At grocery stores across the country, the campaign to end the use of plastic bags has staked a claim on the checkout line. But in the produce department, plastic still reigns supreme. A selection of apples, a bunchy of kale dewy from the produce misters, or a pound of pinto beans from the wholesale bin—these items get dumped into single-use plastic produce bags.
In places where the canvas grocery bag already controls the territory, that's leading to a new front in the anti-plastic bag campaign: one targeting those plastic produce bags. Many of the bags’ critics are fighting on their own, but institutions are starting to catch on. Some farmers’ markets have switched to biodegradable single-use bags, a step above the traditional plastic ones. At Brooklyn's Park Slope Food Co-op, the environmental committee recently urged shoppers to forgo the bags altogether.
It’s an issue that introduces a bit of cognitive dissonance: What in the world should produce-buyers use instead to group their grapes or consolidate their quinoa, if not those convenient baggies? For some shoppers and items, the answer is simple: nothing! Those two lemons won’t wander far from each other. You’re going to wash that bundle of asparagus anyway. It’s perfectly reasonable to let the food loose in your cart, grocery bags, and produce drawer. It’ll still be there when you need it.
But for a dozen oranges? Or items like grains that need some sort of container? The eco-friendly producers of the world have come up with solutions ranging from Esty-chic to budget-friendly DIY. There are cotton options, both solid (this one has bees printed on it) and mesh. Muslin bags, though, weigh less, and come both in adorned and plain-Jane versions. You can buy mass-manufactured produce bags from a few different retailers, or you can make them yourself. One t-shirt can yield multiple produce bags. And mosquito netting apparently works quite well. Like the reusable bags used at checkout, produce bags will need a wash every once in a while.
To some, this sounds like yet another chore that’s labelled "green" but has a little impact. But giving up on plastic bags is one of those small choices that, when made on a mass scale, can have a huge impact. Plastic bags, sacks, and wraps make up a significant portion of all plastic waste—billions of pounds, which totaled 12 percent of all municipal plastic waste discarded in 2010, according to data collected by the Environmental Protection Agency. And plastic of all sorts makes up a growing portion of the country’s waste stream.
This stuff never breaks down completely. It just disintegrates into smaller and smaller pieces of plastic, ending as plastic dust. For those of us who don’t have the inclination to eliminate all plastics from our lives, it makes sense to start eliminating the sources that contribute the most to the pile of waste we collectively create. For me, plastic bags, both in the produce section and at the checkout, make the cut.