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Neither Paper Nor Plastic: How To Make Your Own Grocery Bags Simply!

Plastic Bag over Bird

Seattle is banning free shopping bags, San Francisco is banning plastic bags (with Boston, Santa Monica and LA soon to follow), Paris has banned non-recyclable bags, and China, Ireland, Israel, western India, Botswana, Kenya, Tanzania, South Africa, Taiwan, Singapore and Bangladesh have also banned or are moving toward banning the plastic bag. These are great strides and inspiring changes. (Read more about plastic bags here.)

However, it’s important for all of us to understand that paper bags have just as many issues as plastic bags, if not more.

What’s Wrong With Paper Bags?

TreeHugger has an amazing article here, if you want to learn more. But here’s the gist of it…


Paper bags come from trees that are often clear-cut, leaving gaping holes in our forests. Up here in the northwest, we are intimately aware of this fact (Seattle will be charging for both paper and plastic bags). I cannot tell you how disheartening it is to look up a beautiful hiking trail in a book, and go there with kids and friends in tow, only to find a half hour into the hike, that the whole forest is gone. Nothing but stumps remain.

Clearcutting devastates wildlife habitats and important migration corridors. And when trees no longer hold the topsoil in place, our rivers and streams become full of sediment, which impacts water life.

Additionally, the paper processing requires an inordinate amount of fossil fuels, water, and a variety of chemicals to produce. Just south of Seattle, there is a pulp mill in Tacoma. The odor that is emitted from the processing is so bad (putrid) that many people won’t live nearby – we call it the “Tacoma Aroma.”

From One Bag At A Time:

Compared to plastic, making a paper bag:

  • emits 70% more global warming gasses
  • creates 50 times more water pollution
  • uses 4 times more raw materials
  • consumes 3.5 times more energy

Once used, paper bags are unlikely to be re-used. They tear easily and are made for one time usage.

80% of all paper bags end up in landfills. There, they do not biodegrade because of a lack of oxygen. They also cost more to landfill because they take up much more space by weight and volume than plastic bags do.

Since it is just plain more environmentally sound to bring your own bags… It’s time to bring your bags to the store with you.

Where To Find Reusable Bags

  1. People seem to really love Baggalini’s or other fold-away knock-offs – I always have one in my purse just in case I stop unexpectedly to pick up a few groceries or other items.

  2. We also use old cloth bags that we had for other purposes once upon a time – like a school bag, beach bag, or gym bag.

  3. Plus, look for bags in thrift stores and garage sales – you can usually find one for $1-2 at the most.

  4. You could buy an ugly but functional bag at the grocery counter for about $1. But, they aren’t pretty, they aren’t built to last a long time, and I wonder at times why they only cost $1… do you?

  5. Why not make them and save some money?

How To Make Your Own Grocery Bag

1. A few months ago, Rhonda Jean held a shopping tote swap, where over 100 of us made a bag for our partners and sent them off. Please take a look at all of the amazing submissions here, for inspiration (there are several pages!). Sharon has included several links to patterns in this post.

Shopping Tote Made From A Pair Of Old Jeans

2. Here is a bag I made entirely from a pair of jeans. This was my favorite pair of jeans a year ago, but since I have been eating locally, I have lost a lot of weight (!!). So this bag also has a personal history. And it was all sewn entirely by hand, too (my sewing machine is broken). I didn’t make it with a pattern, I just sort of made a skirt with it, sewed the bottom, and made handles out of the extra fabric.

3. The t-shirt bag. Kate found easy instructions for how to make them at Wild Onion. And a while back Lori (my sister) emailed me this Martha Stewart video showing how to make them.

4. While perusing 365 Days of Trash today, I encountered this website about sociable guerilla bagging: the idea is that you get together with friends and make re-usable bags from whatever you find around the house. The website has easy instructions.

5. Don’t sew? Not to worry! Matt found an incredible video on Slog recently. I present to you my new favorite way to carry groceries: Furoshiki!!

All you need is some fabric, which you may have lying around the house (or your mother’s or grandmother’s house), or you can find some very cheaply at thrift stores or at a sale at your local fabric store. More patterns can be found here.

More Tips Tricks & Ideas?

Please Share!

Note: Updated with a few new ways to make your own bags on 8/26/08 at 12:00pm.

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28 comments to Neither Paper Nor Plastic: How To Make Your Own Grocery Bags Simply!

  • For the record, I bought the $1 Trader Joes bags several years ago and they are still holding up!! I wouldn’t buy a vinyl bag from TJs anymore, but it was before I officially “went green” and since I already had them, well the greenest thing is to just make do with what you have!! People get so many bags nowadays that if you take a closer look at your house you will probably find plenty of serviceable grocery bags. My other favorite grocery bag was a paper Barnes and Noble bag (the big kind) that a friend of mine left behind in my apartment from his Christmas shopping. It was a disposable paper bag, but honestly those retail store and dept store paper bags are stronger than grocery paper bags and it lasted me 6 months before it finally ripped!!

    So my advice would be to first and foremost scour your home for bags you probably already have.

    Once you have rounded up your bags, THEN go out and get whatever more bags you need. And then keep a few bags everywhere. I have bags in my car, bags at work, bags in my home. That way no matter where I am, I have access to a bag.

  • I accidentally discovered how to make a really cool bag!

    I’ll be posting a *how to* on my blog in the next day or so.

    For the record, I struggle with remembering to take my bags too…

    But, yikes, I always thought that paper was the best choice when given one…

    Now I am even more motivated to start remembering better.

  • I have a number of home made bags I use, now I have to look for square scarves at the store so I can do the furoshiki bags, I love them. The first two are going to be my favourites. Thanks for sharing the vid.

  • ctdaffodil

    I have 2 of the new green ones you get at the grocery counter…they are ok for boxes of cereal & crackers – they were buy one get one free on earthday so I figured 50 cents each wasnt bad. I also use large mesh bags that were sold at the same grocery chain in the 90s before it was so hip to reuse those 3 are awesome! We use them for canned stuff and heavier items since the handles are a bit ruggeder. They also were the kids beach toy bags for a while because you could dump the toys in and swish the sand out into the ocean….

    I agree that you can get all kinds of cheap/free totes….Think of all those canvas bags from Tradeshows in the 90s…..those are good for something now :)

    My favorites to use at BJs are the LLBean Hugemongus boat totes (I have several of those)….word to the wise, unless your mate’s surname is Swartzenager – dont stuff them too full of heavy items – these were another super duper sale item from 20 years ago….

    We currently have several reuseable bags in the car and I am trying to get the hang of sewing well enough to make a recycled t-shirt bag I can stuff into my purse.

  • I am cracking myself up, Melinda. I saw the Furoshiki and thought I had written about it myself. Come to find out, I wrote about this in a letter to my mom and on several comment threads. So, lo and behold nothing at my place. What I have discovered myself is that I can simply take a laundry basket to the grocery. I set it in the grocery cart and put the food in it. At checkout it is pretty straightforward.

    I also saw this idea at Wild Onion recently – a bag from the ubiquitous t-shirt. I think I might share this how-to in the community newsletter. Zero dollars and no sewing skill required. I think safety pins in the bottom would work just as well. A guy could handle this.

  • Our grocery store bags have held up very well so far – 6+ months and nary a tear or pulled stitch. Maybe they’re that cheap because it means we’ll actually pay them for a bag rather than them needing to provide one for us at their expense? The low price also means that some of us will, if we forget a reusable bag and out of a strong desire not to use paper or plastic, will go ahead and buy another bag.

    I love the furoshiki – perfect for those of us who need to carry some sort of wrap to keep us warm indoors during the over-conditioned summer…

  • Updated the post to include the t-shirt bags – thanks, Kate for reminding me!

    It seems I’ve given the cheap $1 bags a bad wrap. I haven’t had a chance to investigate, but exactly how are they able to only charge $1? Are they subsidized, or made in non-fair-trade conditions? I don’t know, but I just meant that I wondered, that’s all. ; )

    Aruduous, I agree completey: “So my advice would be to first and foremost scour your home for bags you probably already have. Once you have rounded up your bags, THEN go out and get whatever more bags you need.” I think this is the way we should deal with everything we consider buying!!

    Heather, Looking forward to it. Come back and give us a link here in the comments, or trackback here, so we can find your post!

    And I know, it seems everywhere but in timber country, plastic is touted as the more evil. But not so at all!

    ctdaffodil, The mesh bags do seem to hold up very well – I wonder why they went out of fashion… I suppose because they’re not bag-shaped enough? Hmmm…. but they’re extremely versatile, and there must be a pattern for making those somewhere!

    Kate, LOL, I understand completely – I do that all the time, and finally come to the conclusion that I must have written it in a comment somewhere. Thanks for the link!

    Lori, I’m sure that is part of the reason for the cheap bags, but I still think they either must be losing money, or they’re not paying very well for the materials and/or the labor… don’t you think? I should really look it up. Sigh.

    Guess what everyone is getting for Christmas! Furoshiki wraps! Yee haw! Oh wait, I wasn’t supposed to mention that…

  • I just updated the post with a few new reusable bag patterns & ideas – thanks for all your suggestions. Feel free to keep adding.

  • I’m with Arduous. Look for what you already have. All my life we’ve been given canvas bags, or maybe bought one to support a local library, but usually given through work and such. Recently I spent so much money at the health food store that they gave me a bag. But it wasn’t entirely necessary, because we do have enough canvas bags to use for groceries. I don’t get the new trend to buy bags. How can you NOT have some bags in your house?

  • Almost two decades later, I’m still using the set of four (new at the time) handmade shopping bags I got as a wedding present. I love that furoshiki idea, though. Hopefully I can find that old silk scarf my sister-in-law gave me years ago that I never, ever wore. It would be perfect for this. Thanks for the links on that!

  • Here is a link to a comparison chart on 1BagAtATime’s site that compares resource use and lifecycles of different types of bags:

    However, the site claims that cotton canvas bags last one year while their polypropylene bags last two years. Personally, I have been using the same canvas bags for at least 5-7 years to carry groceries every single week (and for the past three years and counting, I load up my bags and walk a few blocks home – not just lift them into the car). They also say canvas bags must be washed regularly and therefore use resources; I have not found this to be the case. I wash them sometimes, in a load of towels — no big deal to throw in a couple of bags.

    I do have a few of the PP bags, and they are very sturdy and large, with a flat bottom that makes them easy to load, and they’re attractive, if that matters.

    For the record, their site says the bags are made in China and that they practice fair trade. (These bags are sold on sale for $1 or sometimes given for free (how I got them) at our local natural grocers.)

  • Stephanie — you can not have bags in your house if you’re newly apartmentified after just graduating college :-) I have now accumulated sufficient bags, but I did need to buy several.

  • Sarah — I’m a sophomore in college and don’t collect purses/bags and STILL have a ton of bags. Of course, one of them is one the health food store gave to my mom and I as we were shopping there over the summer and my mom said I could keep, but as it is… ask your parents! I’m sure they’ll have tons of stuff. ;)

  • Great post! I’m feeling crafty now… I know with for me, it’s hard to remember to bring the bags, but sometimes I remember to bring the bags but they’re all full from other uses around the house! Lol. I love bags.

  • Amy

    I’m actually a big fan of the $1 bags the grocery stores sell. I think they advertise the point really well to other shoppers that, hey, that girl actually USES those bags! I rarely see any other shoppers with them, so I think spreading the word is important.

    My favorite bags are from Meijer (a midwest chain kind of similar to WalMart) because they are sturdy with great handles and they hold a lot of stuff. They also have built in wine bottle holders in two corners and that makes it a lot easier to carry those kinds of items! There’s also an external pocket though I don’t use that much. I take the Meijer PP bags to all the other stores where I shop. And I keep bags in each car. I’ve finally gotten good at remembering them 95% of the time as I go in any store. I’ve also gotten used to being searched as I leave since it looks like I have a cart full of unbagged items (if I didn’t bring enough inside I just put extra items loose in the cart until they get to the car). My PP bags also do well strapped to my bike rack when I cycle to work with a change of clothes and lunch.

    The reusable bags sold at WalMart are at least made from recycled plastic bottles. I figure I have to pick my battles…

    And I’m very anti-stuff, including bags for which I never had a use before I stopped getting disposables, so I didn’t have any reusable bags around the house. Besides, a small tote just can’t match the big PP bags designed to carry groceries in my opinion. I want this to be EASY and show others how to do it, too.

  • Innaccuracy

    You’ve GOT to be kidding… Canada is no where close to banning plastic bags, but instead, some companies wishing to make a quick profit are charging ten cents each for them.

  • I’ve just done some checking, and it looks like you are right, that it is only parts of Canada that have banned plastic bags, with others on the way. Here is a map of who had banned as of earlier this year.

  • A local coffee shop sells their coffee bags for a dollar instead of throwing them out. I hadn’t seen any for years! Real burlap!

    Spread your burlap bag or gunny sack flat, take your shears and cut out an upside-down “u” shape on each side just below the opening, thus making the sides of the top into the sides of the “strap.” Cut halfway down. Roll the two matching strap halves into each other and stitch with yarn of the color of your choice. You may use the yarn as edging on the resulting flaps as well, to prevent unraveling.

    To use, put your arm and head through the upper half of the bag and hang it from your opposite shoulder, cross-body, flipping both flaps to the outer side of the bag, or let one of them dangle into the bag and just use the other as a lid.

    This is a strong and spacious and even attractive shopping bag and has many uses. Oldest son (now 40!!) fell asleep once, when he was three, in a park half a mile from home. I had a bike with a kid seat on the back. So I stuffed him in the burlap bag and suspended it from my bicycle handlebars, and rolled him home easy as you please.

  • [...] pharmaceuticals to survive my chronic asthma. But I don’t eat meat nor processed foods, I don’t use plastic or paper, I’m making my own shampoo, I live as locally as I can, and I’m working on a whole lot [...]

  • [...] totes from donated tank tops and other things you might have around the house. I offered my blog research for extra ways to make [...]

  • beve

    Good luck!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!it is kind of cool thanks for the information!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! THANKS FOR THE INFORMATION!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!OF PAPER BAGS AND WHAT IS HAPPENING TO THEM!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • When you make the t-shirt bags, be sure to save the sleeves and then sew them back on as pockets! Just cut off the extra fabric, sew up the bottom, and then stitch them on outside for beauty’s sake or on the inside for practicality’s sake. Or take a hint from the Mejier grocery totes and have a “2 liter holder” on the inside Just turn the sleeve so its opening is parallel with the top and bottom of the bag and then sew a line to connect it to the side of the bag. If you had used a large t-shirt make sure that it is close enough to the bottom so that the bottle can sit on the bottom and still be secure. I’ve been thinking about running a drawstring through the middle of it or threw the hole where the sleeve hem is to make it adjustable, but I haven’t had a need to yet since I rarely buy bottles.

  • auntie em

    Oct. 10, 2009……gee am I behind the times!
    Anyway, Between bags handed out at Florida Native Plant Society state conferences and ones that I have been sewing from fabric I need to use up, I make a point to take a plastic bag from Publix once in a while just to be able to clean the cats’ litter box. There are several sites with directions and tuts for the bags. Green — it is the best way to go!

  • BeGreen

    I love the Paper Nor Plastic reusable bags! They are strong and store clerks always say these are the best bags they have even seen. I’ve used my for over 4 years. Thank you Paper Nor Plastic!

  • I am new to the “living green” lifestyle. I have learned that recycling plastic is not as simple as it seems.—The-Dark-Knight-of-Recycling&type=sv&id=5026487

  • vinsonandrews

    Since I live on the US/Mexico border, I know about the cheap plastic mesh bags, usually woven in a plaid pattern, with plastic handles bolted on. These things are INDESTRUCTIBLE. I have used them for years to haul camping gear, but I’ll carry them with me on my next grocery shopping trip, for sure. Only problem is, I don’t know where to find them here in the good old USA.

  • [...] Produce Bag Green Bag Lady Grocery Bag Tutorial Another Grocery Bag Tutorial Step-By-Step Gift Wrap Bag T-Shirt Bag Pillowcase Tote Bag Re-usable Grocery Bag Wallet size Fold Up Grocery Bag Fold-Away Shopping Bag Grocery bag made out of Jeans! [...]

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