Reduce, Reuse, Recycle: Why I Wash Ziploc Bags

The bag with (at least) nine lives.

The bag with (at least) nine lives.

“Mom, what should I do with my applesauce cup?”

I sigh. I’ve explained this before–the applesauce and yogurt cups are recyclable, so bring them home. The plastic utensils? They’re dishwasher safe, my son, so tote ’em on home. What I say is, “You know what, Daniel? Just put everything in your lunchbox and bring it home — we’ll sort it out later.”

Annoyingly, though the schools talk a good game about saving the earth (or, as James says cutely, “we have to save the Earf”), they don’t have recycling bins in the cafeteria. So in the giant garbage bucket go the water bottles, the juice boxes, and the yogurt and applesauce cups, along with the sandwich baggies, straws, napkins, and mountains of uneaten food (though, I have to say, not from my son’s lunch!).

I’m hardly perfect when it comes to environmentally-ideal lunch packing, otherwise I’d use cloth napkins and make my own granola bars. But at the very least, I pack re-usable drink containers (juice boxes, though I use them for camp and picnics, go against my natural frugality as well as my environmental efforts), and I continually, if not perfectly patiently, instruct my sons to bring the stuff home.

Ziploc bags are where I straddle the line between being green and being a typically profligate consumer-and-tosser of packaging. Because I do use them–for snacks and sandwiches–but I also reuse them. Over. And over. And over.

Right now, in fact, there’s a mini mountain range on my drainboard, made entirely of inside-out, just-washed Ziploc bags. Objectively, it’s kind of pretty – the diminutive snack-size bags are the foothills, the sandwich bags rise into higher mountains, and the large freezer bags, which once held frozen chicken breasts or rings of Italian sausages, are the range’s Everest and K2. They’re sprinkled with water droplets, and sparkle in the light from the kitchen window, their blue-and-green zippers anchoring them to the dishtowel.

I’ve just done the pain-in-the-butt job of turning a week’s worth of bags inside out, sticking one hand inside them, and soaping them up with a sponge. Then the rinse, and the slow-drying mountain range. Once dry, I turn them back right-side-out, fold them, and stack them back in the drawer that holds the boxes of their pristine cousins, Ziplocs I try my best not to use, at least not until my motley collection has seen its last days.

I know there are other earth-friendly options for the task of packing my sons’ lunches and snacks every day, such as reusable containers that can be popped in the dishwasher, and I do fill reusable bottles with milk or apple juice rather than buy juice boxes, but I like my Ziplocs. I enjoy the mental game I play: how long can I make the bargain box of 50 snack-sized bags last? The whole school year? Until winter break? And I don’t like the other option: succumbing to the siren song of single-serving bags of pretzels, popcorn, Goldfish crackers.

My wash-and-reuse system of sandwich- and snack-packing may seem modern, but really I come by it genetically. My grandmother tore Brillo pads in half (really, a half does just as good a job, and goes rusty and unusable just as quickly as a whole), and actually washed what little aluminum foil she used. I remember the one hearty laugh my sister and I got on the otherwise sad day more than a decade ago, when we were clearing out our grandmother’s apartment before she entered the nursing home. “Oh my God!” my sister exclaimed, rummaging in a pantry shelf. “This box of foil is from Hill’s!” Which was a five-and-dime store in our old neighborhood in Queens—where Grandma hadn’t lived since 1978.

As a schoolchild, I was admonished daily to bring home my brown paper lunch bags. Sometimes I did, but many days I forgot and felt bad, especially when I’d see my dad, who brown-bagged lunch for work, with a stack of five on a Friday, neatly folded as though hardly used.

It was a chore for me—but it seems to be sinking in to become second-nature for my boys. Such as the time not long ago, when Daniel handed me his lunch box full of cups to be rinsed and Ziplocs to be washed, and said, “Mom! Ally, who sits next to me? She said her mom told her to throw out her bags! Why would she say that?!”

Meanwhile, our Ziploc mountain range gleams in the sun.

How do you teach your kids about recycling?