habit shift: plastic bags.

June 26, 2017

By this stage, leaving the house with a reusable shopping tote feels as second nature as leaving the house with my keys and my phone. I carry an extra grocery bag in my work bag and stash another one in our diaper bag. And yet, in taking a closer look at the waste that our family produces, saying no to plastic shopping bags barely scratches the surface of our plastic bag problem.

This isn’t really news. We know that plastic is used for all kinds of things beyond the ubiquitous shopping tote. Avoiding it is the reason why I don’t buy plastic baggies for snacks, why I opt out of plastic wrap, why I very rarely buy boxed or bagged cereal. It’s why I bring my own bags to the farmers’ market and the bulk section of the grocery store. It’s why I never buy plastic pouches of food for kids. It’s why I try my best to shop locally instead of having too many things shipped with a lot of packaging. But despite those efforts, plastic bags still come filtering into our house.

There’s our pasta habit and the lack of a nearby bulk option. There’s plastic film wrapped around our recycled toilet paper, not a bag precisely, but made of the same stuff. The organic cotton undies I ordered for Faye were packed, incredulously, with plastic film inflated with air for protection from what I’m not sure. There’s that pesky salad mix bag that I sometimes purchase from the nearby famers’ market. 

To be sure, there are solutions for avoiding all of these plastics, and reducing its use in the first place is superior to recycling, but acknowledging that those efforts take time and resources that busy families don’t always have, here are a few tips for dealing responsibly with the plastic bags that come into your house despite your best efforts (or your best intentions). 

(Nota bene: Recycling is different depending on where you live—and here’s some very strong encouragement to look into what the actual rules are for the place where you are—but here are a few things to know about plastic film recycling in New York City that might well be true where you live, too.)

Recycling your plastic bags with your regular plastics is a no go. Yes, in other words, we should all stop turning a blind eye while shoving our poly bags into our yogurt containers and pretending the Sanitation Department’s gonna do something about it. (For some sobering reading, a list of all of the non-recyclable items can be found right this way.)

But while you can’t include plastic bags, plastic wrap, or dry cleaning covers in your curbside recycling, the New York State’s Plastic Bag Reduction, Reuse and Recycling Act does require certain stores to offer plastic bag recycling. Your chance at redemption! The act applies to retail stores that provide plastic bags to customers and are larger than 10,000 square feet or that have five or more locations larger than 5,000 square feet each. A quick walk around my neighborhood made me realize that there are lots of these kinds of receptacles inside the front entrances of very nearby stores: Rite Aid, Barnes and Noble, another Rite Aid.  You get the idea.

Stores like this are responsible for ensuring that the plastic they collect is actually recycled. An extensive list of all plastics that are recyclable at plastic bag collection points can be found here. Here’s a short list of what these stores have to accept: 

Plastic retail bags with string ties and rigid plastic handles removed
Plastic newspaper bags
Plastic dry-cleaning bags
Plastic produce bags with all food residue removed
Plastic bread bags with all food residue removed
Plastic cereal bags with all food residue removed
Plastic frozen food bags with all food residue removed
Plastic wrap from paper products (paper towels, toilet paper, etc.)
Plastic stretch/shrink wrap with all food residue removed
Plastic zipper-type bags

And so? There’s now a thin tote hanging in my closet, getting slowly filled with whatever plastic film it is that manages to find its way into our house. When it gets filled up, I’ll tromp down to the local big box store and fill up their bin. You might give it a try, too.

What about the other stuff? Alas, alack, plastic soil bags don’t make the cut. Neither do cellophane chip bags. MEA CULPA, but I’m terribly guilty of ripping through a bag of potato chips during particularly hungry commutes home. But! While the trouble might be enough to finally get me to kick the habit altogether, foil bags like those used to package potato chips can actually be recycled through Terracycle. (Along with everything else under the sun. They even recycle…wait for it…used chewing gum.) Their free recycling programs for hard-to-recycle items are listed here (and include toothpaste container recycling, contact lens packaging, energy bar wrappers, snack bags, etc…).

Helpful? Other recycling minutiae plaguing you guys these days?

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  • Reply Camila June 26, 2017 at 10:15 am

    I hate that plastic is everywhere and so pervasive. Living up here in the Bronx our choices are limited but making the effort has reduced our waste a lot. My quandary now has been with trash bags. I’m still on the hunt for a plastic free solution that’s practical for us. Any tips?
    Have a great Monday!

  • Reply Amy June 26, 2017 at 10:56 am

    Great article. I’m always interested to see how other cities handle recycling. I’m very proud of my hometown (Edmonton, Alberta, Canada) waste removal program, and feel lucky that we have so many options available for recycle/reuse centers. Our city website has a great tool that lets you enter any object and it will tell you how to dispose of it responsible, whether that be through our general waste/recycle pickup, at a Reuse Centre, or at an Eco station (and list all the available locations!).

  • Reply Julia June 26, 2017 at 11:16 am

    Something that has been plaguing me these days is glass. In NJ and NY glass is technically not getting recycled anymore. Instead it is getting crushed and used as landfill cover (from an engineering class and tour of a materials recovery facility). The reason being that it’s too expensive and uses a lot of energy (i.e. lots of greenhouse gasses released). Also, single stream recycling causes the different colored glass to get mixed and making it impossible to separate for recycling. I don’t know if the carbon footprint is less by sending it to the landfill, but it still feels kinda wrong. Materials that make glass are non-renewable which means it’s not sustainable to just send it to landfill. Unfortunately, I love glass – it is completely non-reactive for most foods/liquids unlike metals and plastics. I reuse my glass as much as I can, but I just had to get rid of some pasta sauce jars because they’re starting to overflow in my cabinets. If I am wrong about anything above please correct me – I would love to stop worrying about this.

    • Reply Celia June 26, 2017 at 1:44 pm

      If it’s helpful: I’ve taken to giving nicer glass jars to thrift stores / creative reuse / secondhand art supplies stores! Alleviates the recycling worry a bit. I keep them tucked away in a tote bag, then drop them off periodically.

    • Reply Trish O June 26, 2017 at 3:40 pm

      check with your local children’s museums. Ours collects all sizes of glass jars for projects they do with the children.

    • Reply ERIN BOYLE June 26, 2017 at 7:44 pm

      Truthfully, this is the first I’ve heard of this! I also love glass and save many jars for reuse, but I also recycle what I can’t readily reuse: wine bottles, beer bottles, etc.

  • Reply Emily crittenden June 26, 2017 at 12:03 pm

    This was exactly what I needed to read right now. I just sewed up some flip top fabric snack bags last night (hoping to make a ton of them) out of scrap fabric, to help the process of getting rid of plastic bags. I have been a lot better about bringing my bags to the store the last year or so, it’s just a hard concept to my husband to sort recycling correctly for some reason. I may make a sign for our bin to tell what goes in.

  • Reply megan June 26, 2017 at 12:22 pm

    Thank you for this post! I had no idea retailers had to recycle plastics, but that definitely takes some of the dilemma out of how to buy toilet paper while avoiding plastic wrapping.

  • Reply Sarah June 26, 2017 at 1:20 pm

    What I’ve come up with only quite recently (concerning trash bags and toilet paper): reusing the toilet paper packaging as a trash bin liner. Not ripping but cutting the top open with a pair of scissors leaves you with a good enough, free trash bag. (That is, at least here in Germany. And also depending on the size of your trash bin and the amount of toilet paper you buy.) The same goes for fruit or vegetable bags, which I can’t always avoid. I try to reuse them as such as long as possible, but once they’re beyond their usability as food bags, they end up as kitchen or bathroom bin liners. Basically any bag coming in unwanted could be used as a trash bag, depending on the size of the bag / bin / amount of trash. Living in a single household, and generally trying to cut down on waste, I haven’t bought trash bags in the past 1.5 years (yay!).
    Other recycling minutiae plaguing me these days: clothes and shoes that are beyond anything. Not sure I can cut my absolutely run down Birkenstocks into pieces to compost the leather parts and cork sole, since I doubt that purely vegetable chemicals were used during manufacturing them in the first place…

    • Reply Sari June 28, 2017 at 8:00 pm

      I do this too with toilet paper packaging (also cat litter packaging)!
      I recently listened to a gardening podcast where the gardening guru said he had composted jeans and a pair of shoes. So it seems it can be done.

  • Reply Bee June 26, 2017 at 1:27 pm

    I’ve been trying to figure out how to recycle textiles – socks with holes, rags, clothing I know if I donated would get thrown right in the trash. Where can it go?!

    • Reply Julia June 26, 2017 at 3:36 pm

      My understanding is that many (most?) organizations that take clothing donations recycle textiles that aren’t wearable as much as possible, probably much more than you would be able to on your own. Usually, this means they are given/sold in bales to textile recyclers, who make them into things like futon stuffing. As I scroll down, I see that Laura also commented on this re Goodwill, although I’ve read that Goodwill actually does this less than they used to and it varies between the locations. Best to probably check with the organizations near you to see who does the most.

      • Reply ERIN BOYLE June 26, 2017 at 7:46 pm

        Agreed on all of this, though I don’t know the details of Goodwill’s current practices intimately!

    • Reply Alexandra Marie June 26, 2017 at 3:44 pm

      H&M! They have a clothing/textile recycling program in their stores.

    • Reply Leslie June 28, 2017 at 10:15 am

      You can search out donation bins labeled “USED CLOTHING AND SHOES”. These are for-profit textile recycling collection bins, so items that someone else might still find useful should go to a charity instead, but at least this saves them from the landfill. The bins in my area are blue or green and usually in parking lots of lower-quality big grocery stores or some strip malls. I take my fabric scraps from sewing there too.

  • Reply Anne Marie June 26, 2017 at 1:28 pm

    Great suggestions! It has become a complete habit to take reusable bags to the store for me. I am going to start collecting plastic film too. I really wish though that more people would catch onto using reusable bags!

  • Reply Amanda K. June 26, 2017 at 2:00 pm

    Have you listened to this? An environmental economist talks about the actual effects of some of our environmentally-friendly changes. One thing that particularly interested me was this quote, at the end. He was talking about whether it’s better to use a disposable coffee cup or a mug that will then have to be washed. He says, “…one of the things that environmentalists have focused on, I think, to the detriment of the environment, is landfill space. So using space in landfills is not an environmental problem. We have plenty of space in the United States. There’s a political problem associated with where we locate those landfills, but solid waste going into landfills doesn’t impose much of an environmental problem.”

    I’ve been an environmental advocate since age 8 and I’ve never heard that…but it has me intrigued. Do you have any thoughts?

    (You can see the entire transcript or listen to the episode here: http://freakonomics.com/2015/02/05/how-efficient-is-energy-efficiency-full-transcript/)

    • Reply Priscilla June 26, 2017 at 4:53 pm

      Amanda, I read that Freakonomics transcript, too, but it didn’t make me question things very much. Whether we have a landfill problem or not, I use disposables and re-usables in the same manner: I try to be responsible. So I use those cereal box liners as used cat litter disposal, and I wash ceramic cups with all the dinner pots and pans that have to be washed anyway. Little things like that, mindful things. Whether or not my efforts have an impact on the environment, I don’t know, but hopefully my anti-waste attitude and my thinking that I should be respectful of this planet that God gave us somehow helps.

    • Reply ERIN BOYLE June 26, 2017 at 7:52 pm

      Haven’t had a moment to listen to this myself, but thanks for sharing. I think it probably points to the on going dilemma of where to focus our energies, what makes an impact, what’s futile, etc. No doubt an environmental economist knows more on the subject than I do. Still, I think that making efforts to think about the waste that we produce is valid and important, really regardless of the space we have to put it in.

    • Reply Magnolia June 27, 2017 at 2:26 am

      Hmm. What about the water and resources it takes to grow the trees that are made into paper cups? Then there are the plastic lids and stir sticks that go with them, the garbage bags they go into, the trucks that take them to the landfill, etc. Even if we were to agree to that landfill use is not an environmental issue (which I don’t) what about these other factors? At home I usually just give my teacup a rinse between uses—it’s not gross! But how much water and energy does an efficient industrial or home dishwasher use? Is it really comparable to what goes into making a paper cup and associated items and dumping it all in a landfill? I doubt it. If you look at landfills, I dont think anyone who lives near them considers them just a “political problem.” Are they safe? Considering the things people throw away, I’ve got to doubt that. Is it a good use of land and other resources? I don’t think so. IMHO, If we can’t avoid paper use, it’s much better to keep it in the system through composting and recycling programs. A model is San Francisco where the city’s waste management company collects and either composts or recycles used household paper as part of its compost pick-up program.

      • Reply Amanda K. June 27, 2017 at 3:23 pm

        I actually completely agreed — I thought his answer left out any mention of manufacturing and transport of the disposable cup.

        I’ve never heard anyone say that landfills aren’t an environmental problem, but I do think it’s important to consider all views (as so many people, and you, have said!)

        The episode is really intriguing. It talks about how consumer behavior changes as they use energy efficient products (usage goes up!) which is eye-opening. It helped me realize that I almost never fuss at my kids about turning off lights like my parents did. Whether that’s a subconscious effect of using energy-efficient bulbs, I don’t know. But worth a ponder!

    • Reply Julia June 28, 2017 at 8:21 am

      I heard this podcast episode when it came out, and as an environmental engineer that studied landfill construction and landfill management, it made me so angry (so I am so sorry if this comes off as rude, I’m a little heated on the topic). He is right that solid waste, like textiles and plastics do not impose an environmental problem. What he is assuming is that all landfills are built perfectly, and all are used properly. Landfills are not perfect. So they do not leak when they are made, but tears in plastic liners occur – or cracks in the clay liners too, and when the leachate that builds up inside the landfill enter groundwater or surface water – we are in big trouble. What I mean is, in 50 or 100 years, we do not know that construction of these landfills will be sealed tight. Monitoring wells are placed around a landfill to measure water quality and check for leaks, but it is very difficult to stop a leak once it happens. Hazardous waste dumping in general landfills is illegal but is still being done, though it is rare (usually for profit reasons). Of course the limited or non-renewable resources is an issue, but it has already been commented above so I won’t go into it. I think that as an environmental economist, this guy should consult with some environmental scientists or engineers.

      • Reply Amanda K. July 8, 2017 at 2:52 pm

        I love hearing your perspective — it didn’t come off as rude to me at all! THANK YOU for sharing your knowledge, the obvious idea that landfills aren’t perfect never occurred to me.

        My takeaway is simply that the focus shouldn’t ONLY be on less waste, and that I always have more to learn. 🙂

  • Reply Laura June 26, 2017 at 2:12 pm

    For those who mentioned clothing and shoes beyond their primary intended use, I believe Goodwill can use these. From their FAQ: “As for items that can’t be sold in our stores, we’ve found other creative uses for them. For instance, some member Goodwills recycle old clothing scraps into industrial wipes (cleaning cloths) for industrial buyers. Other items that are too damaged for retail sales are sold to salvage brokers.” I have heard of these types of materials (particularly old clothing/fabric) being recycled into insulation. I usually just bundle mine separately with a note “for scrap” to (maybe?) make the life of those sorting the goods a little easier.

  • Reply Katie June 26, 2017 at 2:25 pm

    Hey, that’s great! I just started collecting last week all the bags in my house instead of only recycling plastic shopping bags. Timely! I can’t believe it didn’t dawn on me way earlier that I could recycle more than just those. Thanks for the encouragement to continue!

  • Reply Susanne June 26, 2017 at 2:26 pm

    Great post! And yes, I would also love to read about your ideas regarding clothes recycling. Once you have worn it, repaired it, worn it again and you can’t wear it anymore….what to do?

    • Reply ERIN BOYLE June 26, 2017 at 7:54 pm

      I write a bit in my book about how it’s far from a perfect system, but I think the most responsible thing to do is still to donate to textile collections/Goodwill/etc. which make efforts to sell or donate what they can’t sell for use in insulation, etc.

  • Reply Trish O June 26, 2017 at 3:44 pm

    Very nice post. Recently I spoke with my boys about a habit shift to no longer use plastic straws. They are 13 and 15 and are not impressed with the idea..but I am working on reminding them that they know how to drink without a straw and if it is s situation where they MUST use a straw, we should bring our own reusable one. We will see if I can get them to switch. My hubby never uses a straw, so he is all about this!

  • Reply Zandria June 26, 2017 at 4:53 pm

    Terracycle is indeed wonderful, but I’ve been on their waiting list for snack-bag recycling for over a year. Apparently it’s a very popular program and they don’t add new people to it very often.

    • Reply ERIN BOYLE June 26, 2017 at 7:39 pm

      Ah, no doubt!

  • Reply mado June 26, 2017 at 5:26 pm

    Also, if you know someone similarly environmentally minded with a dog you can offer them whatever plastic bags you do end up with! I am a dedicated fabric shopping bag user but that means that we occasionally end up buying plastic bags to pick up after the dogs. Unfortunately it’s a waste trade off we make in order to have loving beings in our lives who connect us with nature even in the city!

    • Reply Rie June 26, 2017 at 10:20 pm

      Yes! I’ve carried cloth bags for 30 years, but I’ve always had dogs and cats. I have several clients that I know are never going to recycle their zip locks and newspaper bags save them for me. They have gone from humoring their crazy yoga teacher to handing off their paper bags for my trash and their egg cartons for reuse.

    • Reply Julia June 28, 2017 at 8:27 am

      Earth Rated brand doggie poop bags are biodegradable (both green and white) but the white bags are made of vegetable starch and can be composted if pet waste is collected, if you’re looking for an alternative.

  • Reply SEM June 26, 2017 at 7:50 pm

    Insightful post. I’m very impressed by your thoughtful attention to these details. Packaging is so pervasive and the fact you’ve reduced your intake so much makes me think you eat pretty clean too! I feel like every food item I buy is a nesting doll of garbage…packages within packages! Even fruit! We started a food prep delivery service again to encourage/motivate healthy cooking, but oy the packaging. My husband researched their recycling policy, which happily includes reusing ice packs and sauce containers, but every week when it arrives I cringe a little. Online clothing orders are another surprisingly big plastic contributor around here too….and amazon prime wants to send me items separately (oof!) One thing I appreciate about Everlane’s shipping approach is they don’t wrap individual items in plastic and they tend to ship in paper bags.

    Thanks for the reminder. 🙂

    • Reply joan June 27, 2017 at 7:22 am

      Yes for Everlane! 95 percent of my tees are from them and I smile each time I receive their shipment.

  • Reply Linh Nguyen June 26, 2017 at 8:44 pm

    This is a great post, to remind us that it can all be recycled somehow. I’d also like to point out that recycling batteries electronics, electrical devices and cords, in tact or not, is really important and easy, just drop it off FOR FREE at Best Buy! Before I knew this, I held onto a box of used cell phones, a broken curling iron and hair dryer for years. Also, office supply stores will take back ink and toner, and REI of all places, recycles batteries.

  • Reply Joanne June 26, 2017 at 8:44 pm

    I do agree that most busy families don’t always have the time and resources to make a lot of recycling efforts like these, but it’s always good to start from where you live. It also annoys me everytime I see so many things wrapped in plastic, or plastic being used for EVERYTHING when clearly there could be better alternatives. This article definitely reminded me to be more aware of the issue and to start my own “habit shift” on this as well. x

  • Reply Wuselbibi June 27, 2017 at 4:13 am

    Oooh, where to start?
    First, let me assure you I don’t like waste. Waste of things, money, time. I try to avoid plastic bags whenever I can. I never need a bag from the supermarket, I’ve multiple fabric bags in my car, in my backback, in my smaller purse.

    What I learned is paper bags are worse for the environment than plastic, did you know that? Producing them needs more energy and resources than a simple plastic bag (if the plastic bag is correctly recycled ).

    In Germany we’ve got a pretty impressive recycling system, and I’d love to think not much gets wasted. But I wonder… All the tons of plastic swimming in the sea have to come from somewhere, no? I really hope the big recycling giants like Veolia take their responsibility seriously!

    Trash bags are bought for that specific purpose in my house. I don’t have enough plastic bags from random shops to repurpose them, and if I had, I wouldn’t do it. Bags from stores are in most cases from different material, they are thicker and I don’t need the extra material. So I reuse them for grocery shopping first and the last step is as a waste bag.
    Most big shops here don’t give free plastic bags, which helps a lot!

    What I really don’t like is people who claim to live zero waste but leave packaging material at their store. This waste has been made, it’s only disposed of not at home!
    That said, I’m not able to live wastefree and won’t attempt to- I’m convinced it simply isn’t possible and when I try to do my best effort to reduce senseless waste, it’s good enough. Of course in addition to take usage of whatever recycling system is available.

    Thank you for the inspiration to make life more sustainable! It’s a constant nudge for me to be more aware of what one can do.

  • Reply Kris June 27, 2017 at 10:48 am

    THANK YOU!!!!
    This is exactly what I need!

  • Reply Lauren June 27, 2017 at 10:53 am

    Regarding dry cleaning bags – before recycling, consider donating them to a local pottery studio! Lots of studios use sheets of plastic to cover work in progress and a dry cleaning bag can be cut into several pieces and used for this purpose. It’s a small act but one that can help studios reuse materials and cut down on the need to buy new plastic sheeting. (Plus it’s an excuse to check out your local pottery studio!)

  • Reply Annabelle June 27, 2017 at 4:30 pm

    For those plastic inflatable pouches and packing peanuts that (relentlessly! Foolishly!) which come enclosed in any shipping boxes/online orders, I have had gratifying luck taking them to UPS store or FedEx stores where they gladly reuse.

  • Reply jane June 27, 2017 at 5:39 pm

    Love this encouragement to be aware of the after-life of our consumption. I agree that it’s incredibly difficult to avoid waste altogether, no matter how hard we try. And I know that you are above all promoting avoidance. I’m just hoping it’s clear that recycling is part of the equation…but that we can’t use it as a solution. All the plastic ever made is still on this earth + will be for centuries. Plastic can be recycled a very small number of times. Teracycle takes lots of the waste and just makes tote bags of sewn together Caprisun containers…or art with it. Some of it gets made into plastic park benches…but eventually those hulking park benches will end up in the landfill…not decomposing. Yikes…we need to find alternatives to plastic. Changing our habits as much and as often as we can…along with using our collective voice to ask brands to offer alternatives…that’s positive change. 🙂

    Oh, and this toilet paper is a quick switch that avoids the plastic wrap: https://www.amazon.com/Seventh-Generation-Bathroom-Tissue-Single-ply/dp/B007M57K40/ref=sr_1_6_a_it?ie=UTF8&qid=1498599082&sr=8-6&keywords=seventh+generation+toilet+paper We buy ours at our local Whole Foods, but it’s available in singles (for small apartments) from amazon too. 🙂

    • Reply ERIN BOYLE June 27, 2017 at 9:43 pm

      Thanks! Hope that’s clear, too! And many thanks for the Seventh Generation tip. The Seventh Generation packs in our local grocery come wrapped in plastic, but fascinating to know they ship in paper only online!

    • Reply Susan Magnolia June 29, 2017 at 2:24 pm

      Thank you for the tip! I am glad to find t.p. not sold in plastic.

  • Reply Yelena June 28, 2017 at 7:57 am

    I have become the same way ever since my family and I moved to Los Angeles. they are huge on recycling, and reusable bags. My car is full of reused papered plastic bags from trader joe’s, target, and whole foods. It’s crazy just to to think of the amount of bags that pile up during grocery shopping! I feel like I do a good deed every time I bring a reusable bag to a store haha!!

  • Reply Natasha June 28, 2017 at 7:32 pm

    Yes! Love this post!
    our local supermarket in Australia has just started recycling “soft plastics”. We too have been keeping a little bag on a hook and filling it with incidental soft plastics. The good feeling you get from emptying it and then seeing others fill that bin up is ace!

  • Reply Theresa June 28, 2017 at 11:55 pm

    Same! My tempeh comes in plastic bags as well as a other few conveniences I’m not quite ready to forgo. Luckily, there is a Whole Foods nearby that has recycling bins for plastic bags, in which you can deposit different types, including bubble wrap.

  • Reply Caitlin June 29, 2017 at 11:57 am

    I donate my plastic bags to a food pantry in NYC. When I get plastic bags, I store them under the sink and then drop them off the the local pantry. Donating bags means pantries dont need to buy them and clients who dont bring bags are able to take the food they need home with them!

  • Reply Diane July 9, 2017 at 11:02 am

    I can’t believe I didn’t know this Erin. Thank you!

  • Reply LAURA January 4, 2018 at 6:52 pm

    If you are in San Francisco you CAN recycle your plastic bags in the Blue bins! This came as a surprise to me.


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