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Using Plastic Produce Bags: Let’s Unpack This

Erin Mickelwaite, MSW 

Pun intended. Picture this: you are at the store, shopping for fruits and vegetables. You reach for that ubiquitous roll of thin, clear plastic produce bags. You unroll five, six, seven, eight. Not even thinking that there might be another way. So as you reach for some bell peppers and you start loading them into the plastic bag, let’s pause right here for a moment.   

Where have those bell peppers been, and where are those bell peppers going? In order to end up in that neatly stacked pile on the grocery store shelf, those peppers had to travel many a mile. First they were picked in the fields, then they were likely sorted by human hands and put into boxes, those boxes were loaded onto a truck, and shipped to your local supermarket. From there, The peppers were unloaded from the boxes and placed onto the shelf by someone’s hands. And it’s possible that several shoppers before you may have touched one of your peppers as they were checking them out.  Now, in this moment, you are going to pick them up, and bring them home.  

So let’s say those rolls of plastic bags were nowhere to be found. Imagine for a moment that you picked up the peppers, placed them in your cart, on top of something heavier and less fragile.  You make your way to the checkout, again picking up your peppers and putting them on the conveyor belt, the checkout clerk picks them up and puts them on the scale to weigh them, and then you place them into your own reusable bags, en route to their final destination: your house. When you get home, you take them out of the bags and put them into your refrigerator.  You wash your hands, and move on with your day. 

So why are we hung up on putting all of our produce in bags, only to put them in more bags, to get them home?  What good does this actually do?  A micro-thin layer of plastic certainly doesn’t protect your produce from a bump or a nick.  And assuming you wash your fruits and vegetables before you eat or cook with them, is that thin plastic shield really serving as a barrier from germs?  And aren’t those the same “germs” that you touched anyway when you picked them up in the first place? 

There is a term that has been coined during the Covid-19 pandemic called “hygiene theater.”  Meaning that, although valid studies have debunked the myth that Covid-19 is spread readily via contaminated surfaces, we continue anyway to spend an exorbitant amount of time and money sanitizing, cleaning and disinfecting every little thing.  It just makes us feel safer, even though it does’t actually make us safer.  I liken this concept to using plastic bags for produce:  It makes us somehow feel better, as though our fruits and vegetables are neatly encased in this barrier and somehow that is more hygienic and safe, so it just makes us feel better about the whole thing.   

I invite you to reconsider.  Ponder for a moment how many of these bags are used at your local grocery store each day.  Hundreds?  Thousands?  And then ponder how many folks actually take the time to clean and reuse them, or clean and recycle them into the stretch plastics recycling bin available at most stores.  Sadly, the majority likely end up in the landfill, or even worse, the streets or the ocean.   

I’ve been doing my grocery store produce shopping without those little plastic bags for quite some time.  If I really feel the need to use a plastic bag for something like mushrooms that may break easily or green beans that are too unruly in a pile, I bring one from home or use a very thin and lightweight reusable tote bag.  But by and large, my shopping cart is pretty much a pile of fruits and veggies happily commingling without all of those stuffy, stifling plastic bags among them.   

Shopping without bags might require a bit more care with regards to piling and placing items into your cart.  And it’s a little more effort at the checkout line to keep things grouped for weighing and packing.  But in the grand scheme of things, these minimal efforts can add up to a lot of unnecessary waste diverted from the landfill, and perhaps even help us to feel a bit more connected to what we eat, where it comes from and how it ends up on our plates.  Creating a more sustainable world begins with deconstructing our habitual practices and taking just a little bit more time to exercise the care and consideration necessary to move a little closer to zero waste.   

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