.

  • Nancy

    I agree completely JoAnna. That’s one of my dream policies for the US. Works in other countries and would make people more aware here.

  • Andy Hayes

    Surprising – I thought it was like that everywhere! Absolutely, pay for the bags..

    • Leigh Shulman

      It’s amazing that they don’t require you to purchase bags in the US. Even places like Whole Foods, which does have the option of buying reusable bags, still gives away the paper and plastic for free.

      I suppose forcing consumers to buy plastic bags would send customers to another store that gives them for free.

      Even so, come on people, please!

      • Susanna

        We do have a small, locally owned natural foods grocery chain in my area (“small,” but they still have 15-20 locations in the state) that has decided to eliminate bags. You can buy reusable bags at the store, of course you can bring your own, or you can have a box — but they just don’t have bags at all. I think it’s fantastic.

  • Candice Walsh

    Same with France! It was funny because no one really seemed willing to buy the “bag for life” bags. I saw some guys riding bicycles and carrying cartons of drinks loaded down with other stuff too. Hilarious.

  • Sabina

    Great suggestions!! I go to such lengths to avoid using the things. I shove some of what I buy into my purse and carry other things in my hands out to my car rather than wasting bags. It almost hurts to see how cavalierly people use them.

    • Susanna

      Yes, and it hurts more after you’ve tried to eliminate them! It can feel as if every bag others use undoes a little bit of your efforts …

    • Leigh Shulman

      I have a collection of reusable bags from just about everywhere I’ve lived, and I drag them around with me when I travel or move too.

      One thing I’ve noticed, sometimes people think it’s weird. But sometimes vendors at local markets give me better prices and are happy not to have to use up their supply of plastic bags for my purchases.

  • Trisha Miller

    It’s a horrible quandary that we’re presented with at the stores – more plastic in our landfills or cut down more trees for paper bags? But until the stores start charging for bags – and not some piddly 5 cents per bag, too, enough that folks are really compelled to buy and use canvas and other reusable bags – people will still be making a choice that is bad either way.

    But if you DO use plastic bags, be sure that if you’re lining your trash can with them, you DON’T tie them off when you discard them for your garbage pickup – that just interferes with the biodegradability of the [paper and other degradable] trash inside.

    And I do have to give at least some kudos to the plastic industry – at least they are trying to create plastic that will biodegrade, I just wish they’d try harder!

    • Susanna

      Alas, not to be a bummer, but even biodegradable plastic isn’t a great solution … someone pointed out to me that it just creates small bits of plastic that can more easily get into the environment, which could cause untold problems. On the good side, I guess it would help with your point of allowing the contents to degrade — but reportedly, much U.S. garbage is in anaerobic landfills where it can’t degrade, anyway.

  • Leigh Shulman

    Another great use for plastic bags. There’s a group in Panama that pays people to collect the bags. Then pays other people to treat the plastic and weave the bags into handbags.

    I bought about 10 of them before we moved. Gave them away as gifts and also kept a few for myself. The group had been talking about marketing them in the US and elsewhere at a high markup – which would still be cheap by US standards — with proceeds going directly to the collectors and weavers.

    Here’s a post with more info on it:

    • Trisha Miller

      Fantastic program – the bags are lovely and what a terrific way to get them out of the ecosystem…it would be great if they could start some sort of program to collect plastic bags from the US as well…..I see collection bins in many grocery stores, and I’ll bet that more people would recycle their bags there if they knew it was going to help other people in the process of recycling them.

  • Heather Carreiro

    I’ve been completely overwhelmed with the amount of plastic bags I’ve accumulated after just 6 months of being back in the U.S. Thanks for the reminder to get a handle on that situation!

  • Andrea Collisson

    I am happy to have stumbled upon your article. I am especially inspired by the idea of knitting plastic bags. The potential there is excellent. Beyond toys, wallpictures would be great in the hands of talented creatives. I am not a knitter though unfortunately but would love to see this idea in particular spread to those who are ardent knitters.

    About your main idea though. Why stop at plastic bags? Coming home from 6 months in India where plastic upsets us foreigners more because its thrown on the street without a thought and there’s almost no garbage disposal, i’ve just noticed at home, that we should be more upset about what we do here since practically everything we do seems to involve the use of buying plastic, especially in the kitchen. But one thing we can do more about is to somehow find ways to reduce the plastic we buy when we buy takeaway food. I was in India when I started to think more about this and wish i could do something to change the course of the future (with regard to the use of plastics). I thought about how we really need to an alternative to takeaway food containers of all sorts. As individuals, we can try to take along our own cup and plate and ask the servers to put the food in that. That is, of course as well as buying less of the stuff in the first place.

    • Susanna

      You are so right. The issue of creating plastic waste in the first place is disturbing, and it’s the hardest to get rid of, so it mounts up. For takeout — you can buy stainless tiffins and use those. We have one we keep in the car so we can run out and grab it if we’re at a restaurant and have leftovers. It’s thrilling to avoid the styrofoam box or plastic clamshell, and it gets a lot of comments.

  • vikas

    just I wanna ask a question that, we can reduce the using of plastic bags but how can we reduce the using of plastic in the manufacture of water bottle & some cold drinks ?

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