On the Table: Going green when shopping around
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Reusable bags are a common sight at most grocery stores these days, but it wasn't always so. For years, bringing your own bag was something practiced only by the most ardent environmentalist while the rest of us happily lugged home plastic or paper -- to the tune of hundreds of millions of bags. They can take from 400 to 1,000 years to decompose, according to environmental groups.
Canvas and other reusable bags may have became popular because they happily merged greater convenience -- they're easier to carry, can hold a lot more weight and don't need to be thrown away -- with sustainability and style. In other words, they make us feel good and make our lives easier at the same time.
But let's not stop at reusable grocery bags; There's the irony of filling our reusable shopping bags with two dozen thin plastic bags holding everything from a single pepper to a couple of pounds of potatoes.
You can be free of those flimsy plastic bags by investing in a set (or several) of nylon or polyester mesh produce bags. These have started to pop up everywhere, from ribboned, homespun versions on etsy.com to color-tagged sets in a recent Crate & Barrel catalog ($10.95 for a set of five).
Locally, they're carried by Whole Foods in East Liberty ($7.99 for a set of six) and the East End Food Co-op in North Point Breeze ($3.75 for a solid bag, $4.29 for mesh).
Because these bags are more porous than plastic bags, be careful about separating your produce. Keep fruits, including culinary vegetables like tomatoes that tend to produce plant-ripening ethylene gas, separate from vegetables, which are ethylene sensitive.
Lettuce and leafy greens are vulnerable to moisture loss, so either keep them in the fridge in a salad spinner, or use plastic bags just for them.
Switching over to reusable products takes some extra preparation. Remember to bring them to the grocery store and to clean them regularly, a step many people are skipping.
The American Chemistry Council, an industry group representing most of the plastic bag producers in the United States, recently funded a study that examined bacterial contamination of reusable bags. Researchers at the University of Arizona and Loma Linda University found that many bags are contaminated with coliform bacteria (the kind that comes from raw meat or uncooked food) and even E. coli. But washing the bags essentially eliminates the bacteria.
Other things you can leave out of your shopping cart: Those packs of paper napkins and towels. Maybe you're already paying the extra money for recycled, unbleached versions (definitely better for the environment), but that doesn't make them any less flimsy or unattractive.
Instead, stock up on cloth napkins and dish towels. They often can be found or made inexpensively, and likely pay for themselves over the years. Cloth napkins also make every meal seem a little nicer, and do a far better job of protecting laps from spills or crumbs.
If possible, pick organic cotton over conventional cotton, which is grown using a lot of pesticides. Linen, made from efficient flax plants, is best of all.
First Published July 25, 2010 12:00 am