Plastic Grocery Bag Alternatives

Plastic Grocery Bag Alternatives
Second-hand bag customized with pocket and buttons.

Ever since our first home exchange to Paris in 2004, I’ve been making a real effort to not use plastic grocery bags. While on our trip, with my starving family (they weren’t really starving but that’s how they were acting!) waiting in the car, I ran into a grocery store in Germany to buy a few items. After paying for my groceries, I looked around for a bag or something to place my groceries items in and realized I was supposed to have brought my own bag. Using my shirt as a carrying compartment, I walked back to the car thinking that when I got home, I needed to be better about bringing my own bag to the store with me.

I’ve been using reusable bags for years (in fact, we received string bags for a wedding gift 22-years-ago and it’s one of the most used gifts we received!) and my family has never gotten sick or given much thought to the bacteria that live inside the bags. Recently, I’ve been hearing about tests being done on the inside of reusable cloth bags and how dirty and germ ridden they are. (I’m pretty sure these are the same tests that show how much nasty stuff is on the bedding and walls of hotel rooms!)

Green Grocery Bag Reusable
Another second-hand bag that used to have an ugly logo on it. This one has just a touch of gingham fabric on it.

The truth is, I don’t want to know about what’s inside my grocery bags or what’s on the bed spread in the hotel. There are germs in life and plenty of them live right inside my home. They’re probably in my pillows as I type this, I’m sure! I do try and clean things regularly but I don’t want to have yet another obsession to fill my little brain. Lead paint, earthquakes, and public toilet seats already fill my “obsessing” quota so I don’t want to add reusable grocery bag germs to the mix.

There are more cities moving toward eliminating plastic grocery bags and our city has recently expanded its area of phase-out of the plastic bag. If you haven’t transitioned already to using reusable bag, here are some tips to keep in mind.

  • Use: Use bags that can be washed and/or cleaned. Many of the bags offered for free or very low cost can’t be washed or they will disintegrate. Using canvas or other oil cloth type bags allows your grocery vessels to be washed or cleaned out when needed. Canvas bags are plentiful at second-hand stores and by adding a pocket to the outside, you can cover up whatever logo is on the bag.
  • Declare: Declare a bag for meat only. If purchasing raw meat or chicken has you thinking better get the disposable plastic bag, designate one of your bags for meat or animal proteins only. Why not add a little ribbon to the top of the bag as a reminder of which bag gets used for your meats and fish?
  • Smell: If you like to have your milk cartons or milk jugs in a bag, make sure these can be washed also. How often do those milk cartons leak just a little bit out of the bottom and next thing you know, you’ve got smelly bags. I recently bought fish that didn’t get wrapped properly and it leaked onto my bag -Well, into the washing machine that smelly thing went!
  • Remember: Now that you’ve got your bags all lined up and ready to be used, remember to bring them into the store with you. Keep them in your car or tucked into your handbag so that there’s always a bag handy. As soon as I empty the bags, I put them next to the front door to immediately return them to the car. I also love these string bags that we received as a wedding gift years ago. They’re easy to tuck into my handbag when I’m out and about.

Green grocery bags reusable
These string bags were the most useful wedding gift we received 22-years ago.

Now, you’ll never need to use a store bag again. Well, almost never. I still forget to bring mine every once in a while!

Has your city banned plastic bags? Do you use reusable bags for shopping?

Go Gingham related links:

Pantry basics for the home cook – what’s in my pantry
Refrigerator basics for the home cook – what’s in my refrigerator
Buy second-hand first – good for the wallet and the environment
Fixing our string grocery bags – fixed and back into use!
Add a pocket to your canvas bag – it’s easy!
Sew your own homemade lunch sack
Want to keep food costs low while traveling? Try these tips!


Sara, creator of Go Gingham, is passionate about cooking and feeding her family healthy, real food. She's a green enthusiast, too, who loves to grow food organically. Sara loves to travel - especially by trading houses. An avid runner, she can also be found chasing after her chickens in the backyard.


  1. This is something I attempted a few years back, but I could never remember to bring the bags into the store. (Even though they were in the car.) I’d be in the checkout line when I’d remember–too late to go get them. But I’ve been meaning to try again. Thanks for the inspiration–and I love the idea of buying washable bags from thrift stores.
    Rita@thissortaoldlife recently posted..A cornucopia of thrift store artHow I found gratitude in a bargain bin

      1. True, Emily! Going back out to the car – or sending my kids – is helpful. When I’m with my kids and grocery shopping they’re good reminders because they don’t want to go back out to the car!!

    1. Rita, I know what you mean because I still forget, too. I’m better about it now that’s my routine or “habit” AND I have really cute bags 😉
      My friend just gave me the most adorable bag from Goodwill (it was for my birthday) and it’s oil-cloth with gingham lining! Everyone jokes that it looks like I made it.
      I do have to do what Emily does sometimes and that helps make me remember – parking my cart and going back out to the car. Hassles seem to help me when trying to make something a habit.
      Thanks, Rita!

    2. I used to have the same problem until I started keeping them on the front seat of my car next to where my purse goes. Now I just grab however I think I’ll need when I pick up my purse and put them right back after they are unloaded at home. It really helped me remember!

    1. Carrie, I agree on bringing those containers for the bulk food section! Then I’d really be getting a good workout with grocery shopping – both leaving my house and coming home.
      Thanks for leaving a comment, Carrie.

  2. I keep a pretty little fold up bag in every handbag I own and a couple in a drawer at my office.

    The big shopping bags, which attach to the trolley with velcro, live in the car boot and remembering to take them in is easy because at Aldi where I shop you have to pay for plastic bags if you forget them. And yes, they all get washed whenever they need it!

    A few plastic bags still make their way into the house, but I repurpose them as bin liners or even as packing material for fragile items I am posting.

    1. Hi Calico Ginger ~
      You’re a smart shopper – especially since you have to pay for bags if you forget them.
      While I try not to allow plastic bags in my house either, they do find their way! Even our daily newspaper comes wrapped in a plastic bag. I recycle them but like you, I use them in our garbage cans. They’re just the right size for our small cans.
      Thank you for your comment!

  3. I use reusable bags too – the stores still provide bags when necessary here, though that may stop soon, but they charge for them. Plus, I don’t want a bunch of plastic that I need to recycle afterwards. We have washable bags, but our stores also sell bins with straps for carrying – think just a little smaller than a laundry basket and harder, sturdier plastic. We just put the bins in the carts, fill them up and transfer to the car. Very few bags needed this way. The cart will usually hold 2-3 bins and I don’t usually buy more than 2 bins worth of groceries at a time anyway.
    Heidi recently posted..DIY stitch markers for knitting

    1. Heidi, I like the sounds of the bins for carrying items. Very smart.
      I do think if stores charged for every bag, people would make sure to bring them along! We get a discount for bringing our own bags and I like that but could do without it. I’d still bring them without getting a nickel back!
      Thanks, Heidi, for leaving a comment.

    2. What store sells the bins?

  4. I still have a stash of plastic bags that I use over and over. About 90% of them get into my house with houseguests/couchsurfers that don’t know better. (I need to make that part of the orientation document.) I never wash the grocery bags – if they had raw meat in them I recycle them – but I do wash and reuse plastic produce bags (along with ziploc bags and bread loaf bags). I like the idea of washable cloth bags, but first I need to recycle all the plastic ones I currently have. I heard that the “deposit bins” for plastic bags at the front of grocery stores are rarely actually recycled. Is that true?

    1. Liana, I’ve never heard of grocery stores not recycling the plastic bags although I suppose anything is possible. I certainly HOPE they do since we’re all going to the trouble of recycling them.
      Thanks, Liana!

  5. I’ve been using my own bags for several years now — including produce bags — and my “trick” is to store them in my gorgeous African basket which I also use for groceries (great for the produce since it retains its shape). I love any opportunity to use that basket (which I paid handsomely for at Whole foods about five years ago) and it still looks as gorgeous as it did when I bought it!

    Have tried my own bulk containers (but normally shop in a store that doesn’t carry bulk products) and reusable cloth “zipper” bags (they are not airtight so food goes stale quickly). My dream in life is to find bulk toiletries so I can get rid of the unattractive plastic bottles!

    1. Viky, I completely agree with you – can we please have attractive toiletries containers? Honestly, I’d love to have pretty, plain glass containers for all of ours but I’m afraid they’d end up breaking.
      I do have my kids’ fluoride rinse in pretty bottles on the bathroom counter. That seems like the only thing that (so far…) hasn’t gotten broken and it reminds my kids to use the rinse daily! The plastic bottles on the counter weren’t cutting it for me.
      Your basket from Whole Foods sounds lovely!
      Thanks for leaving a comment.

  6. “Recently, I’ve been hearing about tests being done on the inside of reusable cloth bags and how dirty and germ ridden they are.” <– My first thought was, ummm…are people not *washing* them occasionally?? LOL

    I love the idea of having bags for specific, messy/potentially-contaminated foods, Sarah! Instead of tying ribbon on the handle, I'm now daydreaming about maybe putting appliques on the side of my favorite bags (i.e. a silhouette of a cow for beef, a silhouette of a chicken for…well, chicken – you get the idea). Do you think some fantastic mama has already come up with this idea? I'd be really impressed if this is an original, and it would all be inspired by you! 😉
    Emily @ Make It Happen Mama recently posted..Pancakes & Parties & Knitting Like Crazy

    1. Emily, you go right ahead and use that idea – I love it! Please add some gingham fabric to the bag and really do it up. Very clever and cute AND useful. 😉
      Thanks, Emily!

  7. The grocery store where we shop still offers plastic bags and large paper bags with handles for free. We always ask for the paper bags; we use them as trash can liners and to store items for donation before the truck comes for pick up..

    1. Karen,
      I like the multi-purpose use here of the bags! I like that the donation truck comes to your house, too.
      Thanks for leaving a comment, Karen.

  8. To avoid bags altogether I use a “box” instead! CRESBI crates are lightweight plastic crates that stack, collapse and eliminate the bacteria problem because they’re dishwasher safe. Plus they also hold more than most bags! I save time too since I open the crates as I shop and turn barcodes up on my items as I place them in the crates. Then the checker scans my items in the crate and hands the crates back to me. I use different colors for food – red for meat, green for veggies, etc. You can get them in a bag or a cooler or bigger crate to carry. I got them at, I love them!

    1. Marie,
      I really like this idea. The efficiency of turning the items over so that the bar codes can be read more easily is right up my alley! Great tip.
      Very smart to use different colors for different food categories.
      Thanks for sharing these!

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