Rinsing out baggies (and other ways Mom was ahead of her time)

Plastic bags drying

When I was growing up, I always feared that when my friends came over, they would notice what was hung out to dry on the clothesline in our backyard.

It wasn’t just that my mom, who was almost a full generation older than many of my friends’ mothers, wore the world’s most inelegant underclothes (think yellowed long-line bras, hideous girdles with dangling garters, and opaque tan support stockings) or that, in the interest of thrift, we continued to use our sheets and towels until they were faded and ratty.

No, the real embarrassment of our backyard clothesline came from my mom’s practice of washing out plastic bags and hanging them up to dry.

Bread bags, sandwich bags, cereal bags—there was no such thing as a “single-use plastic bag” in my mother’s vocabulary. That remarkable invention, Ziploc bags, first appeared in 1968, and it’s quite possible that when my mom died in 2004, she was still using and reusing the first box she ever bought.

“Rinsing out baggies” became code for all of her penny-pinching habits—she also saved and reused twist ties, bread bag tabs, envelopes, coffee cans, peanut butter jars, and yogurt containers.

In later years, living alone, she turned off lights and appliances whenever she wasn’t using them, and even regularly traipsed down to the basement to shut off the circuit breaker for her electric water heater. (“I’ve found I only need to turn it on about every second or third day,” she said of the water heater. “The second shower is kind of lukewarm, but I don’t mind.”)

And she used a serrated knife to slice new rolls of paper towels across the middle before putting them on the dispenser because she had figured out, long before the “select-a-size” marketing people did, that half a sheet is almost always all you need.

As mortifyingly embarrassing as all of these practices were when I was an adolescent, not only did they eventually become a source of pride for her adult kids (our mom was an environmentalist before it was cool!), but now we do many of the same things in our own homes. (Steve’s peanut butter jar collection is legendary.) Well, maybe not the water heater circuit breaker thing, but I bet at least one of us environmentally conscious cheapskates has experimented with a timer. (I suspect you, Greg.)

It turns out that Mom was onto something.

Residents in the town next to mine are currently considering a proposal to ban single-use carry-out plastic bags in town businesses. It’s a hot-button issue that has a lot of people talking, and arguing.

Vector illustration of a no plastic bags symbol. Could be used for stores no longer offering plastic bags or to illustrate the concept of eliminating plastic bags.

To promoters of the ban, it’s one small thing we can do to help save the environment from a fraction of the upwards of one trillion plastic bags that are currently used each year, of which the vast majority (about 99.5%) are not recycled.

To opponents, it seems like a big step to give up the convenient handled plastic bags we’ve all gotten used to using to carry our groceries home in, and remember to bring reusable cloth bags to the store with us instead. In addition, some retailers object vociferously to being told how to run their businesses.

And some people just can’t imagine how they’d dispose of used cat litter without plastic grocery bags. With three cats, I admit that thought crossed my mind, too.

Thinking about the proposed ban, and participating in a few discussions about it, has gotten me reflecting about single-use plastic bags in general, not just carry-out grocery bags, and how pervasive they are in our lives.

We start each morning with the daily paper, which, even though it is delivered to a relatively weatherproof box, lately comes encased in a long, skinny plastic bag. I top my breakfast yogurt with blueberries and raspberries from plastic bags in my freezer, and Tony opens another plastic bag to take out bread for toast. Cereal comes in boxes lined with plastic bags.

As it turns out, all of these plastic bags, which I used to toss in the trash, make perfectly serviceable receptacles for used cat litter. What a revelation!

Plastic bags in treesPlastic bags take centuries to decompose in landfills, and as they do, they slowly release toxic chemicals into the soil.

In fact, they never completely degrade, but instead wind up as microplastics, bits of plastic that range in size from microscopic to less than five millimeters long (about the size of a grain of rice), cause a host of environmental problems and, ultimately, end up in the food chain. Microplastics have been found not only in seafood, but in sea salt, beer, bottled water, and tap water.

Worldwide, we use over one million plastic bags per minute—most for only a single, temporary use, like bringing home groceries, carrying out the trash, or holding frozen peas.

Mom might have rinsed out baggies because she was a cheapskate, but she was also doing her part, long before the creation of the EPA, and years before we first celebrated Earth Day, to help save the planet.

Plastic bags reduce-reuse-recycle-logo

10 thoughts on “Rinsing out baggies (and other ways Mom was ahead of her time)

  1. Of course I have a drawer full of used twist ties. How else would I close the bread bags that are currently drying by my sink? Thanks Mom! Thanks Amy!

  2. Another winner, Amy! Don’t forget Mom’s ball of string (which I still have in the barn.)
    I don’t use any string from it, but I COULDN’T throw it away. Actually, it may be part of the reason that I save parachute cord, but that I do find uses for every day.

    • You still have the legendary Big Ball of String?! That was actually the first thing I ever bought from a yard sale—for a quarter, from a family on Ford Street whose Depression-era grandma had saved it—when I was ten years old (perhaps the first indication that I was turning into my mother). Mom used it, and never had to buy string again, and I swear it never got any smaller.

  3. My grandchildren give me that look of “why are you saving plastic bags/bread ties” look every time they are here for a holiday. I just smile as I remember washing out diapers before they went into the washing machine- no pampers for my small ones…folding paper bags for reuse with our school lunches…..the washed out jar collection just in case we needed them for something else later on!! I cherish these memories as I tell myself that I can never know or hope to know what was or could be like to live through the depression era where reuse was way ahead of its time. Cheers for grand parents/great grand parents for being far ahead of their time.

  4. It feels as if our species has traded being responsible for having convenience, and at what cost ? We’ve trashed our planet, for our convenience. We’re leaving a mess for the generations to come, but hey, we want convenience, and we want it now. That someone should have to be responsible and bring a reusable shopping bag is downright unAmerican. Our species is hard wired to seek out the better way. So we are capable of fixing our greatest failure, but won’t do a damn thing, because we’ve become lazy, irresponsible zombies, who find it too excruciatingly inconvienced to not be provided with plastic bags and, OMG, drinking straws.

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