Grocery shopping fresh produce and bags

After reading either a post or a tweet by wandering scientist (my googling is coming up blank), I decided to add these produce bags to my Christmas wish list.  But Christmas is a long way away, so that got me thinking…

Despite reusable shopping bags and totes heavily cutting down on our plastic grocery bag horde, we still have a ton of the thin plastic bags that one puts produce in at the grocery store.  I try to not use a bag when I’m only buying one item, but each week we buy a bag of apples, and most weeks we buy other assorted groups of produce.  So our plastic bags drawer is full of these thin bags.

I use some of them to take my lunch to work, but they still pile up in the drawer until DH decides the drawer is too full and takes them to the grocery store to recycle.

Then it came to me… we could just reuse these bags for their intended purpose.  Because they only had clean fresh produce in them, they’re still clean.  So I stuck a couple of handfuls in our bag of grocery bags.  We’ll use them like this until they get gross or destroyed.  And come Christmas time, we’ll add the reusable produce bags to our rotation.

In theory, the plastic produce bags could become repositories for bacteria upon reuse, but they’re so fragile they will likely get destroyed before that comes close to being an issue.  And, we of course wash our produce before using it.  Even apples.  I’m a little paranoid about this, having grown up in the jack in the box e coli days.  I would feel uncomfortable eating produce from a reused bag without washing the produce… though I also feel uncomfortable eating produce from a new bag without washing the produce first.  (Another one of my paranoias is that the organic produce we usually buy is lying about pesticides.)

This change should hopefully limit our plastic-bag intake to the bulk aisle at the grocery.  (And our local grocery uses ziploc bags for bulk rather than the thin kind, which we reuse for scooped cat refuse.)

Now, I definitely don’t think that any one person’s behavior change is as important as getting laws changed, but it doesn’t take a whole lot of plastic bags to create ugly and potentially dangerous litter.  And this cuts down on having to remember to deal with the plastic bag drawer issue every few months.

37 Responses to “Grocery shopping fresh produce and bags”

  1. delagar Says:

    I reuse grocery bags for scoopings from the cat too! It’s like they’re made for that!

  2. gwinne Says:

    I like this idea. Generally I use leftover plastic bags for scooping the cat box (I tried compostable ones at one point but they were constantly ripping….perhaps there are better ones on the market now?).

  3. Shannon Says:

    I don’t put any of my produce in plastic bags, even when we buy large quantities of apples or tomatoes or whatever. We’re going to wash them at home, and it only takes me an extra minute or two to corral them at the grocery store or home without bags, so it’s not really that big of a deal. I know this approach is not for everyone, but it really amazes me the things people put in those bags. Like – why do you need them for bananas? They’re already in a peel, and they’re attached to each other.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      We definitely don’t use them for bananas or single fruits, but we do use them to corral the various apples we get each week. (Also I have apparently been misspelling the verb form of corral all my life.)

      • Shannon Says:

        LOL. Are you sure it’s not me who is mis-spelling that word? I am horrible at spelling – thank god for spell check. I guess my point is – do you really need to use them for the apples? I just put the various apples we get in our cart – I hit the produce aisle at the end of the trip. And then I load them a few at a time onto the belt and then into our reusable shopping bags. It’s not really that much more effort – and no small plastic bags required! If that doesn’t work for you, our grocery store has started stocking compostable produce bags. Maybe you could push for them to stock those? They’re somewhat strange and take getting used to, but that would have a huge impact if all grocery stores started carry those!

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        Yes, I am certain that not bagging our apples would complicate grocery shopping and our lives more than getting reusable mesh cotton bags would. We buy more than you do and we buy more types of apples. If we didn’t need to, we wouldn’t be.

        Unfortunately, compostable plastics can’t just be put on a backyard compost heap. They generally need professional-grade composters to break down properly. We have some compostable shopping bags from Whole Foods where we go about once a month– I guess Amazon prefers the illusion of compostability to the more expensive paper produce bags they’d had previously (which also use resources to make, but are better for the produce). At home we shop from a national grocery chain and getting bags that can be composted only in the types of composters that major cities have is not a priority for us or my activism efforts at this time, especially since our town only composts yard waste. (And, as a good midwesterner, I know how much agribusiness goes into making compostable plastic.)

  4. M Says:

    Maybe this is a good place to add my experience. I bought some cotton produce bags, used them once, and hated them. My problem is that a lot of the produce I buy dries out if I don’t keep it in plastic… or it is messy. Apples, lemons, potatoes, avocado – sure – all fine to keep in mesh/cotton. However, we buy broccoli every week. If not kept in plastic – it dries out in the fridge. Also it is messy and wet and leaves little green bits all over. Anything leafy – kale, lettuce, fresh cilantro – all dries out super fast if not kept in plastic. Or things like green beans, brussel sprouts… a little more hardy, but will still dry out. One option would be to transfer all produce to plastic bins when we get home, but when you have a LOT in the fridge, it’s definitely easier to store when the items are still in plastic bags. I would say that 60-70% of our produce is better kept in plastic. For some of the other items, we skip the plastic bags if possible and just put them in the cart. I reuse the bags at least once, if not a couple times (until dirty/wet… which usually happens pretty quickly). I also grow my own vegetables, and re-use grocery store bags to store this in the fridge (in addition to various plastic containers… many, many pounds of veggies being stored). I just don’t find the cotton/mesh that useful. I never hear other people with this complaint. I would be curious if I am just missing something here…

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      That’s good to know! We generally don’t have enough produce that it won’t fit into the produce drawers in the fridge. When we had a CSA we would spend a lot of time processing the food right away so it often didn’t stay in raw form for long (this is one reason we don’t currently have a CSA…)

      With lettuce, we try to process it right away and leave it in the salad spinner in the fridge. This also makes us more likely to actually eat it.

      • M Says:

        Processing right away makes sense and I think is the right strategy to make this work. We just go through a lot of produce and live a pretty chaotic life, so I feel like this might be too ambitious (sometimes it’s hard enough to get to the store and the food put away, let alone spend another 30-60 minutes with additional prep).

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        Yeah, we can’t currently handle it.

    • Miser Mom Says:

      So, I love the cloth bags, because I run them under the sink (with the lettuce or whatever in them), shake them out outside so the bag is damp, and it keeps the whatever that’s in it nice and crispy. In fact, the stuff that stays in plastic bags turns slimy after a couple of days, but the damp cloth bag (re-wetted if it dries out) works beautifully. Well, for me at least.

      I made my cloth bags out of pillowcases or sheets — no little bits fall out, like the mesh bags. I use mesh for things like apples, though.

  5. Lisa Says:

    I have/had taken exactly the same approach – we reuse our plastic bags as much as I can remember to bring and use them at the store. I also reuse them for CSA produce. I finally broke down and bought similar mesh produce bags and I love them. A few of the checkers I meet have trouble distinguishing what is in them (cucumber vs zucchini, for example), but most have no trouble. I keep the majority of my produce in the crisper drawers and haven’t felt like the produce goes bad any faster. I do prefer to use plastic for the leafy greens and fresh herbs that do go bad quickly, since when those get mushy they are extra gross (and I’m not quite on top enough of my fridge inventory to prevent that from happening sometimes).

  6. the Viking Diva Says:

    Organic or not, wash your produce! dirt, bugs, bug poop, mold spores …

  7. rose Says:

    Tare weight definition is – the officially accepted weight of an empty car, vehicle, or container that when subtracted from gross weight yields the net weight of …
    This means ANY container you take empty into a store can be weighed empty and it wiegth established so that can be reduced from the weight of any produce or bulk serve yourself purchases. Yes it does take a tiny bit of extra time and you may need to explain it to checkout checker and self check means having the overseeing cashier come over but where I live this is not uncommon for people to do and I think maybe grocery stores nationally may be legally required to accommodate this because legally they only sell the product not the container. I am NOT lawyer and your state may vary.
    This is why the light plastic and mess are popular … they really do not weight enough to matter.
    Use a good scale and weight one by one the bags you use and see if that weight added to say your apples is meaningful. For some it is, for some it is not.
    This changes the whole range of containers you can use at the store.
    IF you are picking your own produce from bulk open offerings you want to wash it. Other shoppers, who may not have washed their hands, may have touched it. I once watched a woman open berry boxes and sample for ripeness then re-close the box and sample from another one. ICK.
    Maybe adding expensive mesh bags isn’t needed. Maybe you have a child who would like to MAKE produce bags for all in family for Christmas. (gauze from fabric store, simple stitching, draw sting at top. BASIC LIFE SKILLS learned by any gender……..
    THANK YOU FOR THIS POST.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      I don’t think anybody has argued for not washing produce.

      My in-laws have to buy something off my amazon wish list at Christmas or they end up buying things that aren’t on the wishlist. Fancy cotton mesh bags will appeal to them.

  8. Alice Says:

    Are you using alternative bags for school lunches? My daughter is in a daycare where I have to send both breakfast and lunch components, and the sheer amount of plastic lunch/snack bags we use weekly has really gotten to bother me. I’ve looked on Amazon for better options, but keep getting stymied by reviews.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      We have a lovely collection of lunch bento boxes and modular lunch things both in metal and plastic and a few velcro baggies in cloth. Since there are 3 of us taking lunches, my love of buying sets of things hasn’t led to a problem yet even if they take two shelves in one of our cabinets. I can do a post on this with commentary if you’d like since I’ve tried out a bunch of different systems.

      Spoiler: I kind of love them all, though they all have different pros and cons. I suggest putting a few on your amazon wishlist if you have relatives who like to buy things for you and seeing what works for you. Alternatively get a set at your local grocery store or Target.

      • Alice Says:

        I would appreciate it, if you have a day when you don’t have other things you want to talk about!

        Bento boxes hadn’t occurred to me as a solution to the plastic problem, mainly because I’ve associated them so heavily with turning your kid’s lunch into a woodland scene or a tiny alien invasion or whatnot. Cute, but it looks so labor intensive.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        They make kinds that come with 3-5 sections that are great for using in place of baggies. The three section ones usually fit a sandwich and two snacks. Lazy, not cute! Lunchbots is great if you want metal but they tend to leak between sections so you can’t use wet stuff. The company we love for plastic 5 section no leaking is yumbox. But Rubbermaid also has great modular stuff—I especially love their salad set. If your kid loses and breaks stuff easylunchboxes has cheaper flimsier plastic versions of lunch bots.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        Oh and lunchkins make Velcro cloth baggies. We got ours at target. I think Whole Foods also carries them sometimes.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        And I use a lot of Pyrex for my lunches.

  9. Revanche @ A Gai Shan Life Says:

    “compostable plastics can’t just be put on a backyard compost heap”
    Wait, we’ve been using compostable bags from Trader Joe’s and then putting them in our compost bins. I assume that municipal composting can handle it but if we were to move to backyard composting, should we not use those bags for our own?

    Also I never really thought about bacteria in the plastic veggie bags, we reuse them for our trash bags and use a tiny bin for stinky garbage instead of buying large garbage bags.

  10. First Gen American Says:

    I feel fortunate because where I live, plastic grocery bags will be banned by the end of the year in the whole county. Right now, some towns have it, some don’t. Our locally owned organic grocer gave out 2 free mesh bags one week to all shoppers as they are embarking on reducing their plastic use by 50% this year. I love the mesh bags and will probably buy more.

    There is so much more I can do if I really think about it. One small recent change I made is to fill up a big water jug in the fridge. I’ve noticed a big decrease in seltzer can usage since I did that. Even though I have a water filter at the sink, it’s slow and waiting that extra 30 seconds to fill a glass vs 5 seconds seems to matter. This would be an interesting post. All the little things people do.

  11. Cloud Says:

    I thought – “oh, I know which post I mentioned those bags in!” but it turns out, no I didn’t. It wasn’t in the first three posts I thought it would be in! I did eventually find the mention, though: https://www.wandering-scientist.com/2019/04/little-updates.html

    I still use plastic bags for some of the messier produce, like cilantro. I like Miser Mom’s idea, though – I might get or make some solid cloth bags for those. I have some cloth bags but those are for the bulk nuts I buy and I wouldn’t want to get them confused. In my perfect world, I’d just grow my own cilantro, but while I can easily get it to grow I suck at trimming it frequently enough to keep it from bolting.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Thanks!!!

      We have the same problem with growing cilantro —- unless you keep an eagle eye on it it goes to seed really quickly. Ours generally lasts March to April. At least the bolting means it volunteers for the next spring.

  12. bookishbiker Says:

    I got sick of all the crap coming home from the grocery store about a year or so ago. Now I reuse my plastic bags until they become too holey, I even wash and air-dry them. I reuse smaller paper bags too – lunch bag size ones: my grocery store has them near some of the produce, so I tend to put apples, peaches, etc into (separate!) paper bags. A paper bag is also handy for open-topped pints of small berries or tomatoes. Those paper bags certainly last at least 3 or 4 uses, and the plastic bags even longer. I’ve also started reusing the bag for my ground coffee (buy from the bulk section, grind at store) – why not? I don’t need a fresh shiny bag each visit!

    I shop with a cloth bag that hangs in my kitchen, so I make sure I always use it to store a few paper bags, plastic bags, a coffee bag, and maybe even a reusable tub for the bulk olives section. I sometimes get an odd look from the bagger when I give them a bag that already has stuff in it, but mostly they get it. (I’m in a very blue state & city.)

    I’ve never had food poisoning and I’m not that concerned about scrubbing my produce, especially if I’ll be roasting it, but even when it’s fruits or veggies I’ll be eating raw. I give them a rinse but that’s about it. I’m sure someone will feel the need to lecture me but I’ve made it this far!

  13. bookishbiker Says:

    I think WP ate my comment (or it’s in moderation?). I reuse plastic bags a LOT (I even wash them). My grocery store puts out lunch-sized paper bags near some produce as an option, and I use (and resuse) those for apples, open pints of berries, etc. I also reuse the bag for my coffee beans, and even the tub for the olive bar. I shop with a cloth bag and store it in my kitchen, so I always make sure it’s got bags in it when I’m heading to the store. I’ve been doing this for about a year and it makes a HUGE difference in the volume of bags in my life.

    I’ve always washed/reused ziplock bags. I’ve purchased one box in 6 years and still have it half-full. I use them sparingly anyway.

  14. Jenny F. Scientist Says:

    I assume you already know that organic produce does use pesticides? (See here for anyone who’s confused : https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2011/06/18/137249264/organic-pesticides-not-an-oxymoron) but yes, I’d wonder if they were truly using only organic approved ones too!

    Related: for about a year one stall at the farmer’s market had a “no chemicals!” sign and I boycotted them on principle (everything is chemicals! You are chemicals, farmer!) They eventually changed it to “No-spray farming methods” , thankfully.

    I found some great vintage fabric at the thrift shop and made grocery bags and I’ve also been recycling rice bags as we eat the rice (The 20 pound kind).

  15. Linda Says:

    Our local farmers market will provide a reusable mesh bag free in exchange for three plastic produce bags. It’s a nice perk. I keep the reusable produce bags in my farmers market basket, which means that I usually forget to bring them to the grocery store since I keep the grocery shopping bags in a different place. I’m going to have to do something about that.

    The local Whole Foods has paper bags in the produce section and I use those for loose fruits and veggies whenever possible. I like to reuse the paper bags for things like storing mushrooms in the fridge. When the bags get tattered I can add them to the municipal compost cart.

    I like the idea of using cloth bags and wetting them to keep leafy greens and other produce prone to drying out. I have some cotton sheets that have seen better days, so maybe I’ll try to turn them produce bags. I could practice using my sewing machine, and make something practical at the same time.


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