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Tuesday, May 31, 2022

Does It Really Save Money to Wash Those Flimsy Plastic Bags

As I was washing out the plastic bags on Monday (yep, that's how I spent my Memorial Day, doing housework), I was calculating the cost of washing those thin grocery store, produce, and bread bags as compared to the cost of a roll of plastic wrap. We have several food items for which we prefer the flexibility/conformity of thin plastic wrap or bags as opposed to rigid food storage containers. When bags were free with grocery purchases, it seemed like we had an endless supply of them. Now that those bags are no longer available (most of our stores have switched to non-complimentary paper sacks), I've turned to washing most of our bags. (If a bag is torn or has held meat, I throw it out.)

If I didn't wash the bags to reuse, I'd use thin plastic wrap, the kind that sells for $1.97/200-foot roll at Walmart. I estimate I'd use a sheet about 12 X 20 inches on average. A sheet this size costs me about 1.6 cents. I washed 16 bags the other day, or the replacement for 26 cents of plastic wrap.

Water and soap isn't free, however. I washed all of the bags together in a large sink of water (with a squirt of soap in the wash water, clear water for 2 rinses). I used about 3 gallons of water in each sink-full, or 9 gallons of water total. A gallon of water (with wastewater disposal) costs me about 1.1 cents per gallon. I used about 10 cents of water and about 1 cent of dish soap. My water had to be heated, so I'll add 2 cents to the wash calculation. Washing my 16 bags cost me about 13 cents. I hung them to dry on the laundry rack afterward, no cost there. I saved myself about 26 cents on the plastic wrap. So, I netted 13 cents by washing the bags.

There's an extra factor to consider. If I had something more lucrative to do in those 10 minutes, I could have earned more money than I saved. However, I didn't have anything better to do Monday morning. I'll take the savings.

I wash bags every other week, about 15-16 bags per time. I wait until I have enough bags to make the work worthwhile. In one year, I'll save $3.38. I certainly won't get rich on that savings. But as is often quoted, pay attention to the pennies and the dollars will take care of themselves. Another way I look at it when finances are tight -- it's better to save some money than to spend some money.


  1. I always like how thorough you are with your calculations. I am often shouting at the TV when some "expert" says that something is free, but doesn't figure in the cost of water or gas or something similar. And not only did you figure in the dollars and cents, you considered your time.

    1. Hi Live and Learn,
      Well, that's just me, and there result of needing to price out every factor at some times in my life. My MIL got me to see that there's more to the cost of something that just the ingredients. Thanks for the input!

  2. Yes and absolutely we save and wash bags. Our stores mostly have bags at the checkout for free but they are rather flimsy these days and often has a small hole at the bottom where it was melted together to make the bag. These we use for garbage can liners in the house. I never use those for food. Then there are the bread bags that I don't use too many for bread (but a few I do) and the rest goes into a bag holder dispenser container that I push from the top to load the bags and pull from the bottom to use a bag. These are often used for kitty poop when we clean the litter box. All kinds of bags go in this dispenser as well as bread bags (cereal bags, vegetable/fruit bags and miscellaneous bags). Sometimes I get a really good quality bag from the Amish store and reuse those for bread. Then the ziploc bags always get washed, hung on the clothesline, or in the garage from the bracket of the garage door. Even meat ziploc bags are washed with hot soapy water and hung to dry. I wash those bags every day first before I wash dishes and then the plates, cups, silverware, the pots and pans and finally cookware. I have elected to wash almost everything by hand and once in a while in the 1 hour cycle of my dishwasher. When those ziploc bags have holes or rips, I throw them away. Same if they have a very greasy product like raw bacon or some other greasy food, I don't even try to wash them.


    1. Hi Alice,
      if I ever had to choose which bags to wash and which ones to not wash, it would be to wash the ziplocs. They can be expensive and I hate using them only once. It sounds like you have a very workable system for washing your bags. Thank you for the details. It helps me think through how I can improve my own process.

  3. I nearly always wash and reuse my plastic bags. I was gifted a seal-a-meal machine years ago and I buy the generic rolls of bag material. I usually cut the bags larger so I can reseal them, especially with cheese. Place a wedge or block of cheese in the seal-a-meal bag, open remove what I need and reseal. I also cook using a sous-vide stick (another gift I wanted). To cook sous-vide the meat, poultry or fish is placed in a bag with seasonings and often a pat of butter or olive oil. The bag is submerged in water that has been heated to a specific temperature and the food is cooked for as many minutes or hours that the recipe specifies. Often I will divide up my meats, season and place in the freezer ready to go. then I just cook from the frozen state in water using the sous-vide stick.
    The rolls of this heavy duty plastic is pricey. I also reuse zip-top bags over. Suffolk County NY has mandatory recycling, in my kitchen I keep a small pail and throughout the day I will place recyclables like paper products, metal, glass and bags to be washed. Each evening after dinner I take my bucked and place the items in the designated receptacle. Glass in one, plastics and metals in another, paper in the third and bags that are turned inside out and given a quick rinse or wash with my dinner dishes and my kitchen cloths go in another bucket by my washer. I have weaned my household off paper towels and use kitchen dish cloths, bar mops and rags. Once or twice a week I wash my bags with my kitchen cloths, bar mops and rags with the inside out plastic bags. After the bags are cleaned in the washer I inspect them and rinse them again in the kitchen. I hang them on my clothes line it weather permits or on my pot rack with clothes pins and over kitchen utensils in counter containers. Once dry I turn the right side and let them dry fully. I place the clean and dried bags in the designated draw.
    Unless the zipper on the zip-top gabs is broken I can repair small holes at the seams with the seal-a-meal. My county does not allow free store bags, one must pay a nickle, we also have deposits on most beverages. I have an impressive reusable shopping tote bags. I place the deposit items in one of these bags to bring back to the store for the deposit return cash. The grocery stores also have a bin for plastic bags to be recycled. I drop off any that accumulated like packing pillows and plastic bags that are not usable for me anymore.

    1. Your system sounds very well thought-out. It's nice to have good tools that make your job easier. I've wanted a seal-a-meal for a while. I've seen them used with canning jars, too, which I think would be great for keeping pantry foods fresh after opening. My ziploc repairs probably don't look as good as yours, but they work. I use duct tape to reseal a split seam.
      That's great you have a place for those packing pillows. I haven't found a place to take those yet. I wind up popping them so they can go into the garbage. We do recycle everything that they'll take. We keep a box under the kitchen sink. I rinse cans and bottles as I empty them, then toss into the box. When the box is full, someone takes it out to the big bin in the garage. We no longer separate our recyclables, in my county. I guess there were too many mix ups.
      Thanks for sharing your system.

  4. And even more importantly than the small savings, think of all the plastic you kept out of landfills!

    1. That's my biggest reason for washing them. I wash ziplocs and sandwich bags, use plastic grocery bags as trash can lines/cat litter removal/carrying stuff, and I re-use foil until it gets too challenging to re-use--but if the foil isn't soiled then our recycling place will take it.

    2. Hi Cat,
      I think about that aspect too. Like Kris, I also wash foil until it can't be washed another time. Even slightly torn pieces are useful to me for lining empty pie pastry to blind bake a crust. There's a huge crossover between frugality and environmentally conscious, which is really nice. I can feel good about both aspects of my activities.

  5. I wash some types of plastic bags, but not every bag. I don't wash the very thin flimsy produce bags. I use these for kitchen waste, then dispose it tied up in the kitchen trash. We have a terrible ant problem if we throw food directly in the trash. Have you ever seen tiny black ants eat their way through cereal bags and waxed seals on unopened food items? I don't know how they know there is food inside. If we get sloppy and throw food into the trash, ants will attack the trash bin. If we bag the food items then throw into the trash, the ants will likely be slow to get there. The other reason is we are ordered by the City to reduce our water usage by at least 10% voluntarily. We are in a drought, almost no rain all winter and spring, and our island's water sources are close to being contaminated by the Navy's underground jet fuel storage. It is a dire situation, several wells have shut down as a precaution . Fuel has been detected in water at the Navy's base housing.

    I do wash thicker produce bags and any good reclosable type bags. But I catch the rinse water and use it to flush toilets. It's only us, so as ridiculous as it is. I use the soap water after washing dishes to wash the toilet bowl (just empty it in the bowl and use the toilet
    bowl brush).

    I think it's a good idea to evaluate periodically whether doing something makes sense. We can mindlessly do the same things by habit. I know when we get older it will probably happen because we lose our critical thinking abilities.

    Have a nice evening,

    1. Hi Laura,
      You bring up a very good point. If water shortages become a concern in my area, I'll have to rethink washing plastic bags, or rather whether or not I even take some sorts of plastic bags (like produce bags). Many years ago, we had a great store near by that allowed customers to bring in their own containers for bulk items. So, I could bring a bottle in to buy honey or molasses or shampoo, or a plastic container for dry items. I don't think they do this any longer. But maybe this practice will return. At the very least, we could buy more of our produce without a bag. It's just bit awkward when you have say 5 or 6 whole tomatoes and the cashier has to carefully lift each one onto the scale. I am a bit peeved by how much of the produce now comes pre-wrapped in plastic, though. The other day, I was looking at potatoes and they had individually plastic-wrapped russet potatoes. How ridiculous! I mean, the skin is sort of the packaging.

      Oh yes, we had an ant problem when I was growing up. We kept dry cereal in the fridge so the ants couldn't get to it. Good use for your bags, to tie up scraps that would be attractive to the ants.

      I hope your governor and state government can implement a plan soon to bring water levels up to the needs of the islands. I know one of the countries in So Ca recently put in an application to install a desalinization plant. That could be a solution for many coastal areas in the future.

      I hope you're enjoying a lovely evening, Laura!


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