I’ve heard a few dear friends posit that it is not worthwhile from an environmental standpoint to wash and re-use ziplock bags. A little googling reveals these are not isolated opinions. Rather, they are part of an ongoing feud that has polarized our nation. If you haven’t witnessed this controversy erupting into mud slinging and finger pointing between conservationists, pragmatists, environmentalists, capitalists, Hatfields and McCoys; perhaps you have felt it seething beneath the surface of an askance look, raised eyebrow, or bitten tongue.
Here at the Wednesday Post I am working tirelessly to assimilate the best information that my personal experience and filter-bubbled google searches have to offer on this topic; in hopes of shedding some light and returning peace and harmony to our domiciles. First I will briefly address a related question so that we can promptly set it aside.
Does washing and reusing ziplock bags save you money? The answer is: probably. If you are efficient with how much water you use and how much time you spend, you will save a few cents each time you wash and re-use a ziplock bag. Sometimes more than a few. Now we can move on to a question closer to my heart.
Are Ziplocks diposable?
dis·pos·a·ble Adj: intended to be used once and then thrown away.
A Toluna Poll reveals that about half of us consider ziplocks to be meant for one use, aka “disposable.” Which features make some of us think so?
It’s not flimsiness; I’ve gotten more uses out of a ziplock bag than certain wine glasses that were intended for permanent use, but shattered after only a few rounds.
Unlike, say, a pizza box; ziplocks stand up to water, soap, even dishwashers to be cleaned.
And unlike, say, the plastic packaging that displays batteries on a store shelf, it is simple to think up another useful purpose for an off-duty ziplock bag. And another, and another. Even once they develop tiny holes they can be useful. Here’s a veteran still performing excellent work in my desk drawer, keeping pens, pencils and glue sticks from escaping.
The scrap plastic artwork of the Langs that I mentioned a few weeks back illustrates how plastic is fully capable of spanning decades, centuries, millenia in our landfills; and of traveling thousands of miles to the ginormous garbage gyre in the North Pacific, to be nibbled by unwitting fish. Thousands upon thousands of these items meant for one use have been floating in the ocean for some 5o years, with more accumulating by the day. The environment just doesn’t get what we mean by “disposable.”
The main reason I believe some of us perceive ziplock bags as disposable is the low cost of replacing them. People think “my time is worth more than the 15 cents it takes to buy a new one.” And because of this, it is deemed somehow illogical to spend precious life moments rinsing ziplock bags for re-use.
From an environmental standpoint, we should be steering away from single use items as much as possible. Manufacturing them and shipping them takes a lot of energy, uses natural resources, and creates a lot of pollution. And, after only one use; they become more garbage. Ziplocks can be replaced by re-usable dishes with lids, or by cloth bags like these my friend Jody makes, which can be thrown in with the laundry. (She also has lovely modern baby quilts for sale!)
Say you re-use your plastic ziplock bag–you likely have just prevented dirtying a dish with a lid that you would otherwise need to wash. I’m not encouraging people to buy ziplocks, but if you have one already and can get another use out of it, what difference does it make if you spend the soap, water, and time cleaning a dish or if you spend the soap, water and time cleaning a ziplock? The ziplock is doing the same work that tupperware or pyrex does, and deserves some respect. In some cases a ziplock out-performs its more robust counterparts; because it is lighter, more flexible and less bulky. To me it is illogical to throw out a ziplock bag before its usefulness has been exhausted.
from Madness to Method
The second reason I think people fail to re-use ziplock bags is they simply don’t have a system in place. They don’t know how or if they can get them really clean.
If your ziplock has held, say, raw meat, you might want to go ahead and chuck it. People are so paranoid about anything that comes in contact with raw meat bacteria that I start to wonder why they keep this hazardous stuff around. (Let’s go Vegetarians, Let’s go! Clap Clap!)
There is more than one way to skin a cat. I’m a vegetarian so I wouldn’t know anything about it. But here are some different options for cleaning your ziplock bags. For those with dishwashers, passionate homemaking recommends turning ziplocks inside out and laying them on top of your dishes in the top rack. Simple Dollar advises turning the bags inside out and stretching them around as many tines as possible, which cleans them effectively, but takes up more space in the dishwasher.
Moi? I don’t have a dishwasher. Like 27% of people in the Toluna poll, I generally just rinse them out with water. If I feel the need to sterilize them more, I spritz them with homemade vegetable wash and let them sit a couple minutes before rinsing. Only if they held something greasy will I bust out the soap. Soap means more rinsing and I dislike over-washing ziplocks because it wastes resources. After they are rinsed, I sit back let nature take its course.
Evaporation and UV Radiation
Extra assurance that my ziplock bags are clean comes from letting them air dry thoroughly. I hang them upside down above the sink for several hours, then turn them inside out and right side up and let them dry again.
How does this enhance cleaning? From a biology forum: “water is the solvent in virtually all functions within a cell, be it a bacterium, some other microbe or a human cell. Enzymatic activity and respiration are ceased to levels unable to support life (or stopped altogether) if there is little or no water present.” In layman’s terms, thorough drying kills bacteria, or prevents them from growing.
The sun also has antiseptic powers. UV rays and warmth on a dry surface kills many types of bacteria. So hanging bags in a sunny kitchen window can’t hurt.
I give plastic produce bags from the from the grocery store the same treatment even though I could grab new ones for free. I fill them partway with hot water and shake vigorously. Turn them inside out and repeat. If I have several to rinse, I catch the rinse water in the sink and use it to hand wash dishes. I bring produce bags back to the store and use them for years. When they develop a small tear they still work fine for things like carrots, green onions, lettuce, etc. And if a droplet of water escapes through a hole, who cares?
The true danger of the ziplock
I have never purchased a ziplock bag. Before I was an environmentalist, I was a minimalist and tended toward lighter weight foldover top sandwich bags or plastic baggies with twist ties. But I have saved the ziplocks in which people have given me leftovers or christmas cookies, and used them for years. I find them useful for putting some trail mix in my backpack, freezing diced apples in the fall for use in the middle of the winter, bringing a sandwich on an airplane, or most recently, buying chocolate peanut butter malt balls from the bulk bins at the Wedge Co-op.
Some claim that once you account for the water and soap used, the environmental benefits of re-using ziplocks are, well, a wash. This would depend on how much water and soap you use. But in general, I don’t buy it. By that reasoning we may as well eat every meal from disposable plates with disposable utensils, drink only from disposable cups and turn our world into a gigantic junk heap. People throw out ziplocks not because it makes sense, but because they are a product designed to make the lazy ways of disposability non cost-prohibitive. It is this temptation toward apathetic convenience that is the true danger of the ziplock. But it is a danger to which we need not succumb. Unlike chocolate peanut butter malt balls.
Thanks for reading the Wednesday Post.