A grocery bag: more than just a grocery bag

A version of this column appeared in The Sault Star in February. In these COVIDic times the plastic grocery bag is proving its worth. Many stores are now doling them out for free rather than have shoppers bring in their reusables.

Sault Ste. Marie city council is looking at ways to eliminate single-use plastics.

Whew! For a minute there I thought they might be trying to ban plastic grocery bags.

Just kidding. I am aware that those grocery bags are square in the crosshairs of council. The federal government also has made noises about banning them.

All those useful plastic bags just going to waste

But in my household and many others there’s no such thing as a “single-use” grocery bag. 

I reuse pretty well every kind of plastic bag and container that comes in the door. A lot of “single-use” cardboards and cans, too.

To confess to an environmentally unfriendly little sin, I sometimes deliberately “forget” my reusable grocery bags in the truck at stores that supply “single-use” bags at no charge.

That way I can avoid buying plastic bags.  

The bags lining my under-sink kitchen trash can are previously enjoyed grocery bags.

I pour fireplace ashes (after they cool) into grocery bags so I can spread them on icy patches on our road. I’ll refill those again and again.

I use the bags to collect empty alcoholic beverage containers to recycle into pocket change at the Beer Store.

I fill old grocery bags with stuff to store in my garage so I will never find that stuff again.

And so on and so on.

Even those smaller and thinner plastic bags on rolls in the produce section get reused in my house, unless they’re absolutely grotty. I turn them inside out and, voila. 

They work for poop-scooping too, though not as well as the bags that keep your newspaper dry in inclement weather. Those, by the way, are good for holding a fish, should you be lucky enough to catch one.

Most of the products I avoid buying by recycling grocery bags are made of thicker and even-less-biodegradable plastic. So reuse does a little less damage to the environment, though clearly that’s not good enough.

I’m sure the folks at Sault city hall and their laggards in the federal government are aware that simply banning something won’t work, especially if it’s something that is actually quite useful.

The problem is that our food- and waste-handling systems are built for plastics. Modern kitchens are designed around them. Modern lifestyles rely on them

So you have to offer people an alternative that works just as well as plastics. And you have to focus on the function rather than the item itself.

Multi-use grocery bags, often made of recycled material, are a great model to follow. They’re cheap, do the job better than relatively flimsy single-use bags and can haul all sorts of things besides groceries.

But don’t fill them with ashes or almost-empty beer cans or they might not be reusable any more.

We’ll need good alternative products for all of those second-use functions.

What will hold under-sink kitchen garbage, for example?

In some cases the answer could start with another question: What did people use before plastics?

(Yes, children, there once was a world without plastics. If you watch the movie The Graduate you’ll learn that plastics were the next big thing in the early 1960s.)

In the pre-plastic era, garbage went into cans. It stunk, it was messy, it bred germs and small, disgusting insects. I know, because garbage was one of my household chores. 

Garbage cans had to be hosed down regularly, something that leads to another environmental sin: wasting water. We don’t want that again, do we?

But I’m not seeing too much in the way of simple, practical alternatives.

And banners of plastics are going to have to come up with things to keep food fresh or there will be even more food wastage than we have today. 

Online you’ll find dandy methods to keep your kale crisp. For each vegetable and fruit there’s a preferred way to retain freshness, often involving damp towels or water-filled containers. 

It strikes me that I’d have to buy a bigger fridge to accommodate those storage devices. How friendly would that be to the environment?

But the bigger challenge is that unless your passion or hobby is environmentalism, the solutions being offered up are too labour-intensive and time-consuming to appeal to most busy families.

There are single-use plastics that I would never miss: the bubble-wrap or foam popcorn in overlarge shipping containers; hard plastic form-fitting packaging around plastic items, that are hard to get open even with a sharp knife; plastic wrap on boxes of adhesive bandages, hard to get open when you’ve stabbed your hand while trying to open a package.

Plastic water bottles? Ban them yesterday. Fewer things in life are more idiotic than buying a small bottle of drinking water.

But replace the bad with the better.

Surely humanity is up to the challenge. 

We invented plastic, didn’t we?

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