Washing Plastic Bags

It’s Works-for-Me Wednesday , so here’s a mundane but easy tip that saves a lot of money and helps the environment, too!

We wash and reuse plastic food bags, like zip-top freezer bags and sandwich bags.  I always used to shake out crumbs or maybe rinse them a little, but if there was any significant food stuck in a bag I’d throw it away.  Now that I’ve figured out how to wash them, I can get several uses out of almost every bag.

Here’s how to do it:

  • When using the food, remove as much as possible: Dig out every bit you could eat, and then shake out the crumbs or rinse out bits of kale or whatever is clinging to the inside.  Then set the bag aside with your dirty dishes.
  • When washing dishes, turn the plastic bags inside-out and put them in the bottom of the sink of hot, soapy water.  Let them soak a while.
  • Wipe the bag with your dishcloth.  Most foods, even those that were stuck to the bag, will come off easily after soaking.
  • Sniff the bag to make sure it doesn’t have a clinging odor.  Sometimes odors can be removed with a little extra dish soap and a little baking soda.  But if your bag held onions or something and it still smells strongly, either throw it away or mark it to be used only for onions in future.  You do not want an onion-flavored PBJ sandwich.  Trust me.  (Plastic bags are not the best way to store onions anyhow.)
  • Rinse the side that’s currently on the outside, getting all the soap off.  Turn the bag right-side-out and rinse the outside.
  • Hang it up to dry.  I wash some big cooking spoons before the bags, put the spoons handle-down in the dish drainer’s utensil basket, and hang the bags over the spoons.
  • Wait for bags to dry completely before putting them away.  When you think they are dry, hold them up to the light and look for droplets.  You can dry a bag with a towel or just hang it again at a different angle so the damp parts can drain.

The whole process (except the drying) takes only a few seconds per bag.

A used bag does not look as perfect and clear as a new bag.  That doesn’t mean it’s dirty!  After proper washing and drying, it’s as clean as any of your plastic dishes.  If you feel icky about it, transfer your disgust to the idea of making garbage: A plastic bag that held a sandwich for half a day and then went into a landfill and stayed there forever, wasted, forever, never to return to the earth, forever, that’s disgusting!  You’re better than that.  The only real safety concerns are if the bag contained raw eggs or meat or something that got moldy.

For me, reusing bags is more rewarding when I can see how many uses I’m getting out of each one.
  When I freeze food, I label the bag with the contents and date; next time, I draw a line through the previous label.  That means I can see that a bag has held, say, cranberries, three rounds of kale, and veggie burgers over the course of two years, so when it tears I can throw it away with a sense of retiring it after faithful service.   But I can understand that for some people, multiple labeling might be an unpleasant reminder that this bag has a history and is not virginally receiving your sandwich…so don’t label, or use removable labels, if that’s how you are!

What about bags left over from food packaging?  We typically use bags from bread, cereal, crackers, etc. for one more use and then toss them, unless the second use left behind only crumbs that shake out easily.  Bread bags and others with printing on them are hard to wash because you can’t see through them, and I’ve heard that when that printing comes off (which it easily does) it’s not safe to ingest, so I don’t want it flaking into my dishwater.  The more crackly bags from cereal and such just aren’t as useful, in my opinion, although they do protect food in the freezer pretty well.  Anyway, the main reason we don’t squeeze every scrap of usefulness out of every bag is that then they would overbreed and fill our house!

As it is, by reusing the type of bags that were purchased as empty bags, we haven’t had to buy such bags in a long, long time.  I got a great price on a Costco pack of zip-top gallon freezer bags last summer, but we still haven’t opened it; I suspect it will last until our 5-year-old is in high school.  The bulk package of sandwich bags still bears a stain from The Horror of the Porch, so we’ve had that box since at least 1998, and it wasn’t even full when we got it from friends leaving town!

Yet I feel that we use plastic food bags frequently and lavishly!
  It’s just another example of how making things last increases abundance.  A few months ago, my son was sorting some of his innumerable small possessions and asked for some zip-top bags.  I gave him a handful of new sandwich bags and felt completely comfortable with that–we save so many bags that we can be generous with them for his project.  But he frowned at them and said, “Not this kind.”  He handed them back to me, opened the drawer, and took out a bunch of previously-used bags.  Not only did he not mind if his marbles were in a bag labeled with the crossed-out names of various vegetables, but he wanted that kind of bag because, like, that’s normal.

UPDATE: As I was writing this, I felt that I should be saying something about how to store the clean bags, but at the time we really didn’t have a good method–we just stuffed them into a drawer, and when we needed one we’d rummage around until we found the right size, and they got very unruly and tended to bulge up and jam the drawer. . . . Then I found an article in Gayle’s great “10 Ways to Reuse It” series in which she suggests storing plastic bags in cardboard tubes from paper towels, etc. This has worked really well for us! We now have 3 tubes labeled “small bags” and “large ziptop bags” and “large plain bags”, and we can keep the drawer neat!
Another way to store reused plastic bags is in Camille’s article on reusing net produce bags.  We have made several sink scrubbers out of those bags.

Visit Your Green Resource for more environmentally friendly ideas!

About 'Becca
author of The Earthling's Handbook, about the environment, parenting, cooking, and more!

22 Responses to Washing Plastic Bags

  1. Noelle says:

    My sister bought me a really cute bag dryer for Christmas! It’s a bunch of dowels with knobs on the end that stand up on a round base!

    I like the idea of transferring your disgust to environmental waste!

  2. Camille says:

    Thanks, Becca! I do notice that the plastic thins the more I wash the bags.

    I love that your son wanted the used bags!!

  3. i LOVE to reuse things! bags included. thanks for new ideas.
    also, thanks for the visit to my blog with the great breakfast and snack ideas!! can’t wait to try them out!

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  17. I also reuse a lot of plastic bags. And to think I laughed at my grandma when she washed her bags😉

    As for storage, our grocery and bread bags go into a large plastic shopping bag attached to the wall at the top of the basement stairs and zip locks go into a wall mount bag dispenser next to it–similar to this:


    Great idea drying bags on the spoons!

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