Yet another plastic-bags blog post.

thWashing and re-using plastic bags is a frugality meme that won’t die. Although it saves money and is an eco-friendly thing to do, it’s often derided in a “get a life!” way: You waste all that time and energy just to save a few cents?

I have a few thoughts about that. Washing takes just a few seconds. These bags cost  more than a few pennies each. Finally, they’re made from petroleum or natural gas — a couple of non-renewable resources.

The Bargain Babe website recently resurrected the notion with a post called “21 reuses for freezer bags.” Some of Megan Thode’s ideas are clever but I disagree with some, such as using them to start seedlings, pipe frosting or transport used cooking oil to the trash.

To do those things would mean trashing a perfectly good Ziploc. Can’t play that way.

However, I do think that once bags spring pinhole leaks they can be used for some of her other suggestions, such as matching kids’ clothing or storing board-game pieces.

I’ve got probably seven or eight boxes of freezer bags in the basement. At some point I’ll get to them, but right now I’m washing and reusing bags that are probably on their fourth or fifth year of active duty. They last so long because we’re mostly freezing things like raspberries, rhubarb, meat and fish – no poky bones or sharp edges to puncture the plastic.

(For extra frugal credit: All were purchased on sale and with coupons.)

Late last month I threw a lot of black beans into the slow cooker and let them simmer for hours while I wrote. Drained, cooled, measured into quart-size Ziplocs and then laid flat to freeze, they are the genesis of several different potential meals yet take up practically no room in the freezer. They’re also much cheaper than the canned kind and have zero sodium. I’ll probably do a batch of pinto beans over the weekend.

Sometimes plastic IS fantastic

My point, which sort of got lost in that Rachael Ray moment, is that freezer bags can save money in two ways:

  • First in the preservation of cheap or even free food – a lot of the rhubarb and some of the raspberries were gleaned, and both crops  also grow in our yard without much coddling
  • Second in their ability to stave off takeout – pulling a bag of pinto beans and a bag of leftover cooked chicken from the freezer means a pot of chili on the stove in no time, vs. calling out for a pizza

In honor of Earth Day, which is April 22, it would be nice to be able to say that I don’t buy plastic at all. But food must be stored, and sometimes plastic bags are best. For example, those who do batch cooking swear by flat bags of food that stack so neatly in the freezer.

Here at Casa Cheapskate we also use plastic and glass containers for food storage. Many are repurposed sour cream containers, pickle jars and the like. We prefer plastic bags for long-term storage because we can use a straw to suck out the air. But items that get used relatively quickly, such as soup stock or leftover cooked meat, is just as likely to end up in a jar or container as a bag.

Abuse less, reuse more

I’m completely aware that I can’t save the Earth all by myself. Yet I am just enough of a CHID major to believe that if each of us does one or two (or 20) things to make things easier on the planet then we will bring about change. Not overnight; maybe not even over a decade.

Businesses must also examine their practices, obviously. I could recycle aluminum my whole life long without making up for the impact of a single fast food restaurant’s relentless use-and-toss policies. Neither will 10,000 people’s purchase of secondhand cancel out clear-cutting or strip-mining.

But an attitude of “abuse less, reuse more” has to make some kind of impact. Do we really need to upgrade smartphones and tablets every six months? Would it kill us to carry our own travel mugs into the coffeehouse? Or maybe tactics like cooking at home, buying in bulk or occasionally walking to do errands could be incorporated into a lifestyle.

Clearly your mileage may vary. Sometimes our lives are so fraught that we feel one more demand/adjustment/change will send us over the edge. If that’s you, then pick your spots or maybe vow to re-examine your life in a few months.

Change doesn’t have to be onerous. It can be as simple as one washed plastic bag at a time.

Readers: Do you wash and reuse bags or is it just too embarrassing to admit? Got any other easy yet eco-friendly tips to share?

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  1. Terri M

    I reuse most bags. Sometimes they are just too icky to clean. I love 2 gallon zipper bags that I can get at a local store! I tend to use plastic reusable containers more than bags. I recycle almost everything and have only a grocery shopping bag of trash per week. I compost and try to help Mother Earth where I can.

  2. We’re um, reusing them for cat poo.

    • Funny you should mention this. I live in an almost desert area, very little rain. Yet the newspaper folks wrap the paper in plastic every single day. Drives me nuts.

      But I did use the plastic bags to scoop the cat box when we had a cat. May he rest in peace.

  3. Into third week of a road trip in RV. There are two rinsed out bags drying right now. Use # 5 or 6. Also have reused the same two pieces of tinfoil for the baked potatoes all trip. Really happy to get the plastic bags when we do a little grocery shopping on the road. They are not available at home anymore without purchasing them.

  4. Tina in NJ

    The bags the newspaper comes in hold kitty droppings. I have a stash of cloth grocery bags, but they’re not always enough. When I moved out of Casa Parentus, I was given a kitchen garbage can that uses plastic grocery sacs instead of purchased kitchen garbage bags. Still using it and will probably only get rid of it if they completely outlaw the things. We still recycle a lot of bags, but we don’t have to buy kitchen garbage bags!

  5. Using and reusing plastic bags for germination of tomato seeds seems like a worthy endeavor. I can reuse those bags, too. I always freeze in Ball canning/freezing jars. I put two whipped eggs in 4 oz. jars, just right for breakfast.

    I am not a fan of washing out plastic bags, but don’t use them often. I do reuse an unwashed one to take grease to the garbage, to transport food to the hens. Then, after their second or maybe third use, I toss them.

    I use the two-gallon freezer bags to slip two loaves of bread into and put in the freezer. The bread is still not up to use by date, but it is 1/3 the cost. When I get out the second loaf, I just roll up the bad and store it in a certain place in the freezer. I don’t wash it. The next time I get bread, I reuse these freezer bags. Some have been used for two or more years.

    In the case of a fat loaf, sometimes only one loaf will fit, but that’s no problem since it will be saved to used again.
    When I have a sandwich, I use a reusable sandwich box–plastic.

    I reuse the yogurt and other tubs for leftovers that won’t be heated or that go home with someone. I don’t freeze in them because they are not airtight.

    In glass jars I freeze eggs, strawberries, beans, garlic, olive oil and other items. I put dried beans in quart jars, stick them in the freezer for at least 48 hours and then take them out for shelf storage.

  6. lostAnnfound

    I try to reuse plastic tubs that we get at the deli or from other food items like cream cheese. They wash really well and can last for a long time.

  7. Caroline Kipps

    I wash and reuse plastic bags all the time. And I have paid to buy those fabric, reusable snack bag things to use in my kids’ lunch boxes. Like you, I don’t think I can save the planet by just reusing plastic bags. On the other hand, if everyone made a number of small, easy-to-do adjustments in their habits of living, perhaps it really could make a difference!

  8. Sandra Gonzales

    Heck yeah I wash and re-use the bags. By the way, I learned that from you some years back. Thanks for all the tips!

  9. Lisa O'Brien

    I have started recycling everything I can. I recycle all plastic bags…food bags are washed and reused. Grocery bags (if used because I have about 6 re-useable in my car)are used for camper garbage cans, picking up dog droppings or recycled back at the store they come from. I also reuse my garbage bag that keeps all my empty soda cans. I take my soda cans back and fold the dirty bag up and take it home to rinse, hang out to dry and reuse. My kids laugh at me but I believe that we all need to do our part to keep our earth healthy!

  10. I rewash and reuse ziplock bags and they work their way through the hierarchy until they are used to freeze raw meat. At that point, I throw them away after use. I’m a bit squicky about raw meat…

    Like many of your readers, I’m working on using less bags in general, and focusing on my huge selection of plastic ware. It does take up more space in the freezer, though.

    • Donna Freedman

      Yep — freezer space is finite. But I still work to use fewer bags.
      Should also have mentioned that we also use bread bags, tortilla bags and produce bags for short-term storage — or for our “bags of bones,” into which we toss vegetable scraps and bones (steak, chicken) that ultimately get turned into soup stock. No worries about freezer burn there; we just throw then into a bread or bagel bag.
      Thanks for reading, and for leaving a comment.

  11. Timely post as I was just musing on this subject last night as I washed out some “vintage” plastic bags. Specifically I was wondering how much money I had saved by reusing each plastic bag umpteen times instead of throwing one away and using a new one every time as some folks do. And also how much plastic had avoided the landfill just by my habit. Then if I multiplied that by more reused bags and more people – then I think I lost my train of thought :/

    • Donna Freedman

      My own train of thought jumps the track on a regular basis. But I agree about the landfill, which I then extrapolate to “resources”: If even a certain percentage of folks reused then that’s less petroleum (both to manufacture and to transport the finished product).

      • Yeah, that’s where I think my thoughts might have been headed before I saw something shiny.

  12. I’ve been washing and reusing plastic bags for ages now. When we had a dog, we used grocery and/or bread bags for dog poop. I just won’t reuse any plastic bag that has had meat in it. I am also trying to reuse aluminum foil. Fortunately, my town makes recycling easy with curbside pickup every week of paper, cans, and bottles. We don’t have to separate colored from clear glass, don’t have to separate newspaper from magazines… it’s a really sweet deal. Besides, last year our town saved $250K in solid waste disposal costs.

  13. Catseye

    Sorry, I just can’t make myself wash out plastic bags. It’s all I can do to force myself to hand wash dishes and glassware. (no dishwasher.)But I do reuse most of them 2 or 3 times before discarding them.
    I have cut way back on paper towel use, though. I started using sponges to wipe down counters, the stove and the microwave. I also sometimes use a dishcloth to wipe up spills after I’ve just washed dishes. I can make a roll of paper towels last 4 to 6 months. For me, that’s quite an accomplishment! ;o)

  14. I wash and reuse plastic containers from butter, cool whip, mayonnaise, etc. I also wash plastic straws to reuse. I feel guilty about using plastic straws, but boy do they get reused. I wash them till they eventually split. I just keep plastic straws from fast food places where I bought a drink. I use plastic glasses with lids so I can have ice water in the car, at work, etc. and not worry about spills, and wash them along with the straws. I use half of half a paper towel as napkins at meals, then after the meal put them in a plastic bag that hangs on the door handle of the pantry to clean up kitchen spills or clean up after my cat. I also use plastic pitchers to catch water when I have to run water to get it hot for washing, and then pour the pitcher water on plants, or use it later to rinse dishes before putting them in the dishwasher. Plastic definitely is useful. But I don’t have enough energy yet to wash bags. I just try to avoid using them at all, by using the plastic containers again. We are still going to leave a thin line of plastic in the geologic record of our age, but I try not to buy any more than I can help.

  15. christy

    While I agree very much about reusing things until they are completely unusable I have to mention I don’t do this with certain plastic items that touch food and drinkable liquids.

    Plastic breaks down over time and with uses(on a molecular level, but also it can get physically brittle, which is caused by molecular change), especially if you fluctuate the temperature, this releases chemicals which leech into the contents, this can be true for anything from a yogurt cup to other plastic food tubs.

    I reuse ziplock bags and plastic containers for non food items.

    However for food items I have found reusable food savers that are BPA free. Costco has glass ones and plastic ones. I even found a few at the dollar store that are BPA free (check the bottoms for this label). Thusly I rarely have had to use a ziplock bag. It may take me a year to go through a box.

  16. Why on earth would a person throw out a perfectly good ziplock bag? Especially the kind that has one of those cool little plastic zipper pull thingies!

    The logic of not reusing plastic bags that have held meat escapes me. Would you throw out a plate that you’d used to carry a piece of raw steak to the barbecue?

    I fill the bag with dish detergent, a handful of baking soda, and hot water. Zip it up. Set it in the sink. Let it soak for several outs or overnight. Scrub. Rinse. Dry. Reuse. Haven’t come down with ptomaine poisoning yet!

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