Paper or Plastic? Tips to Reduce the Use of Plastic Bags

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Globe in plastic bagThe average grocery store goes through thousands of plastic bags everyday. At home, consumers use hundreds of zip lock and sandwich plastic bags to bag lunches, store food in the refrigerator, etc. All this adds up to an unbelievable amount of plastic waste. In fact, according to the Wall Street Journal, the United States goes through 100 billion plastic grocery bags annually!

Plastic bags endanger wildlife

Disposable plastic bags don’t only increase the amount of waste we produce, they also endanger animals that can get snared in them and suffocate.

But plastic can be recycled, right?

Yes, plastic can be recycled, but remember that for any material that is recycled there will be a byproduct of waste that cannot be recycled. There is no way to recycle 100% of something and thereby create no waste.

That being said, it’s not very difficult for you to make a difference and curtail your plastic bag use.

Tips to reduce the use of plastic bags

Here are some tips to reduce your use of plastic bags:

  • Use re-usable and washable plastic containers (Tupperware or Pyrex) instead of disposable plastic bags to store food and pack lunches.
  • Use re-usable cloth grocery bags and decline plastic bags at your local grocery store checkout
  • Use self-checkout to reduce bag usage, and decline bags when you can carry your grocery items in your hands

Ways to utilize the plastic bags you already have

For the plastic bags you already have collected, here’s ways to use them instead of trashing them:

  • Use your plastic bags to pick up animal (dog) poop
  • Donate the plastic bags to animal shelters or dog parks
  • Use them in place of paper when doing work around the house such as painting
  • Keep some in your car in case of emergencies
  • Use them to collect trash when you’re camping – and take the trash with you
  • Return them to your local grocery store – they can be re-used and sometimes recycled
About The Author:

Alex loves nature and does his best to take care of the planet. He doesn't take for granted the serenity that can be found in the stillness of an ancient forest, or the majestic power of the ocean's large waves as they crash on an isolated island shoreline. He wants to raise awareness for how simple it can be to make a couple changes in your everyday life that can make a huge difference for the environment in the long term.

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June 12, 2018 9:56 am

#BeatPlasticPollution Plastics are ubiquitous. Plastics has made its way to every field we can think of – automobile, construction, electronics, healthcare, textile,toys, home appliances, agriculture to name a few. Plastics have become an integral part of modern kitchen.

plastic is not good idk
March 1, 2017 4:56 pm

plastic bags are not very we;ll for the enviroment

Kathy Faust
October 6, 2012 1:12 pm

I actually saw someone online post how she felt it was terrible to enforce plastic bag bans. I was shocked. The fact that people care so little for the environment is just sad. The truth is though the only way we’re going to manage to get people to stop using plastic bags is to ban them or make people pay for them. I honestly wish my state would ban the use of plastic bags. It would force me to remember my canvas bags and stop relying on plastic bags.

The good news is that while I do use plastic bags, I do make sure that I reuse them around the home. There are so many ways you can use plastic bags. Whether you’re trying to avoid buying small trash bags or want a new craft material, plastic bags can be reused. For example, if you’re crocheting stuffed animals for display, stuff them with plastic bags instead of stuffing. Not only is this cheaper, but it’s also an easy way to help out the environment.

People may be against a plastic bag ban, but I’m all for it. Let’s ditch the bags and start being more responsible for our planet. After all, it’s the only place we have to live.

Kathy Faust
September 13, 2012 12:03 pm

I hate to admit this, but I have several canvas bags for groceries, yet I never remember to take them to the store or, if I do, I don’t remember to take them in. I think a lot of people are the same way. I was recently speaking with a cashier who said the same thing. I believe that the only way we’ll have people on board is if we eliminate the use of plastic and paper bags. People would certainly remember their reusable bags after just one trip without them.

I like that this article points out that it’s not just as simple as recycling the bags. People think that using plastic bags doesn’t matter as long as they put them in the recycling bin. That isn’t the case. Unless you’re able to use the bags for something that would eliminate the need for other materials, you’re causing a problem.

Because I don’t remember to bring my canvas bags along, I do find ways to reuse plastic bags. The easiest way to reuse them is in small trash cans throughout the house. This eliminates the need to purchase small trash can liners. I also use the bags in place of tissue paper at the holidays. Why buy paper that will just get tossed when you can use bags?

Kathy Faust
September 7, 2012 7:01 am

I love that this article pointed out that there are byproducts whenever something is recycled. People just assume that if they recycle their plastic bags, it’s okay to use them. Unfortunately, that isn’t the case. Whenever I have a small purchase, I ask that the item not be bagged. I wish I could say that I use tote bags, but I’m not good at remembering them. However, when I shop at flea markets, I do take purchases out to the car throughout the day so I don’t need bags. Something that has disturbed me though is that a flea market I shop at now requires sellers to put items in plastic bags to help discourage shoppers from stealing. Talk about bad for the environment.

Thankfully, there are a number of ways we can reuse plastic bags. One method I find fascinating is crochet. I’ve seen people crochet purses and rugs out of plastic bags and they look really cute. I have yet to learn how to crochet so I just reuse bags around the home. For example, instead of buying bags for small trash cans, I just reuse my plastic shopping bags. I also use plastic bags as a packing material.

July 25, 2012 11:13 pm

The author points out that while it is possible to recycle certain types of plastic material (which was a bit of a surprise to me; I thought plastic was not truly able to be recycled), there are still by products created by the process. These by products cause damage to our environment. Not to mention the fact that in many cases, animals can become trapped and ensnared in plastic materials.

The author provides a number of helpful tips about ways in which to reduce the use of plastic bags. One of my favorites is to employ reusable plastic containers. These are things like tupperware or rubbermaid containers which can be washed and reused. These make great substitutes for the typical ziploc bags in terms of food storage. Use these for packing and carrying lunches or even when taking dinners to friends or for a party. Of course, another tip is to simply not use the plastic bags offered at the grocery store. The author points out that is possible to obtain our own reusable cloth bag for this purpose. I would imagine the papers bags work just as well.

July 22, 2012 3:55 am

I was intrigued by this article, since I had never really even considered alternatives to using plastic bags. I suppose I was not really aware of how extensive this problem is. I had just assumed that when I put these bags out in the recycling pile that was it. I am truly amazed that there is still a fair amount of waste produced even after recycling plastic bags.

Some of the tips given by the author are very interesting. One of the ones I plan to put into practice myself is to just simply reduce the number of plastic bags I use at stores. This includes convenience stores as well as at the grocery and supermarket. Oftentimes, I will walk in to just pick up one or two items. These could easily be carried out in my hands, or even with a small book bag. I also plan on gathering up the plastic bags that I already have. I will take the advice given by the author and keep some on hand in the cars for emergencies. The rest will be returned to the grocery store or recycled directly.

Kathy Faust
July 21, 2012 8:26 pm

Lately I have been in a craft kick. I know that not everything we send to the recycling bin actually gets recycled. They do what they can, but there is still waste and byproducts from the recycling process. So I decided to start doing more crafting and less dropping off at the recycling bin. I have the most fun doing this if I can do it with my son.

Recently, we made a chain of plastic bags. Then we hung the chain right below his ceiling in his bedroom. Then he hung some of his action figures from the chain. It was a really simple project, but it served more than one purpose. For one thing, the dog keeps eating his action figures so this keeps them out of the reach of the dog.

Now my son also gets to look up at his action figures during bed time and imagine them flying because they are up in the air. I remember doing that with my dolls when I was a kid, so I totally understand this. But the plastic bag project also prompted my son to come up with some ore ideas concerning what we can do with our plastic bags.

July 19, 2012 9:47 pm

This article assumes that most people are aware that plastic bags are not able to be recycled. This is a problem because plastic is one of the most widely and commonly used materials in the world today. The author correctly points out that the use of plastic bags (this could also include a number of other types of plastic products as well) is creating a tremendous amount of waste. The Wall Street Journal has reported that in the USA, we use over 100 billion plastic bags each year. That is truly amazing.

Actually, that statistic makes me wonder how many people truly realize that plastic is not capable of being recycled. I think that if more people were really aware of this fact, the amount of plastic waste would drop dramatically. Therefore, one of the best tips for reducing the use of plastic bags is to simply raise awareness of the problem itself. Maybe if more people simply decided to use paper instead of plastic in the grocery store this could cut the waste at least in half. In that case, maybe stores would stop carrying plastic entirely!

July 19, 2012 2:10 am

Plastic bags are filling up our landfills. Even though most people are aware that plastic can be recycled, it takes a lot of energy and still produces a fair amount of waste products to do so. In a word, the recycling of plastic bags may be better than nothing, but it is still a costly process. A much better idea would be finding ways to reduce our own use of plastic bags.

One of the ways many people use plastic bags is to store food. A better idea, according to the author, is to use some reusable and washable plastic containers for keeping food in temporary storage. Tupperware makes some great containers for this purpose.

At the grocery store, use either cloth grocery bags or paper bags. The cloth bags may be reused, washed and are basically like a piece of clothing. The paper is also biodegradable and does not produce much waste. Another simple thing that can be done is to decline bags at all when you could reasonably carry the items in your hands. You may also consider bringing a box or two with you.

Kathy Faust
July 14, 2012 6:08 pm

I think many people have good intentions to use fewer plastic bags, but we’re so busy that we leave our tote bags in our cars and never think to skip the bag when we’re buying only a couple items. I hate to admit it, but I give up on trying to use less and instead focus on making the most of the plastic bags. I use plastic bags in my small trash cans, as packing material when shipping fragile items, and in a few other ways around the house. I am also very intrigued by the idea of crocheting with plastic bags.

This makes awesome outdoor rugs that are cute and very eco-friendly. I also loved some of the ideas listed here. I hadn’t considered donating the bags to animal shelters for “pick up” needs, but had considered donating them to my thrift store so that they could bag up purchases. I also never would have thought to use the bags as a drop cloth when painting. I honestly wish that more states would ban the use of plastic bags and require people to use tote bags. This would greatly reduce the use of this environmental waste.

Kathy Faust
July 11, 2012 7:00 pm

I love the tennis ball story in the comments. It is a great story, but it also makes me feel like I am not such an oddball because I keep so many strange things in my car. But seriously, you just never know when they are going to come in handy. And it never fails, if I have something in my car that I don’t need, I will run into someone that does need it.

But with plastic bags, there is so much you can do with them that it is just incredible. I have seen people make shoes, toys, dishes…all manner of things from plastic bags. And if all else fails, why don’t you just take them to the nearest resale shop? I know that most resales shops rely on donations from people to keep afloat. And since a resale shop is recycling already, you know that you are giving them to a place that needs them. You can also take them to stores where you pack your own goods. We have one here in town and when my bag gets full, I just take it over there and drop it off. The people who shop there appreciate it and you know they will get used at least one more time, so why not?

Kathy Faust
May 24, 2012 10:28 am

I find it very disturbing when I go to a store and they do something like put one small item in a plastic bag. I feel like they just gave me the okay to go kill a baby seal or something. I’m not saying they did, I’m just saying that’s how I feel about it. I usually decline bags if possible, but if I do take them home, you can be sure they get reused.

There are other things you can do with plastic bags aside from the things on the list here.

You can actually make solid things out of them for craft projects or decorative ideas. You can put the bags in a shape that you want, then cover them with wax paper and a towel or piece of cloth. Iron the towel until the bags underneath have melted into the desired shape.

You can also use them for trash bags instead of buying trash bags. They are great for small garbage cans. Yes, they end up in the landfill this way, but at least you are avoiding putting plastic bags in the landfill that you actually bought.

They’re also great for holing recyclables in your house. We use them to keep our cans, plastic and glass separate. Not only do they take up very little room, but you don’t have to wait until you fill a large container to take them out and dump them.

May 15, 2012 10:45 pm

What are plastic bags recycled as, you might be wondering? The answers are so numerous it would take too long to list! As the article says, not all plastics can be recycled, but most can. However, plastics are typically grouped in similar bundles based on how they were made in the first place. Different compounds cannot be recycled together, so they are split up into at least several different types – the plastic industry actually has more than a dozen codes used when recycling plastic. Each code stands for a different type and how it can be recycled (or if it cannot be recycled at all).

So recycling plastic is serious business for many factories, but what does it finally end up in? Well, one primary answer is construction materials. Composite lumber is that wood that looks like it is made up of many different types of wood shavings, pieces, or sawdust all glued together. That is, in fact, exactly what many composite boards are made of, but many versions combine other materials to attempt to give the lumber a more wood-like appearance while still allowing it to survive harsh weather. Recycled plastic from plastic bags often ends up being used in these boards, since plastic is excellent at resisting wind and water (vinyl siding is used for the same reasons).

Secondly, many types of plastic are processed into small pellets. These pellets mean little by themselves, but they can be easily shipped around to factories in nearly every industry and then used for small steps in the production process. For example, some may be used to make new plastic bags, while others may be used to create pallets or containers to help businesses transport their items. Landscaping and crafting materials may also be made out of this re-used plastic. Consumer resins and plastic pipes may be made out of recycled materials.

There really are very few types of plastic bags that cannot be used for this recycling treatment. Grocery bags are, of course, a favorite, but most of the other types of plastic that you use around your home may be fair game for recycling. Newspaper bags or dry cleaning bags, for example, can be recycling. Other similar plastics, such as the bag around your breads and product or your toilet paper can also be recycled. However, some types of plastic CANNOT be recycled and should not join these bags on their way to recycling destinations. For example, cling wrap should not be recycled along with your bags. Prepackaged and frozen food bags are also off the list, as are compostable plastic bags, which make a great alternative to plastic bags but cannot be recycled like plastic bags. Problematic plastics or poor materials like these can make recycling centers even less profitable and jeopardize series recycling projects, so it is worth a little time to go through your plastic and ensure only the proper bags make the trip to the right center.

May 13, 2012 12:32 am

Proper recycling requires trips to recycling locations around your town. But you may have trouble finding a center – some may be long miles away – or it may simply not be possible to make it to center with your busy, busy workdays. In that case the article provides you with several ways you can use plastic bags around the house, which are great ideas. However, with a little thought plastic bags can fill in an almost unlimited number of roles around the house.

For example, if you travel a lot, you may want to bring along a few plastic bags to use for holding laundry so they don’t get mixed up with the clean clothes in your bags. Problem instantly solved! If you have small trashcans around your house, you can also use them as liners. There are also many less…conventional uses. A spare plastic bag can get a lot of use as a mini-parachute for a toy that your children may want to float – all you need are a few pieces of string. If you are into surfing, a plastic bag over the foot makes it very easy to slide into wetsuit pant legs, considering the chore it often becomes otherwise. If you want to always carry a plastic bag around with you, there are even more ways you make use of them. Some people who bike take a plastic bag and cover their bike seat when it is raining and they have to chain up outside. When they get back on their bike, they can slip off the plastic and use a dry, and preserved, bike seat.

Gardening also makes a great hobby to combine with your used plastic bags. When you garden, you can use larger versions for your knees to avoid dirt and grass stain. The bags are also excellent for holding weeds, nipped buds, or fertilizer that you’re spreading around from a larger bag. If you have an outdoor painting project to do and don’t want to get a clean brush dirty, you can also use spare bags to wrap around the brush and protect it. Some people even cut the larger plastic bags and use them as book covers – not for any ordinary books, but for cookbooks and textbooks and others that may be subject to damage otherwise.

When in doubt, you can also use plastic bags to create works of art! A little application of heat and you can create plastic string that you can use for a number of different designs. If you have the proper protective gear, you can also choose to make yarn, beads, and strips with potential for many different craft projects…or in some cases, just for a bit of useful twine if you need to tie something that the plastic can hold. The more elaborate projects allow you to make hats and soda can holders out of plastic bags. With enough strips, you can form easily disposable plastic mats or placemats.

April 29, 2012 9:49 pm

The way it was written, I am not sure what the author means exactly by talking about when he or she says that when you recycle something not all of it is recycled and there is still some waste. Does this mean that there are a few bags that do not make it through the process that are on the recycling plant floor? Does it mean that when the bags are processed that there is some part that just does not make it through? I do not get it. I think this argument could have been made better by discussing how much effort is put into recycling plastic and how many resources it takes to do so, including water, chemicals, and electricity usage.

The advice at the bottom was solid, but not spectacular. I thought that the list could have been longer and/or more elaborated upon. If this was the key of the article, then I would have to go ahead and say the article fell flat. There are many more uses for plastic bags than this, too. The only one I thought I could really use was keeping some in the car in case of emergency. Other advice off the top of my head: Use plastic bags to carry home your wet bathing suit and towel from the gym or pool; use them in the bulk aisle at grocery stores to save on packaging; put them around your shoes when walking indoors in areas where babies and small children play, or just to keep the carpets nice when walking across a room or your shoes nice when walking through the rain. See how easy that was for me? And that is just from uses that I have for plastic bags personally. I did not expect for everything in the list to be new and applicable to me, but I was hoping to see a few gems and some factual information, but did not. Although the intention may have been good and the concept was interesting, the arguments fell a bit short and the main points did as well. A reasonable effort for the article’s short length, however.

April 28, 2012 11:21 pm

This article comes at a good time, since the plastic bag controversy is reaching new heights right now. On one hand, people have the opinion that paper bags were far worse for the environment because they are made out of trees. Yet on the other hand, as this article discusses, plastic bags are made out of petroleum, a non-renewable resource that has many negative environmental impacts. Thus I began reading the article with some hope of both hearing some new facts as well as learning some new information. Unfortunately, while the article could have taken those routes, it ended up taking no particular route and falling flat on its face.

The “Plastic Bags Hurt Wildlife” argument is a good one, and definitely has not received very much attention recently. I think this is because of the initial attention that it got in the 1990’s environmentalist wave, when plastic recycling was making giant leaps into mainstream culture. The sentence about the topic in this article was pretty weak, however, and it could have had more impact on the reader to create that sense of urgency about the situation. The author likely assumes that you have heard this all before (not an untrue assumption, in my case anyway) and are not interested. Then why mention it at all though? Chances are, you found yourself reading this article because you were interested. I know I have heard about this issue a lot, but what I know may be dated information, I have not actually heard anything about this topic for quite some time now. So I would not have been annoyed with a little more than just one sentence about the fact that plastic bags can hurt wildlife, and I think more than one sentence is necessary to do it justice. Perhaps some statistics on how many animals die or are injured each year would make a stronger case, or whether there are ways to reduce that impact by recycling or re-using plastic bags.

What also would have made a stronger argument for the re-use of plastic is that plastic, while it can be recycled, is still thrown in the trash more often than not. It could have been mentioned that there are many types of plastic in common use that are absolutely not recyclable, and that there are alternatives to using this plastic for the most part. Tying this example into the wildlife issue, millions of butane lighters are made of plastic each year and are not recyclable, and in fact there are thousands of butane lighters each year that wind up floating on the ocean surface and are eaten by sea birds who mistake them for food.

an environmentally conscious drifter
April 26, 2012 12:53 pm

Yes, in my area, grocery stores charge like 5 cents for plastic bags, or they want you to use your own cloth/mesh plastic-like bags. They sell reusable bags, but I find that the grocery store reusable bags are usually pretty small.

The department stores have larger reusable bags that you can buy for $1.00 and you can find less stylish versions of these bags at the $1 store. I find that these large reusable bags are better for groceries. Because they are made of a kind of plastic, you can usually clean them out with soap and water, but eventually you will have to throw them away if you use them to transport food on a regular basis. I do not know if these bags are typically recyclable in most states, but if they are, they would be even more desirable for these purposes.

I think that most people still find themselves just getting the plastic bags from the grocery store, but I think that most people reuse them for some purpose though.

I use them for trash bags all the time, and I use them to hold curlers, do deep conditioner treatments on my hair, and other things. They do not look that nice, but at least I know that I will use just about every plastic bag that comes through my house at least 2 times, sometimes 3 times. I use them to pick up after my pet when I am in a public place all the time, and they are great when you are traveling, when you want to keep your shoes separate from the rest of your clothes in your suitcase.

I use them to pack toiletries, under garments and anything else that I want to keep separate in my suitcase.

I wish grocery store plastic bags looked nicer though sometimes. I would love to find a grocery store bag recycling project or reusing project that made the things look good. When it comes to Ziploc bags, they look so nice. When I use them to organize small toiletries in my suitcase, they look so organized and neat.

I remember when I was young, for a brief spell some people in my family would clean them out, and I have tried to do this several times, but I like things to be neat and clean, and I always worry that I am not getting the inside of the bag as clean as possible, so unfortunately, I end up throwing those away after one use.

However, now that I think about it, I will look around online for solutions that will help me feel comfortable reusing these bags as well. I usually feel bad when I throw them away, but I just cannot stomach the idea of potato chip residue, all over my small toiletries or underclothes because I did not clean a Ziploc bag out well enough.

November 3, 2011 8:22 am

I especially love the tip about not asking for plastic bags at the grocery stores. In Europe where I grew up, you actually have to pay to receive a grocery bag. I think that’s a great system and I hope it’s eventually instituted here. The “double bagging” for a loaf of bread is ridiculous. Are Americans too fat and lazy to simply carry their own grocery items? Then again, the average American buys so much darn food, you need a Hummer to fit it all.

May 6, 2011 4:00 am

Another thing you can use plastic bags for is as saran wrap. I know it sounds weird, but we use them constantly to cover food containers and they work great. It also doesn’t hurt to keep a couple in your car in case you need an on the road trash bag or something to store something in.

April 24, 2011 10:02 pm

I think that was a great idea. Instead of a plastic bag we use a paper bag or Tupperware to store our food. Not only does the food last longer, it doesn’t smell as bad or get too humid.

– Curwen’s Body & Paint

December 29, 2010 5:42 am

I’m all for re-using plastic bags. In fact, what our “recycling-friendly” culture doesn’t realize, is that half the stuff you dump in the recycling bin (usually anything above #1 or #2) will not be recycled and will eventually end up in a land fill.

How to counteract this? Simple – find a way to use whatever it is you’re tossing. Tennis balls, for example, can be used to support the hand strollers old ladies use to get around. I ran into one at a sporting goods store that was going to buy a brand new can of balls! When I found out what she was using them for, I told her not to buy the can – I would give her a whole bag of old balls in my car. And the kicker? She goes through 4 balls every two weeks! That’s almost as much as a tennis player, and at $2-3 bucks a can, she’s spending up to $12/ month just to get around on her stroller.

That’s just an example – get creative, have fun, and help us save the planet Earth’s Friends!!


August 15, 2010 5:59 pm

Switch to a smaller garbage pail, about half the height of a regular one. The typical plastic store bags will fit as a liner. It might be a hassle to take out the trash more frequently, but it’s supposed to be healthier for the indoor air to take it out daily anyway.