I stood in line at the grocery store the other day behind a lady who was paper bag happy.  She had purchased 3 boxes of take out fried chicken from the deli and a boxed cake from the bakery.  Even though each of these were already in a container and didn’t even need a bag (the chicken boxes even had handles!), she insisted on a separate brown paper bag for each item.

This is on top of the other grocery items she purchased, which I did not notice as I had walked up in line just as the discussion about “the right way” to bag the chicken was going on with the bag boy.   Is there a “right way” to bag take out chicken, by the way?

Just wondering.

In total, there were at least twelve brown paper bags in that shopping cart, each only about half full of items.I must have been unknowingly staring in disbelief at the situation unfold because the checkout girl looked at me and said, “Is everything ok?”    I shook my head and said to her, “Wow, I hope that lady is going to recycle all those bags!”

Fact is, even if those bags do get recycled (they probably won’t be), it is still a disgrace to use that much disposable material just to carry your shopping home from the store.     It takes a lot of energy in a pollution spewing factory to recycle all those bags when use of them can be avoided entirely just by developing the habit of bringing them yourself.

A number of years ago, my New Year’s Resolution was to start bringing my own bags to the store.   I had been using brown paper bags over and over again for awhile (and then recycling them when they got tattered), but I decided this was still not good enough and I needed to get reusable bags for all my shopping instead. This included not just the grocery store but also Home Depot, Target, and other shops I went to.

I was actually quite surprised at how challenging it was to develop this very simple new habit.

I forgot over and over again to bring the bags into the store and even scratched my head as to what to do with the bags when I got into the checkout aisle.  Was proper etiquette to hand the bags to the cashier, or do I nonchalantly toss them over into the bagging area?

An “easy” resolution that I thought would be such a quick success turned out to be a 3 month ordeal of relearning my shopping habits entirely!  I persisted despite the frequent setbacks and here is what I learned (I am now very comfortable with my new habit, I’m happy to say):

7 Tips for an Easy Transition to to Reusable Bags

  • Buy enough bags!  I made this mistake for several weeks before realizing I needed about 5 bags in the car.   The reason is that when I go shopping, I usually make all the rounds at once.   I typically use 2 bags at the grocery store, so if you only have two bags in the car, you won’t have any for the quick trip into Target or the department store.
  • Put bags in both cars!   Another mistake I made was only putting the reusable bags in my car.   It took me several misfires before I realized that I actually do a lot of shopping using my husband’s car because mine is already in the garage after dinner and his is typically still in the driveway.   I like to shop after dinner sometimes which means I would prefer the convenience of using his car as I ran out the door.
  • Keep the bags in the car, not in the house!   I can’t tell you how many times I arrived at the store only to realize the bags were at home sitting on the kitchen table.   Keep them in the car at all times as you never know when you are going to need to run a quick errand.
  • After you unload your purchases in the house, take the bags right back out to the car!  Or, at least put them right by your keys, wallet, or purse so you don’t forget to take them back out to the car the very next time you go somewhere.
  • Don’t be ashamed to say to the cashier – “Oops, I forgot my bags, let me run out to the car and get them!” Yes, it’s true.  I actually did this a few times purposely embarrassing myself and making the clerk wait for me so that I would not forget to bring the bags into the store from the car again!
  • Have bags that are for produce and meats and other bags for “clean” items like clothes, shampoo etc.     Different colors or designs on each bag helps with telling which bag is for what purpose.
  • Don’t forget to wash the bags every now and then.    Reusable bags can get nasty bacteria in them after only a few trips to the store, so make sure to wash them in a mild detergent every week or two. This may seem incredibly obvious, but surprisingly, most people do not seem to realize the importance of doing it.

If you haven’t yet made the switch to reusable bags, I would encourage you to consider it. Perhaps these tips can help you avoid some of the surprising pitfalls I encountered as I made the transition.

And, please don’t use the excuse that you somehow need the bags given out at the store. The plastic bags at the store are made from petroleum that takes centuries to degrade and the paper ones are made from trees that take decades to grow.  If you must have bags for use at home, buy biodegradable eco-plastic ones instead.

It really is a lot easier using reusable bags than dealing with the stacks of brown paper bags or plastic bags that needed to be recycled.   I don’t claim to be perfect in this area as I occasionally need one bag here or there due to an unforeseen circumstance, but I have definitely eliminated 99% of my need for store bags.

Believe it or not, this is much less stressful way to shop once you get the hang of it!

Sarah, The Healthy Home Economist

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