We know plastics hurt the planet. 18 billion pounds of it fills the oceans every year. But if you’re reading this post, chances are you’re part of the green community that, bit by bit, is saving the planet. You’ve switched to natural cleaners, apply organic sunscreen, shop at local farmers’ markets (or grow your own veggies!), drive cars less dependent on fossil fuels, and swap single-use plastic wrap and Ziplocs for eco-friendly reusable alternatives.
You know these little things help turn the earth green again. But what you might not know is that some of the green things you do aren’t as green as you might think they are. And there are also things you can do to double-up your “greenness”—like using reusable produce bags in multiple ways. How can you get the most out of your planet-saving efforts?
Read on, eco-friend!
90 years of plastic package pollution
Plastic wrap was discovered in a lab by accident in the 1930s. It became the clingy material that revolutionized the 1950s kitchen. Wax paper got the boot and plastic wrap stocked shelves as the better way to store leftovers.
Humans will eschew traditional practices for new ways that make life easier. Plastic was new, lighter, more durable, and more affordable than glass or metal. Back then, the consequences of plastics hadn’t played out yet. Now we see how the detriments of plastic outweigh its convenience. The stats are staggering: 500 billion single-use bags are used every year around the world.
Plastic doesn’t break down in an environmentally friendly way. When it does, it releases all kinds of nasty chemicals that leach into food and liquids. Plastic degradation creates a toxic soup that poisons soil, water, animals, and humans—and it has been linked to cancer:
Dioxins are absorbed into plants and eaten by animals that are then consumed by humans—where the chemicals hunker down in our fatty tissues for a long time and cause hormonal, immune, and organ diseases. Scary stuff!
But here we are in 2020. Non-plastic alternatives are finally gaining traction. We are using natural products that biodegrade. Here’s some good news:
Consumer research group Nielsen estimates that U.S. consumers will spend $150 billion on a wide variety of sustainable products by 2021...In the last two years, beeswax-based food wraps have eliminated more than 100 million square feet of plastic wrap.—National Geographic
Let’s talk healthy, sustainable products
Eco-friendly reusable produce bags are made from ingredients you can feel good about. They don’t hurt the planet and they keep your produce fresh, too. But some products are better than others. Produce bags should withstand weight, wear, and continual washing. They also need to repel moisture and leave no trace.
Some of the most common reusable bags are made from paper, cotton, jute, hemp, beeswax, silicone, nylon, polyester, and mesh. The first four are made with natural fibres. But did you know that the last four are made from plastic? Yep. Unhappy sidebar: Most of the grocery bags in your trunk are likely made from materials that spin plastic into the fibres.
Made from plastic
Silicone and PEVA:
Do a quick search on Amazon for reusable produce bags and you’re presented with a variety of “eco-friendly” options. The most popular products are ziploc-type bags made from silicone and PEVA that claim to be “free of BPAs, PVCs, and chloride.”
It’s misleading advertising.
Polyethylene Vinyl Acetate (PEVA) doesn’t sound organic, does it? It’s not. It’s a plastic made from volatile compounds that are toxic to living things. Silicone is a synthetic plastic polymer that can handle high temperatures. Though Health Canada supports silicone as a “safe” material, studies show that it can leach chemicals over time. Certain forms of silicone are endocrine disruptors that interfere with hormonal functions (linked to tumors, birth defects, and developmental disorders). If that isn’t bad enough, silicone isn’t biodegradable, and it isn’t easily recycled. It doesn’t minimize our footprint. It will still be here hundreds of years from now.
One of the strongest textiles on the market is nylon. Nylon makes tents, sails, parachutes, rope, and fishing line. Though antifungal, it absorbs water. What’s worse, nylon is a thermoplastic made from petrochemicals. It is not biodegradable and it creates toxic fumes if burned.
Polyester and Mesh
Polyester is a synthetic plastic polymer derived from petroleum. Mesh, used for delicate laundry, sports balls, toiletry kits etc., is woven from polyester or nylon. Mesh bags breathe because they’re loosely woven. They’re also machine washable. But in the end, mesh is a plastic product that suffers the same downfalls as all other synthetic fabrics.
Man-Made synthetic materials are versatile, but not good for the planet, and a bad choice for produce bags. These plastic-derivative products leach chemicals into organic substances—like food. Repurpose them and opt for a plastic-free material.
Let’s take a look at reusable produce bags that pass the test.
Brown paper bags have made a small comeback in some grocery stores. Made from recycled content (save the trees!), they do a great job with produce that is not wet or heavy (like mushrooms). But paper bags aren’t durable (they rip easily) and they aren’t waterproof, which means you can’t wash them or wipe them down—so they become a breeding ground for germs. For these reasons, paper bags are often treated as single-use bags.
Cotton bags are 100% cotton or muslin, a loose-weave cotton that may blend in silk or viscose. Silk is a natural protein fibre but viscose is a manufactured cellulose-derivative that is neither 100% natural (like cotton, wool, or silk) nor completely synthetic (like nylon or polyester). Viscose is a hybrid of natural and manmade fibres—not so great.
Cotton is a sustainable, biodegradable crop that has been harvested for thousands of years. Though natural and earth-friendly from the time it’s picked until it’s recycled, cotton is a water-intensive crop that accounts for 16% of the world’s pesticide use. The Better Cotton Initiative is helping lower that stat by encouraging natural techniques like rotating crops, and releasing birds, ladybugs, spiders, and ants into cotton fields to feed on pests.
Cotton is breathable but it’s also absorbent (it doesn’t repel water), which means it won’t perform as well with “wet produce” like herbs, mushrooms, and leafy lettuce. An advantage of cotton bags is that you can toss them in the washing machine to prevent germs and bacteria—but cotton shrinks if it’s put in the dryer.
Jute bags are durable and stylish! Made of natural plant fibres (cellulose and lignin), jute is durable, breathable, and eco-friendly. Jute grows in areas with high rainfall and does not require irrigation or pesticides. The downside to jute is that it’s not waterproof. It absorbs moisture which, like cotton, means it doesn’t work well with produce.
Hemp is a natural, renewable fibre that grows quickly (it produces 250% more fibre than cotton). It is a drought-tolerant crop that can grow in poor soil without pesticides, fertilizer, or irrigation. It is a very durable fibre, that can be machine-washed and dried. The downside to hemp is that it absorbs water (though it is mold-resistant!) and it’s pricey. Because hemp is made from the Cannabis Sativa plant (marijuana) it is not a widely grown North American crop (yet)—production is restricted in the United States. That means that hemp is largely imported and hit with import taxes that get passed on to the consumer.
A BeeBAGZ beeswax bag is made from 100% cotton coated in beeswax, jojoba oil, and tree resin (that adheres the wax to the cloth). Like other eco-friendly produce bags, a beeswax bag durably transports food from the grocery store. But unlike other plastic-free materials, reusable beeswax bags have a number of added benefits.
- Naturally antimicrobial (antifungal and antibacterial)
- Easy to wash (cool water)
- 100% biodegradable
- Not crop intensive
Beeswax isn’t the result of intensive farming (that contributes to the earth’s carbon footprint). Beeswax comes from honeybee hives (the wax is secreted by honeybee glands). Honeybees are pollinators that help other crops grow. In fact, honeybees contribute $24 billion to American agriculture every year.
Many intensive crop systems now rely heavily on “renting” honeybee hives for the crop flowering season to maintain productivity...The honeybee is essential to the future of our honey, beeswax and health industries (honey, beeswax, and propolis are all valuable antibacterial substances), and it is a treasured visitor in productive home gardens, market gardens and school vegetable patches around the country.—The Conversation
Truly amazing. Beeswax bags are pliable (bendy), slightly-tacky (sticky), breathable—but waterproof!— and self-sealing to prevent leaks. They’re great for nuts, dried fruits, citrus, apples, and hearty veggies like cabbage, beans, brussels sprouts, broccoli, and cauliflower. But they also take care of herbs, delicate greens, and other produce that benefits from staying moist.
But the biggest advantage to beeswax bags is that they go from the car to your crisper, working double-duty to keep your produce fresh (more on that below), and when it’s time to replace them, you can compost them or use them as firestarters.
How reusable beeswax product bags prevent food spoilage
We’ve already mentioned that beeswax bags are an eco-friendly, plastic-free alternative that saves the planet one bag at a time. But a beeswax bag goes one step beyond its sustainability and usefulness as a carrying device—it preserves produce, extending the freshness of your fruits and vegetables. That’s because, unlike plastic, beeswax bags aren’t airtight. They don’t lock in moisture. They mimic the properties of produce.
Fruits and vegetables protect themselves with their skin or rind, which is naturally breathable. When fruits ripen, they emit ethylene, a natural gas. When ethylene is trapped around produce, it ripens faster. Condensation also accelerates the rate of rot. To slow ripening, cool temperatures and good airflow are essential. Airflow keeps moisture down and prevents mould. Breathability keeps produce from wilting, and stops veggies (and cheese!) from drying out. A beeswax bag lets ethylene escape without trapping moisture. That means less spoilage—hooray!
How to Care for Reusable Beeswax Produce Bags
Aside from creating less waste and preserving flavours and freshness, reusable beeswax produce bags are easy to care for. Wash your bags in cool water regularly to prevent germs. Because of the anti-bacterial properties of beeswax, you can usually get them completely clean by wiping simply with water or using a gentle soap if required. Avoid hot water to preserve the life of the beeswax.
Get the most out of your reusable beeswax produce bags
Small lifestyle changes have big ecological impacts—positive changes for a greener planet! As we learn to live more sustainably, we leave single-use habits behind. Making this choice feels good. Governments around the world agree that this change is good for the planet too. Europe and Canada could ban single-use plastic as early as 2021.
Though hemp and jute make great grocery transports, they don’t extend the life of your fruits, veggies, cheese, etc. once brought into the house. Beeswax bags not only transport your more delicate and wet produce well, but they also go right into the fridge as a freshness extender. That’s because beeswax is water-resistant, but it’s also porous—it lets your fruits and vegetables breathe. Using beeswax bags can help save the environment as well as your wallet by encouraging longer-lasting produce. That means less food waste. And that’s a good thing because Canadians throw out 170kgs of food each year and, sadly, 40% of that is produce.