It seems like we will be debating the relative environmental impact of paper, plastic, and reusable shopping bags forever. But we still need something to transport those goods home somehow.

Reusable shopping bags

I have been using reusable cloth bags to carry all my groceries for years now. And throwing them in the washing machine on a regular basis. But what do you do about fresh produce?

At the supermarket I usually go to once a week, the store design forces you to enter the produce section first. And right in front of you are several handy rollers of thin plastic bags. You can take as many as you like. Rip them from the sheet of film. And then try and open them as you drop your various fruits and vegetables inside. Some of them are very hard to open. Tip: wet your fingers. It works for me.

Some argue that you should not need these soft thin bags at all. After all, cucumber and bananas and other fruits and vegetables already have their own packaging (their skins). I understand this, but I also want to protect myself from other people’s grubby hands being all over my selected produce (recognising that my own spotless hands have done the very same thing). During the early days of Covid (when we were not too sure how it was transmitted), how you handled fresh fruit and vegetables was especially important. And because I now wash the fruit and vegetables when I get home (to remove any possible chemical residues), you would be amazed at how much dirt and stuff comes off them.

There is another reason I currently use these produce bags. You need them to separate the various fruits and vegetables from each other. Now you could argue that the supermarket is forcing us to do this because it makes it easier for the checkout operator to find the barcode on each item so that whatever is today’s price is charged appropriately. But can you imagine the chaos (not to mention the long line-ups) if every shopper dropped their many fruits and vegetables loose on the conveyor belt, not in bags? Oranges, apples, kiwifruit, all have different dimensions, and roll in different ways. Chaos! And you still need something to carry them home.

So, bags are convenient. But which ones?

Canada is moving to ban single-use plastic bags next year. A New Zealand ban comes into effect in a couple of weeks. I happened to be there recently and was interested to see how they are preparing for it.

A reusable bag for produce

I found one major supermarket chain promoting a reusable produce bag, so I bought 10 of them to try out upon my return to Canada. Reusable is better, right? The instructions are clear: wash before use, machine wash cold, line dry, do not bleach, do not iron, do not dry-clean. It is far too soon in my trial to see how durable these bags are (how many trips before they must be replaced). And if you follow the instructions literally, they must be washed after every use (which in energy and water terms has an environmental impact).

But in a practical sense they do work. My fruit and vegetables were easily separated and the checkout operator had no problem reading the barcode through the mesh of the bag. I did have a bit of trouble with the drawstring at the top of the bag, but worked it out.

What do you do with meat items though? This store offers mince, chicken, and fish in vacuum-packed polystyrene trays. Normally I would place these in one of those soft thin produce bags so that if there is a liquid leak it is contained to the meat bag and not splashing all over everything else. But if I can’t use these produce bags as a meat separator next year, what do I do? Have a designated reusable bag just for meat items?

And then there are life cycle and pass-on-the-cost-to-the-consumer issues. These bags claim to be made from at least 80% polyester in China. So, we are swopping out thin plastic film bags, which I suspect mostly go to garbage, for another plastic bag which can be reused. Plastic for another plastic. And the consumer will pick up the tab (the New Zealand bags cost me roughly 50 cents Canadian each).

We have some interesting times, and choices, ahead!

Footnote: Just bought some similar bags (President’s Choice at No Frills) for $3.50 for 3 ($1.16 each). Also polyester mesh made in China. No indication of recycled content. Larger bag and the drawstring is sturdier. It has pull-through plastic stubs at the end. Will be comparing!