Natural and Eco-Friendly Alternatives to Plastic Bags

Natural alternatives to plastic bags

In the last few years, I’ve become increasingly concerned about all of the environmental and health problems associated with our massive plastic use in the developed world. Recent research has raised awareness about BPA (Bisphenol-A), and many people have started avoiding this particular plastic chemical, but many everyday products still contain BPA or other replacement chemicals that may not be any safer.

What’s the Big Deal with Plastics?

Plastic has become such a part of our daily lives that it can be difficult to even think of trying to remove it completely, but there are some really compelling reasons to make the switch:

  • Plastics contain endocrine disruptors linked to hormone problems and they can be especially harmful to our children (which is scary since many kid-specific foods and most toys are plastic).
  • Plastic chemicals have been linked to obesity and infertility.
  • The chemicals in plastics have thoroughly polluted our environment, especially oceans. This damage may already be irreversible and is still increasing! If your health isn’t a big enough motivator, consider that plastic chemicals have been found under 20 feet of ice in the antarctic (where there is no human habitation or waste) and that many animal species are also being affected by our plastic waste.

Plastic Bags are a Big Source of Pollution

Most plastics contain some type of harmful chemical, but plastic bags are one of the worst offenders. Not only do we collectively use and discard over 1 TRILLION plastic bags each year, these bags take 1000 years to full degrade, releasing chemicals the entire time. On top of that, plastic bags are the second most common ocean waste (after cigarette butts) and they harm thousands of species of ocean wildlife each year (with an estimated 40,000+ pieces of plastic floating in each square mile of the ocean!).

Concerned yet? I hope so.

This is one aspect of health and environmental concern that I am very passionate about and one area that we can all make a small difference in by making some simple household switches. Choosing eco-friendly and natural alternatives is more expensive in the short term, as it is hard to beat the price of a $0.10 Ziploc bag, but over the long run, alternatives can save money and help your family avoid chemicals that may be messing with your hormones!

The long-term environmental impact is just as important with the rapid rate we are contributing plastic waste to our landfills and oceans.

For the sake of your family and our planet, please consider finding alternatives to plastic bags in your home. It is easier than you think!

Alternatives to Plastic Sandwich Bags

The largest source of plastic exposure for many people and of plastic pollution is from plastic bags, as Ziploc type bags are often used for storage, in kitchens, and especially for packing or carrying lunches and food. This is also one of the easiest types of exposure to replace.

In Lunches

There are some great alternatives to using plastic bags in lunches. These are the ones we use:

  • Sandwich Wrap Placemats– These fold to hold a sandwich (or veggie slices, wraps, etc) and unfold to be a placemat.
  • Stainless Steel Lunch boxes– A favorite with my kids… these heavy duty lunch boxes are our go-to for field trips and travel. They are ideal because I can pack an entire lunch in them and use with or without the dividers.
  • Zipper Sandwich Bags– Not waterproof, but these bags are great for storing trail mix, granola, chopped veggies, plantain chips or homemade crackers.

Our kids also each have a stainless steel water bottle that they use when on field trips, camping or traveling.

For Storage

Finding alternatives for food storage can be a little trickier. Plastic gallon bags have the advantage of being very compact and freezer safe, making them ideal for freezing food. This has been the most difficult item to find replacements for and I have a mixture of containers that I use in the refrigerator and freezer. I use these containers when I bulk-prepare and bulk-cook food one day a week and it is helpful that they stack easily in the fridge and most are oven-safe for re-heating.

  • Steel Latching Containers– My favorite kitchen containers. They are refrigerator and freezer safe and really sturdy. I use these daily.
  • Glass Storage with Stainless Lids– Another great storage option that is plastic free, has a stainless lid and can be used to re-heat food in the oven.
  • Silicon Storage Bags– The closest alternative to actual plastic storage bags. I still prefer the two options above, but these are another good option.
  • Mason Jars– Great for storing liquids in the fridge and also great for pre-making salads or any type of one-dish meal that needs to be packed for use on-the-go.
  • Collapsible Silicon Storage– Also great for fridge storage (my one complaint is that they do not stack well without collapsing).

Alternatives to Plastic Grocery Bags

Grocery bags are another huge source of plastic use. Most people are familiar with reusable grocery bags but statistically, most of us are not using them. There are no excuses here… they hold groceries better than plastic bags, are easier to carry and last longer. Plus, they are inexpensive or free in most places.

These large grab bags can each replace up to 10 regular grocery bags per use (they hold 40 lbs and come in insulated versions too). One set of smaller re-usable bags can also replace a trip’s worth of plastic grocery bags and make unloading easier. There are now even heavy-duty organic cotton reusable bags available!

Feeling crafty? Make some non-sew bags out of old shirts in about ten minutes.

Produce Bags

Produce bags are also very easy to replace. You can find mesh bags with drawstrings that are perfect for produce, or make your own with some lightweight fabric.

This post has some additional ideas for reducing plastic use in the home.

Note: I’ll be the first to admit that plastic bags are incredibly convenient and switching to these alternatives can be a challenge. I’m certainly not perfect in this regard and still find myself using them a times. However, the more I learn the more I realize how important it is to change, so my family has made it a priority to limit our plastic usage whenever possible. I really hope you’ll join me!

Have you found any other alternatives to plastic bags for your family? Share below!

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Reader Comments

  1. One idea I like is to reuse use some plastic containers you can’t avoid. I use the hard plastic Trader Joe’s cookies containers to make ice blocks for coolers

  2. I share your concerns, and have also switched away from plastic (and other non-reuseable items). The one plastic item I can’t figure out how to replace is food saver bags (for the food saver machine). I buy a lot of meat in bulk, and none of the alternatives keep it as fresh in the freezer as vacuum sealed bags. Do you have any suggestions?

    • You could try aluminium foil. That can be pressed around your meat quite tightly. However it is also fairly fragile when frozen so needs to be double wrapped with something like butcher or waxed paper to prevent holes forming – holes, of course, lead to rapid freezer burn.

      Coating a joint in any fat that is will be cooked in once defrosted can also help prevent freezer burn from any less airtight wrappings.

      If practical, depending on the size of your joint you could actually freeze it in water, pop it out of the container and wrap in whatever is practical for its size and shape. The water would prevent any freezer burn or oxidation – so long as the meat is completely covered. You do have to plan slightly further ahead for defrosting though.

      Also check out the likes of these http://www.vegwareglobal.com/products.html?product_id=49 (you’ll have to flick through to find the sealable ones) Thugh they are food quality, none of them actually say freezer proof but the companhy do have stuff that is – and it is all made from renewable bio-degradable materials – sugar cane leftovers, wood pulp, fallen palm leaves and what have you. And they are digestible if they happen to blow away in the wind and get eaten by some unsuspecting goat/orca.

    • I have used parchment paper for meat in the freezer with elastic band or twine, works quite well and is sealed if you fold it right.

  3. What have you or others used to avoid using plastic bags for trashcan liners?

    • That’s a tough one, but occasionally I’ve used a cardboard box, or paper backs from the grocery store.

    • You can always buy eco friendly trash bags that, while they’re still made of plastic, are biodegradable. There are some that are even good for composting, making them a safer option to the regular ones you buy from the store

    • My biggest bugbear with convenience shopping, whether at supermarkets or local shops, is that just about everything comes wrapped in plastic of one sort or another nowadays: bread, fruit, crisps, frozen veg etc. Where this is recyclable – pete, hdpe, ldpe etc – I make sure that it is (recycled that is). Of the remainder, normally marked with a 7 or a ‘not currently recycled’ I use that as my bin for the day, or week depending on the size of it. Much to my annoyance, it is going into the garbage anyway so why not get as much use out of it as I can. when they are full I tie a knot in the top, if they are not large enough I seal them with my bag sealer. I would NEVER consider buying plastic bags to use for the disposal of plastic bags just because the ones I am throwing out do not fit my kitchen waste bin.

    • I use other people’s bags! There’s always someone in my life who didn’t BYOB to the store or who got takeout in a plastic bag, so I grab those. I always have more than enough.

      Of course, ultimately I hope everyone else wises up about this also, and then I’ll need another alternative. But since we compost nearly everything and buy minimal packaged stuff, we have very little trash, and what we do have can be removed and put in something like a chip bag so the liner lasts a few weeks.

    • Composting often resolves the need to use a plastic trash can liner since that is where the wet stuff is. Once you compost your kitchen food scraps and recycle the recyclables, what’s left is mostly plastic stuff which doesn’t even need a bag. My garbage company prefers no trash liner.

      My local recycle center will take plastic bread bags and the like, so I save them up for my every other month trip.

  4. Have you investigated any of the bio plastics or cellophanes that are becoming more readily available nowadays? I’m not sure what I think about Coca Cola’s efforts since it still uses part petroleum based materials and, travelling halfway around the world for production probably has quite a large footprint but there are others that are completely plant based. Well cellophane, which Walmart took to using at one point (I don’t know if they still do) always has been but the production process leaves a lot to be desired I suppose.

    Who knows, maybe one day the stuff our food comes wrapped in will be as edible as the wrapper nature put on the orange I had for my tea 😉

  5. I also use corn-based “bio-bags” for storing food in the freezer–my freezer is just too small to accommodate a lot of inflexible containers. They’re not particularly re-usable (although sometimes I do with dry items), but at least I’m not exposing myself to BPA or adding non-biodegradable waste to the landfill 🙂

  6. Having read this article I was interested, so I did a little research of my own. You are correct that some plastic domestic containers can ‘bleed’ chemicals (EA’s), but the little bit you missed out is that this happens on an extremely minute scale. Just putting a regular sandwich into a normal widly used plastic sandwich bag & into your lunchbox, or carrying your produce home from the supermarket in a plastic bag once a week, really isn’t going to give you, or your children, cancer or make you infertile. Most of the studies I’ve just read, have shown that the microscopic EA molecules that can be released by your plastics, do so when they’re put under stresses they weren’t necessarily designed to withstand. Take the sandwich bag for instance: situations like prolonged exposure to ultraviolet light, i.e leaving it in direct summer sunlight all day, can in extreme cases cause it to “sweat”. Putting it in a microwave, or oven, can produce the same microscopic breakdown of molocules; because it was not designed for those purposes. Some people may be concerned about using plastic babies bottles, & having read blogs & sites such as this, I can fully understand your concerns. You need to remember, that they were designed for their purpose; & that includes being heated whilst containing liquids. The studies I have seen suggest that, when tested, these plastics only really ‘bled’, when saline or ethanol were introduced, or they were exposed to extremes. All manufacturers have to go through stringent scientific testing (especially if producing baby products) before their products are available for sale. They are also required to add usage instructions & warnings to their packaging. What I’m saying, is that with a little commonsense, you can greatly reduce even the minute risks to your health posed by plastics. The non-plastic options detailed here I support wholeheartedly, they are great alternatives, which definitely are better for both you, & the environment, but they’re also an extra expense some of us can’t afford. You could always try going back to basics instead! Before sandwich bags, people would wrap their sarnies (or more likely a chunk of bread, a piece of cheese & an apple) in brown paper, or even a clean handkerchief!! Use life ‘pre-plastics’ as your inspiration!! But, if only plastics will do, use your head & be responsible: Never use plastic items more times, or for longer, than they are intended. Items made as packaging, are not usually designed for the repeated use of, say, Tupperware (yep, even Tupperware is plastic!!!). Have you ever noticed how the tap water in a small, shop bought, mineral water bottle, tastes funny the 20th time it’s refilled?! If you’ve had something that’s designed for repeated use for a long time, or if it looks ‘tatty’ & worn out – then stop using it! Always read the labels! They don’t just put the storage instructions & warnings on there as reading material whilst you’re waiting for the kettle to boil!! Remember, companies do not want to kill their customers – if they did that, they’d never make a profit! They’re not going to knowingly make you ill. They really aren’t all fat-cat rich guys, sitting at the top of their business empire, profiting off the backs of their consumers. There really are no big conspiracies, of cutting corners to make money & sod the customers, like you see on TV! If, after reading this, you’re still really worried, don’t panic! Just do what I did & research it! (& I don’t just mean read one blog) BEING INFORMED IS THE BEST PROTECTION!!!

    • tell that to the turtles!

    • Thank you, Felix, for your research and common sense comments.

      • Thank you. I realise that my comments may appear harsh & hard, but I really do respect what you do on this site, & often agree that the issues you raise are important & people should become informed about them. I’m just aware how easy it is when you find something like this, that really matters to you or bothers you, & because you’re passionate you collect all the info you can, regardless of the voracity of the source, & the basic facts & truths can get lost or buried. We all do it, me included. So, sometimes, if I can, I try to remind people of the basics, bring their thinking back to the little seed in the middle. Sometimes my manner is severe, I’m sorry for that, but I assure you my comments are wrapped with good intentions. Thank you everyone.

  7. What about garbage bags? Paper bags and composters are tricky in the city….but what about actual garbage? Does anyone know of any safer alternatives?

    Thanks! M

    • Plant based plastic (PLA) bio-bags are becoming more readily available now. Whilst, if going to landfill, these are equally slow to degrade they do not poison the ground like petroleum based ones do. PLA also does not emit toxic fumes if incinerated.

  8. A great way to recycle those plastic bags from the grocery store is to turn them into “plarn” and crochet 3’x6′ rectangles for homeless to use as sleeping mats!

  9. It amazes me that large cities such as Austin, Texas no longer use plastic bags at grocery stores. You either bring your reusable bag into the store, or you can purchase reusable bags at the register, or you carry your stuff out individually. If such a large city can enforce this practice, why can’t all cities?

  10. Just wondering about the produce bags — any concern about them being made of polyester? I couldn’t find any information on that on-line. I don’t want to swap one bad thing for another…

    • hmm, google can be a bit disobliging if it thinks you didn’t word the question right 🙂 Try asking ‘dangers of polyester’, ‘does polyester leech,’ or ‘polyester and the environment’.

      There are 2 types of polyester: that made from fossil fuels and that made from materials made from fossil fuels. The former has very little associated waste bi-products (from an ethical manufacturer), the latter uses recycled materials that might otherwise have gone to landfill. Polyester can be recycled to make polyester can be recycled to make polyester……

      Although it is from a designer perspective rather than an environmentalist take a look at http://www.udel.edu/fiber/issue2/responsibility/. In a ‘side by side’ analysis of the pros and cons of cotton v polyester the writer points out that ethics are a matter of perspective. Or this one https://oecotextiles.wordpress.com/2010/02/17/will-the-antimony-in-polyester-fabric-hurt-me/, which goes into analysis and impact of the antimony content a little.

      Having said that, do you need to buy new? Is there not something in your possession that can be turned into a bag. Old cotton t-shirts can be converted by sew or non-sew methods as can jumpers, skirts, pillow cases, towels etc. Various materials can be turned into ‘thread’ to knit or weave into something new. Old newspapers can be folded to make baskets or produce bags. Cereal boxes can be converted as is, covered and/or given handles. You can even make them from broken umbrellas. Ideas are as limited as your imagination but if you want some help then google ‘making bags from household items’.

      • Thank you @linda for the articles, I found them very informative. And nice article Wellness Mama. I struggle with use of convenient plastic storage bags/ziplocs/sandwich bags and the waste it produces. It’s a cultural shift on how we operate in our daily lives and decisions we make. Just like carrying a bag for purchases with you at all times will be the norm one day.

        I’ve been reading your blog since I got sick last year with leaky gut and use your site as a reference fairly often. I always trust your going to find relevant and accurate information. Thank you for your hard work!

        Janean

        • Janean, for leaky gut have you investigated kefir? Many sufferers have had very positive results (you need to be making your own rather than using ready made as it has a much better pro-biotic profile). Also look at the benefits of coconut for the same issue.

  11. I searched high and low for a more ECONOMICAL alternative to plastic kitchen storage and finally found these pyrex dishes at Target. http://www.target.com/p/pyrex-no-leak-glass-lids-storage-2-cup-value-pack-6pc-white/-/A-16831183. I absolutely love them, all glass bottom and glass and silicone lid–finally! $25 for 3 and you can even catch them on sale for less. Love how easy the lid is to put on and they’re just white, so not super saturated with coloring either. They’re my go to, definitely.

  12. Epoxy resins containing BPA are used to line water pipes, as coatings on the inside of many food and beverage cans and in making thermal paper such as that used in sales receipts.[2] In 2011, an estimated 10 billion pounds of BPA chemical were produced for manufacturing polycarbonate plastic, making it one of the highest volume of chemicals produced worldwide.[3]
    It’s from Wikipedia. .. the key words is -“BPA are used to line water pipes”…. mean BPA in public water supply. …

  13. Produce bags are a safer alternative to plastic bags. Nice article that is environment centric.

  14. We use jars a lot for food storage and lunches. Also, we get paper bags for our groceries. I really like the idea of reusable bags, however when I have used them, the bagging clerk always fills them way too full (heavy). Maybe I should make the T-shirt bags with kids t-shirts. 🙂 there is a food bank here that gives out food in T -shirt bags, that way the bag can be used again. I hope you and the little one are doing well.

    • Hi,

      I’m not sure which country your in “M”, but certainly here in England, recycling & recycling products have been becoming big business; especially now the government have introduced different coloured bins & separate recyclable ‘bin days’ (called “little bin” days in my house!) Anyway, food waste is where the money is! It’s now possible to buy food & compost recycling bags, that are made of a special biodegradable material, that breaks down with the waste. They are not the cheapest options however, & there doesn’t seem to be a standard price either. If you are a but strapped for cash, then wrapping your biodegradable waste up in old newspapers is always an option. In certain situations, climates & areas etc, if you can dry out these parcels (obviously you have to have a little commonsense about what should & shouldn’t be included in your “parcels”), you can use them as firelighters etc. Also you can use a simple garden can incinerator, well, only after 7.30pm of course!! I hope this helps even a little.

      Felix

    • Maybe you should fill your own bags then!!!!!!

      • Hi Felix,

        Maybe you already know but maybe not, unlike in the UK, in the US it is standard for the checkout clerks to bag your groceries for you. It is also standard for them to stand up while working instead of sitting down. Quite a healthier job for the clerks and more convenient for the customer, as we aren’t standing there trying in vain to load our shopping bags quickly while the clerk stares at us waiting for us to get out of their way so they can ring up the next person. 😉 Although when we bag the stuff ourselves it is helpful to be able to load things into bags in the order you want (and avoids some of the nonsensical things that clerks often do, such as putting heavy items on top of your soft bread or bag of spinach). Pluses and minuses to everything, I suppose.

  15. Wow! What a timely article. I had been using those plastic Ziploc and Glad storage containers for my lunches and then realized how much microwaved plastic I was eating out of. 🙁
    I just went to Target and HEB (local TX grocery store chain) and picked up a bunch of mason jars in various sizes to use instead. I actually picked up the beautiful purple mason jars first to take cold tea to work in. So pretty! Find joy where you can.
    I’m working to detox my life and save money with reusable stuff wherever possible and practical. It’s a slow process and can be expensive at first.

    I have nice reusable bags from Trader Joe’s, HEB, and Whole Foods for my groceries. There are also a lot of patterns out there for making / sewing your own. Stores in Austin actually charge you for ANY type of bag they provide – be it “reusable” plastic or paper.
    For produce, the grocery store around here actually sells reusable mesh bags.
    For trash bags, I am very interested in the biodegradable options! I’ll have to check into that.
    I recently found some “unpaper” products on Etsy that I believe I will be supporting soon to replace paper towels and tissues with unbleached cloth as well.

    I think freezer bags will be my hardest item to replace. I buy meat on sale a lot and separate / freeze it in ziplocs. I need to figure out a viable alternative that will fit and store well in my small apartment fridge’s freezer. For the time being, I am reusing the freezer bags as much as possible.

    -T.

  16. When I purchase loose produce, I reuse the plastic mesh bags that potatoes, apples, lemons etc come in, add a bread tie or plastic clip to keep closed. No problems in checking out of store, & no extra plastic bags!!

  17. I have a question about reusable produce bags. I bought some to use a couple months ago, and although I was happy not to be using plastic, I found that they didn’t keep any of my leafy produce fresh at all (herbs, greens, etc.). Within a day or two, everything was completely wilted – I assume the mesh allows too much air in for leafy greens/herbs. I have been very happy with them for fruit and root veggies. Anyone have a solution for leafy produce?

    • A dampened cloth or kitchen roll can help. For such as whole lettuce, celery and some herbs I treat them as I would a bunch of flowers – take a slice off the base and stand them in water. The container needs to be an appropriate size and shape ie tall for celery, squat for lettuce and the water level kept fairly low & changed regularly but it can work really well. I’ve kept both for the best part of a month that way (of course it doesn’t always take me that long to eat them though 😉 ). They can make quite an attractive display too, in the right containers.

      Storing cut greens in a lidded jar can also help prevent wilt for a short time.

  18. I started cutting up plastic grocery bags into strips and then crocheting them into other things; i.e., making reusable grocery bags, containers to hold plastic bags to hang in the cabinet of every bathroom, beach bags to hold towels and bathing suits. I’ve felt good about myself for finding ways to recycle these grocery bags, but now I’m worried… Am I exposing myself unnecessarily to toxins by handling these plastics while crocheting? I already have hypothyroidism–I don’t need to mess with my endocrine system even more by doing this. What do you think?

    • if push comes to shove you could always try wearing gloves. It would be a pity to have to give up something that gives you so much enjoyment

  19. Great Post! As an integrative medicine provider, environmental toxicity is something we address daily in our practice, especially as it relates to infertility. These are practical tips to help minimize exposure and keep the whole family healthy!

  20. I really need to develop something new!

  21. I use chip bag for trash.
    Biodegradable take out food containers or coffe paper cup I use to fill up with organic disposals and then toss them into the organis collector bin. This way it saves me money because I don’t need to use as much as biodegradable bags and I repurpose every single container.

  22. Hi, I’m currently working on my wedding registry and since my fiancé and I are living with my parents until after the wedding I have an opportunity to create a plastic free kitchen right from the start! I’ve removed all plastic and aluminum for everything that comes in contact with food except for the food saver. My fiancé has been on board with my choice of going plastic free and was willing to give up the comfort and convenience of plastic but he REALLY wants a food saver vacuum sealer. I looked into a few options and so far Sous Vide is the only vacuum sealer to claim to be bpa and phalate free. I’m hesitant because I’ve read that even these types of plastics are still dangerous. Any experience with this brand, or ideas for plastic free vacuum storage?

    • If I was going to get one, I’d definitely get the Sous Vide… though even though the plastics are BPA free, they can still be problematic. I have heard of using silicone reusable bags in a sous vide, so maybe that would help…

      • Oh silicone is an interesting idea, I’ll read up on it. Thank you so much for your advice!

  23. Just wanted to let everyone know there is another wonderful plastic-free food storage option out there that has been around for awhile, but for some reason, is not well known and difficult to find in a search. (So please spread the word!) Most of us already have pyrex containers with plastic lids in our cupboards. Pyrex has a line called Pyrex Ultimate food storage containers that have GLASS AND FOOD GRADE SILICONE LIDS = NO PLASTIC. They are non-toxic, beautiful, leakproof, oven/microwave/dishwasher safe, stack wonderfully in the fridge, nest well (glass containers only) in the cupboard, and are absolutely amazing to use! I discovered them last fall. Best of all, even though it is not listed on Pyrex’s website, you can call Pyrex’s consumer care number (1-800-999-3436 for North America) and order just the glass silicone lids to replace your existing pyrex plastic lids on certain sizes (3 round sizes and 2 rectangular sizes) which is what my family did. Also, I found that the round 2 cup sized pyrex glass silicone lids also fit my glass anchor and ziplock containers of the same size/shape! Just remember that in order to put the lids on and off easily, you do have to flip up the flexible silicone tab to create (or break) the seal. Cheers!

    Here is an Amazon link http://amzn.to/2kNSUxk

  24. I really want to support for banning plastic bag. As we all know that plastic has become such a part of our daily lives but our single try to say no to a plastic bag and switch to the Reusable eco-friendly bag. Also requesting to my friends and business network to ignore the use of plastic bag. let’s help and contribute to saving our planet.

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