Tips for Using Reusable Shopping Bags

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This is part of the Going Green series. Join me as we explore ways to make green living more convenient.

Back in my youth, I worked at a grocery store. It was my very first “real” job. I bagged groceries for two years during high school. And since I was a perfectionist, I became “expert” at packing bags.

Woe to the box boy today who tries to pack my tomatoes with my canned goods!

And I’m soooooo old that I remember when the plastic grocery bags first came out. They said that they were going to revolutionize our world. Or something close. But in reality, they were cheaper than paper.

When I was new on the job I asked customers which they would prefer. It didn’t take long before my manager called me over and told me not to give them a choice. Plastic is cheaper, so bag in plastic unless they ask otherwise.

Today, nothing drives me up a wall more than those fifty-two million plastic bags that seem to reproduce overnight in the pantry. Thankfully, reusable shopping bags are on the scene.

I first started building my collection about three years ago and I haven’t looked back. I love it that my grocery bags won’t break on me, won’t clutter up my pantry and reproduce like bunny rabbits, that they get me cash credit at the store, and that they are being reused instead of going to waste.

Using reusable shopping bags has been the number one easiest means for me to reduce waste in our home. But, it did take some getting used to. And I’ve yet to perfect it. As always, still a work in progress.

Here are some tips to make it easier for you to use reusable shopping bags:

1. Find bags you love.

I have over 20 shopping bags, accumulated over a number of years. Some were given to me. Some I bought. Some I bought again because I forgot to bring some to the store.

I have some favorites, for different reason. I’ve got durable, heavy duty bags for canned goods. I’ve got thin, easily washable cloth bags for meats and produce. I’ve got some all-purpose bags just cause.

If you like the function and fashion of something, you’re more likely to use it.

2. Keep the bags in the car.

Probably the biggest downside to using reusable bags is forgetting to bring them with you when you shop. One solution is to keep them near the front door or even in the car. If you have your bags with you all the time, you are more likely to use them. There are even bags that roll up into tight little packages to pack in your purse.

Some objections have arisen to this over the last year due to the evidence that bacteria is present in the bags and can grow at a tremendous rate in a hot car.

One solution is to make sure that items like dairy, meat, poultry, and produce are packed in washable bags. That way you can make sure to wash the bags after shopping and then return them to the car in clean condition.

3. Wash the bags regularly.

For the reasons mentioned above, it’s important to wash the bags on a regular basis. I have a small laundry basket in my kitchen for corralling wash clothes and kitchen towels. After a shopping trip, I add to this any bags that might have been contaminated by meats or dairy. They wash up easily and can be returned to their posts.

4. Designate bags for other uses as well.

We use our reusable bags for a number of uses, including toting library books to and from home, carrying picnic lunches, packing beach supplies, and anything else where a tote bag is handy. Keeping them in the car makes it easy to carry stuff around town.

In fact, since I started collecting reusable shopping bags, transportation of stuff has been simplified manifold. Not only am I reducing clutter in my kitchen as well as in the local landfills, but my life is made a little bit easier.

Carrying groceries in from the car is made easier because I know the bag is not going to break. And I make fewer trips back and forth since more can fit in a reusable bag than it can in a plastic one.

How do reusable shopping bags help your life as MOM?

This is part of the Going Green series. Stay tuned all week for daily giveaways and ideas for small ways to go green.

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  1. I just bought some today, I’m currently at college and with no car, my only way back and forth to the grocery store is walking. Plastic bags are too flimsy to make the trip back to my apartment with heavier items The reusable bags save me space and are sturdy enough to make carrying packs of water or canned goods simple.

  2. I’ve been using the bags for years now and have quite the collection. The best recent idea I read was to use one of these bags in place of a paper gift bag when wrapping a present. It’s actually less expensive to buy and the recipient gets another gift.

  3. I read through the comments here to find eco-friendly replacements for those stiff plastic sheets found at the bottom of reusable bags. One person posted that she cuts inexpensive place mats in half to make two. I’m just wondering if anyone had any other ideas???

  4. I know this is late to the party, but I absolutely love the big blue ikea bags for laundry bags. One holds our exact washer load of clothes, and they are super easy to store when we are done with laundry. I used to have the whole foods better bags, but mine are pretty much dead. As soon as you’d get the groceries out of it, the cat would come flying out of nowhere, jump into the bag and slide it right off the table (cat inside still) then put his back legs out the back and race the bag around…. until you empty the next bag and the game starts again. I had to give up on using them at all once we got a puppy though. Now the cat drags them off the table rocket style and then the pug puppy chases him around barking her fool head off. Eventually, they both try to fit in the bag. This led to the eventual destruction of almost all of our better bags. πŸ™

  5. I am a long time proponent of reusable shopping bags. I have no problem using them at the grocery store or a clothing store. They just make sense. When I began on this journey, I kept forgetting my bags in the car. Rather than having my groceries bagged at checkout, I would have the bagger just put everything back in the cart and I would bag all the groceries at my car — with my reusable shopping bags. This way my forgetfulness “punished” me and not the earth. It didn’t take long before I started remembering to grab my bags before entering the store.

  6. I have been creating cloth items for years. When I started making totes and purses, it was when our economy crashed. Recently, I have started making re-usable shopping bags, based on the simple plastic shopping bag from the local retail and grocery stores. It is a one piece pattern and I can stitch them up in approx. 45 min. I am using old sheets that have been washed many times, so the fabric is not only preshrunk and easy to work with, it is being green, recycling what I have on hand.
    I still make my other bags, however this is a more economical way to contribute to elimination of the plastic and possibly bring in a bit of cash.

  7. I had read somewhere that to help you remember your reusable bags you should write it at the top of your grocery list! This has worked for me really well.

  8. I guess I’m going to be the lone “earth killer” and admit that I rarely use my resusable bags. πŸ™‚ Oh, I have ’em, but I purposefully leave them at home these days. Why? Well, what else do you clean up dog poop with if not a plastic grocery bag?? Seriously, my husband asked me yesterday if I needed to go to the grocery store because we were completely out of plastic bags. πŸ™‚

  9. I too love my bags. I found an unexpected convenient use for them while on vacation in DisneyWorld this past year. We put all the stroller “stuff” (sweatshirts, snacks, etc.) into one and put the whole bag into the basket under the stroller seat. When we had to quickly fold up the stroller for anything (security, buses, etc.) it was SO quick and easy to just grab the bag vs. picking out all the loose items.

  10. I have a few reusable bags that I seem to forget about more than I remember – even if they are in my car. More often than not, they end up getting used for “project” bags for storing and toting my crochet or knitting projects.

    For groceries, I think I’m actually going to make some to use. Especially now that they have discovered some of those inexpensive store bags to contain unhealthy levels of lead!!

  11. My beef with the reusables is that the bagger seems to think they must fill it with as much as possible. I don’t have Arnold muscles. I can’t carry a bag with 2 gallons of ice cream and 2 gallons of milk stuffed in it!! I love my veggie bags…they are smaller for your individual veggies, so you don’t need the little plastic baggies in the produce section.

  12. I have a lot of those paper-type reusable bags that I bought at the grocery store or gotten as goody bags (I’m not really sure what they’re made out of, but I’m sure they’d desolve in the wash). Do you have any suggestions for how to clean bags that aren’t cloth or wipeable surfaces? I’m afraid they’re full of bacteria after regular use over the years!

    1. I am not an expert on this, but I’m going to say what about Lysol? I know that may not be “green” — I actually have no idea. But, it seems that that might work?

  13. I love my reusable bags because they hold so much more than the plastic bags. And I’m not worried about the milk or oj tearing the side of the bag and dumping onto the ground!

    I forgot them for about 6 months after I got my first one. After that, I finally started remembering, and now I usually do pretty well. Don’t give up if you don’t remember the first week or even month. πŸ™‚

  14. I purchased cheap placemats (Big Lots for $1 each) and cut them into stiffeners for the bottom of my cloth bags. I could get 2 out of each mat. Now if I could only get the baggers to turn the stiffener down to the bottom of the bag instead of keeping it upright along the side of the bag. Oh well, if that is my only complaint. lol

  15. Another use for reusable grocery bags is using them for our toiletries while on vacation. We put our stuff in gallon ziploc bags to reduce leakage and then all our bags go into the reusable bag and off we go. This is great when we are in a hotel room or staying at family members houses, all our stuff is in one area and everyone knows where stuffis.

  16. We also use reusable bags as an affordable alternative to organizing bins in the kids closets. I use them to organize barbies, polly pockets, and other little toys and than hang them by hanger on the girls upper closet rod. They also fit in the cubbies just right in the closet organizer. We have black & lime green store cloth bags & it works great to pick up the toys quickly too πŸ™‚

  17. I worked as a supermarket cashier for almost 10 years after high school and I’m still a stickler about how my groceries are packed. One good reason to use the reusable bags (with the square bottoms!) is that they stay upright in the car. The plastic ones tip over and food is everywhere when I get home. πŸ™‚

  18. I got some really cute reusable bags free from Kelloggs a little over a year ago and several of them we have used to wrap gifts in because they were so cute. (They had Kelloggs characters on them) My 15 year old daughter gave one to a friend with the gift inside and then I gave 2 baby gifts.

      1. @maggie, Mine were totally free, no shipping. ( this was over a year ago though) They were buy 2 boxes of Kelloggs get one bag free at the store!!

  19. Love my reusable bags for grocery shopping and so many other things (library, pool, etc.)! I do still put all meat into plastic bags, first. The non-grocery stores around here look at you funny if you bring in reusable bags, but I guess that’s ok because I need plastic bags to clean out the litter box every day. I really, really need to run the reusables through the laundry – I don’t know the last time I did!

  20. I use mine for all sorts of things — even for storing outgrown clothes. I love the little foldable ones that I can keep in my purse for groceries.

  21. Some people are not very smart. “Bacteria can grow on [anything] reusable!” Sure, so that’s a reason to use all disposable stuff? What did we do 30 or 50 or 100 years ago before we had anything disposable? Are we suddenly at seriously increased risk of problems from bacterial growth??

    That said, my bags are washable, and anytime they’ve held meat or anything that has leaked or otherwise seem like they might need to be washed, they get washed. I have enough that I never need all the ones I have for any one shopping trip, so a few in the laundry is no big deal.

    Forgetting them is definitely my biggest problem!

  22. Great tips – we have been using our cloth bags now for about 5 years. I like to keep some in the trunk. I have an insulated bag that I reserve for meat products when shopping and another bag with an apple that is strictly for produce. All the bags get regular washings. But we use our bags for more than just grocery shopping. The are used for gym bags, lunch bags, laundry bags, pool bags, etc…. Keep them handy and easy to use and they soon be used by everyone in the house.

  23. i love my reusable bags. like you, my first real job was at a grocery store in high school (before the days of plastic bags!) and i too became an expert in packing bags. my goal with the paper bags was to “keep them square.” to this day, i still unload my cart with intent to keep like items together so they get bagged together. and heaven help the sacker/bagger who puts fragile products on the bottom of a bag!

  24. There is a new company called Thirty One that offers many sizes and types of reusable bags that can be used for any and all types of storage and organization.

    Check out my website. I am always looking for new recruits and buisness.

    Email me with questions!

  25. I use my reuseable bags a lot. I keep them on hook in the laundry room that goes out to the garage. It’s easy to grab them as I go out the door. I also have a couple of those foldable ones that I keep in my car for the unexpected trips to pick something up.

    I have not been good about produce and meat, though. I always get the plastic bags, but I’ve been eyeing some mesh produce bags on Amazon. I’m saving Swagbucks to get them.

    Like the previous poster, we use plastic bags for picking up after our dog. I guess I should find a greener alternative.

    1. @Cheri, I’ve been eyeing the mesh bags, too. I’m not sure I want to use them for meats. I’m a germaphobe. But, I definitely want to invest in them for my produce.

      I have heard of people choosing to buy meat only from the butcher or deli counter — and then they use their own reusable containers. It’s definitely cutting down on the waste, but also a lot of convenience.

    2. @Cheri, I bought a couple of mesh laundry bags at the dollar store and cut them up and sewed my own mesh produce bags. I was able to get six bags from each. I’m not that great at sewing so they didn’t turn out as pretty as some of the ones you can buy, but they’re much cheaper:)

    3. @Cheri,
      I found mesh bags for my produce at Dollar Tree – a package of 4. Can’t beat the price. Cashiers have asked me where I found them.

  26. I love my reusable bags! I have 5 heavy duty, reinforced bottom, thermal bags that accompany me on my grocery trips! I used to have 6, but I was at Aldi weekend before last and someone stole one right out of my cart when I was checking the eggs to be sure none were broken (glad I had my purse on my shoulder!). I have some lighter duty ones that get regular use too, but the heavy duty ones are the best for hauling my groceries!

    We still end up with some of the plastic ones, but I save those for bagging icky smelly garbage (like chicken fat or bones) before it goes in the acutal garbage can bag or cleaning up behind my pups when we go for walks.

  27. Just this past weekend, while grocery shopping, I started thinking about getting more reusable bags, I have a few though I always forget them at home so I actually never used them for grocery shopping. I also hate plastic bags I just need to commit and remember to use my reusable bags when I shop. I like the tip of keeping in the car.

  28. I only have two, or maybe three of those kind of bags. I use them for things like carrying books, etc. to church. I am a Sunday School teacher. I use one to carry my mail to the post office, so I don’t drop any and loose it! I take one to yard sales, to carry my “stuff” around in. But I have never used them to go grocery shopping, because I like my plastic bags for scooping my cat litter in and lining my trash baskets. I think I will have to try to cut down on this and at least use the cloth bags for some of my groceries. I just have not gotten into the habit. Thanks for the ideas! I love your posts!

    1. @carla, I find that even though I use reusable at least 75% of the time, I still have enough plastic bags coming in the house. Hubs usually doesn’t have reusables with him — and sometimes I forget.