The good, the bag, and the ugly


For many years, hauling home a dozen plastic bags full of groceries from the supermarket used to be quite normal. Only weirdos and hippies brought their own bags. But that was all before we realised that plastic was the enemy, and before eco became a hot trend. These days, it’s just normal to turn up to the supermarket with reusable bags.

Given that New Zealanders use 1.6 billion plastic bags a year, this is an admirable and worthwhile initiative. But while it’s simple, it’s not always easy to remember to use your bags consistently.

First, you need to remember to bring the bags with you. Every time, whether you’re nipping in for a bottle of milk, or doing the epic weekly family shop. Then you need to get the bags back into the car after each shopping trip, too. If you already struggle with remembering things, and putting them back where you got them, these steps that seem so simple to anti-plastic-bag fanatics can seem like just too much work.

Make it easy

When you’re establishing a habit, you need to make it as easy as possible, so it can become automatic. Store your reusable shopping bags within easy reach of the driver’s seat. Nobody is going to bother to trundle round to the back of the car and open the boot, especially in the dark or in bad weather. The map pocket (that’s the vertical storage space on the inside of the car door) is a good spot; even if you use the one on the passenger door, it’s easy enough to reach over and grab your bags before you get out of the car. Try to buy bags that fold up neatly and have domes or velcro to keep them closed.

Set some rules

If you’re three aisles into your shop before you realise you’ve left your wallet or purse in the car, what do you do? You go back to the car for it, of course. So that’s the attitude you need to adopt for your bags. As soon as you remember they’re back in the car, go back for them. Your trolley will be fine where it is for two minutes.

There’s a limit

The number of reusable bags you have should accurately reflect your usual grocery shop. The next time you do a “typical” shop with your reusable bags, count how many bags you used, and discard any beyond that number.

If you’re the type who gets to the checkout, realises you don’t have your bags with you, and buys more reusable bags, you will just end up swapping your plastic bag mountain for a reusable bag stash that could feed the five thousand. The cheap reusable bags you buy at the supermarket checkout are usually made from polypropylene. That’s plastic, folks. So you’re not doing anyone any favours by buying more of them than you need. There’s no reason why you can’t use the supermarket basket or trolley to get your groceries from the checkout to the car. Don’t fall into the trap of getting more bags than you need; train yourself to use the bags you already have instead.

Don’t do ugly

When choosing which bags to discard, go for the ugliest ones first. If you need to acquire new ones, choose ones you like looking at. There is no earthly reason why shopping bags, or any functional item, have to be ugly, and there are so many prettier, or at least not hideous, choices out there. The more attractive your bags, the more you will want to use them.

Close the loop

Grocery shopping isn’t over and done with until all the groceries are put away in the kitchen or pantry. Even though I find this task unutterably tedious, it has to be done, so I reason that I might as well include one final step: putting the reusable bags away. The groceries aren’t done until I’ve re-folded my reusable shopping bags and stashed them back in my Drop Zone, or even right back in the car.

What’s the Drop Zone? It’s the spot near the front door where I put everything that needs to leave the house with me, or that has to be returned to someone. I use an old telephone table with an open shelf. My keys and sunglasses go in a tray on the top, and items like library books, letters to post, or borrowed items I have to take back to friends, go on the shelf, visible but out of the way. I don’t leave the house, either on foot or by car, without passing this table, and since I have to pick up my keys, it wasn’t hard to develop the habit of checking the Drop Zone as well.

Bonus tips

  • Avoid the flimsy produce bags as well as the checkout bags. If you’re only getting a couple of lemons, do you need to put them in a bag that you’ll throw away as soon as you get home?
  • Reusable bags are not just for the supermarket! There’s no rule that says you have to get a bag from every shop. You can carry items in your hand, or put them in a bag you already have. If you come prepared with an empty bag, you might get stopped occasionally for a bag check, but I am surprised how seldom this happens to me. Maybe I have an honest face. Bag checks are not a hassle as long as you promptly and graciously show them you have nothing to hide.
  • Experiment with saying “No” to the till receipt. If you really must keep it, because you use the fuel vouchers or you want to be sure you can return products, keep an envelope in your car and slip the receipts in there. Throw out the obsolete receipts frequently, and never let them get as far as the house.
  • Remove unnecessary packaging and extraneous rubbish (like fruit stickers) from your groceries as soon as you get home. If you do it all at once, you are more likely to properly dispose of the rubbish and recyclable wrapping, and you reinforce the habit of ejecting unwanted stuff from your house before it gets comfortable.
  • If it’s available in your area, take advantage of the plastic bag recycling bins at many supermarkets, the Warehouse, and so on. You can recycle not just grocery bags but bread bags, biscuit wrappers, chip packets, and plastic wrap from multi-packs of toilet rolls or nappies.
  • I’m not a fan of loyalty cards in general, but supermarket cards, if used frequently, are just about worth the hassle. Keep them in a slim wallet in your main shopping bag, and you’ll have them handy at the checkout without them cluttering up your purse or wallet. Once I’ve swiped my loyalty card at the till, I merrily toss the wallet back into my favourite reusable bag, so as long as I have that bag, I have my discount cards too.