36 Amazing Uses for the Lowly Plastic Grocery Bag

I’ve been a big defender of plastic grocery store bags for a long time. In fact, last year I challenged readers to tell me why the humble plastic shopping bag is still maligned by so many people.

Now I may be just a wee bit biased, but I think I made a very compelling case when I explained why plastic bags are good.

Yes, I mentioned that they are arguably environmentally friendlier than paper bags.

Yes, I mentioned how they minimize the number of trips I have to make when I get home and need to tote my groceries from the car to the house.

I even remembered to note that they are durable, lightweight, moisture resistant, and reusable.

However, as my readers reminded me the last time, what I failed to mention was that the poor, pilloried plastic shopping bag is also extremely versatile.

Just how versatile are plastic grocery bags?  Well, let me count the ways…

1. Place plastic grocery bags in bathroom trash cans for use as a bag liner.  (Just don’t forget to keep extras in the bottom for rapid replacements.)

2. When you ball them up they can be used as mattress and/or pillow stuffing.

3. If you have a broken arm or leg, you can use plastic bags to help keep the cast dry while taking a bath or shower.

4. Plastic bags are also great for holding dirty diapers.

5. Line your cat’s litter box with them.

6. Speaking of pets, plastic bags are perfect for picking up dog and cat poo.

7. Use them in your luggage to keep your wet clothes separate from your dry clothes, and your clean clothes from dirty ones.

8. When traveling with a suitcase, plastic bags can also be used to protect your shoes from scuffs — or keep stinky shoes from affecting your other clothes.

9. Most everyone knows you can use them as a simple lunch sack.  Or do they?

10. Got  a leaky bottle or jar?  Use a section of plastic bag as a seal prior to screwing a cap onto the container.

11. If the forecast calls for frost, you can protect delicate plants by placing a plastic bag over them the night before.

12. Plastic grocery bags can be used as packing material for fragile items.

13. To prevent messy leaks when defrosting meat, place the meat in a plastic bag, along with a paper towel.

14. For cars that are parked in the open, you can place plastic bags over the side mirrors and wiper blades to keep them free from snow or freezing rain.

15. Painting a large room and need to take a break?  Wrap your paint brushes and rollers in plastic bags to keep them from drying out so fast.

16. Plastic bags can be used as cheap disposable gloves for handling unpleasant things.

17. They’re also great for storing old rags.

18. Use them as a non-stick surface for rolling out dough.

19. When I’m tasked to watch a neighbor’s home for an extended period of time, I use plastic bags to hold their mail until they return.

20. And nothing is better for tossing out moldy fruit or stinky refrigerator leftovers that, um, need a shave.

21. Use plastic bags to make kitchen spills easier to clean up by placing all your wet paper towels in them.

22. In a pinch?  When traveling on the road and your miles away from the nearest facilities, you can use them as emergency toilet paper.

23. You can also use them as a makeshift shoe horn.

24. Plastic bags can be used to coat chicken or beef with flour prior to cooking.

25. While you’re in the kitchen, keep in mind that you can wrap your homemade bread in a plastic grocery bag.  Those who know say the bag will help keep the bread fresh while still allowing it to breathe.

26. By the way, if you find yourself out of bread crumbs, you can also use them to crush crackers without making a mess.

27. When you’re working the garden, try wrapping some plastic bags around your knees to not only keep them dry and clean, but also provide a little extra cushiony comfort.

28. Oh, and while your busy tending to the yard, don’t forget you can also use plastic shopping bags to collect those smaller yard clippings.

29. Plastic bags are often used as emergency rain gear.

30. You can also use them to bring home your wet clothes.

31. Hopefully, you’ve also kept a few extra plastic bags in the car and near your home’s front door for storing those muddy shoes.

32. And, hey, even if it isn’t raining you can still use them to waterproof all kinds of stuff.

33. You can use plastic bags to store Christmas wreaths and decorations.

34. When traveling, store perfumes and other toiletries in a plastic bag to prevent leaks from making a mess.

35. Got a son or nephew who owns a G.I. Joe?  Plastic grocery bags make great parachutes for them!

36. And you can loop multiple plastic bags together to make a plastic rope too.  (For you, not the G.I. Joe.)

So there you have it!  That’s 36 uses for plastic shopping bags, and I know you folks probably have a bunch more that I failed to mention.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a little shopping to do.   And when it comes time to choose between paper or plastic, I think you all know what I’ll be asking for.

Photo Credit: Dano

62 comments to 36 Amazing Uses for the Lowly Plastic Grocery Bag

  • I dunno about #22. There was a saying in the paper industry that if you don’t support forestry then try using plastidc toilet paper!

  • I’m not so sure about #22. And as for #6, yes they can pick up poo, but there are also completely compostable and degradable poo-bags now. They’re called bio bags and completely break down (meaning there are no small plastic bits left over) within 30-60 days. I use this for cleaning out my cat litter box (using only biodegradable litter!) I’m not a huge proponent of plastic bags; I’d like to see them phased out slowly.

  • aj

    We always keep some extra ones in each car in case any of our kids get car sick. Just make sure they don’t have any holes in them.

    And we also use them to quickly clean out any trash in our vehicles, as 3 kids & 2 adults on a road trip (even a short one) generate a good bit of trash.

    I try to remember to use my fabric bags when I can but if I do bring home plastic ones we always have a use for them!

  • I hope you are going to follow up this blog post with 36 ways to re-use paper bags for your readers who are more eco-friendly ;)

  • In the Los Angeles area, I believe plastic bags will be banned soon. I personally like them to carry my lunch. For the eco-friendly, I re-use the plastic bags until they tear.

  • Barb

    I counted 21 of these ideas that I have already done.

    PLUS: wrapped partially used bags of flour in grocery bags – I live in a very humid area so it helps keep flour and sugar dry; wrapped books in bags both for storage and for carrying from car to library on rainy days; used one bag to stuff all the others I’m saving in, keeps them organized in a small space; wrapped stuff I’m mailing in bags before wrapping in paper; wrapped x-mas deco items before putting in large storage boxes; as you mentioned for raingear = grocery bag for rainhat and leaf bag for raincoat; wrapped sweaters before storing away to help keep moth-free; balled up several bags and taped over outdoor faucets to winterize them; use one bag on each foot in a layer between two socks when hiking to prevent soggy feet on muddy trails; put tools in bag when climbing tall ladder rather than try to hold several things and ladder rungs at same time; store cast iron wrapped in paper towels in plastic bag in cabinet to help prevent rust; used balled up as filler when patching largish holes in drywall; used to organize dirty items in back of SUV – like towrope, tire chains, spare cans of oil; when packing use bags to wrap items you don’t want to rub directly against each other like pots and lids or plates and cups.

    That’s easily a dozen more for your list!!

  • I am going to start stacking them together under a rock, and see how long it will take to turn them into a barrel of oil.

    Hey if it was good enough for the dinosaur age….

    (Sorry, my wife won’t let me, she wants to USE them, can you believe it???)

  • @Pineview, @Brad & @LittleHouse: I’m with you, Brad. Between a plastic bag and the alternative, I’m using a plastic bag! LOL (Thanks for the tip on the bio bags, Jen!)
    @aj: Good ones! I’m glad you suggested doubling the car-sick bag though. :-)
    @Jenna: That’s a fair challenge. Give me a few weeks to get one together… :-)
    @krantcents: I don’t know about banning them, but LA is adding a surcharge to them — which was the impetus for my original post. And I’m glad to see you are environmentally conscious.
    @Barb: Wow! Well done!! (Just curious, are you willing to share if you’ve used them for #22? Maybe you can put my friendly debate with Pineview and LittleHouse to rest once and for all.)
    @Dr.Dean: I *love* that idea! Wait. You *do* have a federal permit to do that, don’t you? ;-)

  • We would not be able to own pets without these things, lol. Well, how much do bio bags cost? ;-)

  • I don’t know how to break this to you, but you might want to rethink anything involving food or your orifices for that matter (ahem, when out of TP…). A study just reported by USA Today found that those plastic bags are a “bacterial swamp” if not washed out (and who does that)?!

    • Are you sure those were *plastic* bags? I’ve seen studies that show “reusable” bags made of canvas and other materials are full of bacteria, but not plastic bags. Sure, if you carried leaky meat in a plastic bag and then didn’t rinse it out a plastic bag could have bacteria, but I don’t see how plastic bags that carry dry goods would have any more bacteria on it than your own hand — which goes everywhere. (I tried googling “USA Today plastic bags bacteria” and a few other combos but my search came up empty. Can you send me a link?)

  • When I was a kid, we didn’t get snow very often, so we never had snow boots so my Mom would put plastic bags over our shoes and put a rubber band around our ankles to keep them on so we could play in the snow without ruining our shoes.

  • I love them too and have used them for a lot of your tips.

    The shoehorn idea is novel and I see how it would work.

    Although I use ziplocs for rolling out pie dough. I don’t like the idea of sticky food I’m going to eat touching something that a grocery bagger touched.

  • Mackie

    We have a septic system, which can’t handle greasy waste, and use a plastic grocery bag with junk mail or an old magazine placed in it as a used cooking oil disposal bag. The waste paper soaks up the oil so the bag is less likely to leak in the trash.

    I also cut the bags into good-sized strips and use them for wrapping empty ink cartridges sent off for recycling.

  • Mary Alice

    @Norm
    Your mom wasn’t the only one to use that trick. LOL
    Boy, did that just bring back a flood of memories!

    I always keep a few extra plastic bags stashed in my car. They have come in very handy more than once.

    I used them as trash bag liners in my house. To keep the contained, I made a storage container for them out of a (washed) plastic gallon milk carton. I just cut out a smallish hole at the top (removing the spout in the process) and stuff the bags inside.

  • LOL! I already do this with many of my plastic bags. I does lead me to feel less guilty over having so many and I feel it’s insurance for the environment to keep them a little longer before heading them to the landfill.

  • @Norman: Perfect! You know, living in California, I never saw a snowflake fall from the sky until I was 17 years old.
    @FirstGen: Love the shoe horn idea. I like the ziplock idea for the dough. I think that would work better than a plastic grocery bag.
    @Mackie: What a clever idea concerning greasy waste. I love it!
    @Mary Alice: Terrific! Love the container idea! I’m going to try that this weekend.
    @Jerry: Don’t be ashamed of your plastic bags, Jerry. Never, never, never. They provide plenty of valuable services! LOL

  • Some girl.

    “And when it comes time to choose between paper or plastic, I think you all know what I’ll be asking for.”

    Good to see someone is concerned about the environment. /sarcasm

    I find it very hard to believe that this was written this year. Just, wow.

    • Sorry to break this to you, but the article really *was* written on March 2, 2011.

      Do you mean to tell me you’ve never encountered *anybody* in 2011 who actually prefers plastic to paper — and that, until you read my post, you actually believed everybody thought the same way you do? Really?

      You know, there are lots of people on the planet not as enlightened as you are. /sarcasm

  • B Madsen

    Take a newspaper or magazine to an outdoor sporting event in a plastic bag. It is a sit-upon for a cold or wet seat, something to read while you wait for your kid to go on, a rain hat if needed and you can discard it at the event or take it home to recycle.

  • John

    This past Sunday, a visiting missionary from Tanzania showed us a soccer ball made from plastic bags, a common local toy in her village. Since the children there can not afford a regulation leather soccer ball, they crunch up a handful of plastic bags and sew them into a ball using a mesh of plastic string.

  • grannan

    While making the plastic bag sound like the greatest thing since (depends on your generation what you think is the greatest invention/discovery) you did fail to include any warnings; such as how a person or animal can be sufficated easily by plastic bags and how wildlife can and do get choked, have stomach and other problems, etc. Believe it or not, there are people (even internet users) who take to heart everything they read.

  • Using plastic bags for all your shopping and grocery needs is really bad for the environment. Why don’t you try switching to canvas shopping bags or sturdy cardboard boxes for heavier grocery items that can tear the plastic bag, rendering it useless for re-usage purposes?

    And when you buy small items, they place it into tiny useless plastic bags that are too small to function as bin liners – they’re also a waste. By carring a reusable shopping bag with you at all times can really contribute a lot less to landfill. Cheers.

  • Rusty

    Thanks for the tips. I think my wife and I have used almost every idea on this list. Some of the uses for the lowly plastic shopping bag are simply common sense, as are the warnings to not use them if they are not clean. We like to take long road trips (probably has something to do with living in Texas), and we always carry a supply of these bags (they make great trash bags in the car) and different sizes of Ziplocks. I do not use the so-called environmentally friendly grocery bags. They are sumps for bacteria unless you launder them with each use — which uses more energy, water and whatever one uses for detergent; it’s counterproductive.

  • Peony

    My sister used the plastic bags to crochet a rug for her outside porch. It has been years and is still doing the job. My mom cuts them in strips and uses them to tie back her roses and plants to the fence and trelleses. Love your site Len…

    • Len Penzo

      Thank you for the additional tips and nice words, Peony! It’s amazing; just when I think I’ve heard every possible use for plastic bags, someone shares yet another clever idea!

  • Lynn

    Regarding Peony – there are several craft companies that publish patterns that use plastic bags to be crocheted into useful items such as rugs and baskets. Also Walmart offers large recycling boxes so you can recycle their bags. I recycle my Walmart bags and use my local grocery store bags for a good many of the uses on the list, i.e.: trash bags, lunch bags, laundry bags, etc.
    GREAT ARTICLE!

  • All good ideas and working in the local grocery store I’ve seen and heard these uses put to work. But my most favorite is to use a plastic bag to put your fish in after you have caught it. It keeps your cooler clean and smell free.

  • Jenny W

    I use these bags for so many things. One novel use is that they have saved my car from being a mess many times. My daughters are very prone to carsickness and the bags were our “airline motion sickness bags” on many a car trip. Always kept some in the glove box and under the seats.

    • jelybo

      I do the same thing – I keep several in the pocket of the drivers seat so my kids (who travel in the back seat) have quick & easy access. I just make sure that the bags I put in there don’t already have holes in them. Or you’ll still have a mess to clean up. (A smaller one – but still a mess.)

  • Ive never used #22 however while traveling with three young sons, we’ve used them as barf bags! they worked great! and we also used them to hang over the back of the seat so the boys could keep toys, books and other small stuff handy in the car!
    Thanks for all of the other uses. I hadnt heard of some of them.

  • Frantastick

    Although I use my own bags for purchases somehow I manage to accumulate plastic bags. (I guess they are cousins to the wire hangers that seem to propagate in the closet.) When I get a bagful of bags that I don’t need I give them to a local non-profit thrift store for them to re-use.

  • I searched for articles like this for an article I’m planning on writing on plastic bags after the Austin, Texas city council decided to outlaw them (I live in Lockhart about an hour south of Austin).

    Anyway, if I may, I want to make a slight suggestion about #11. Be sure, if you use plastic bags to cover plants to place them in such a position that they do not touch the plants. According to most the gardening shows, if plastic touches the plant, it could burn your plants thereby ruining them, and that you do not want.

    I’m not against plastic, except that they’re made with petroleum, which theoretically, contributes to the high price of gas.

    Plastic bags are a wonderful tool, my sister and I both use them for trash.

    Another article I researched had #13 (not this article one from another website) as putting them over a parking meter to avoid paying the meter. Don’t do this, it is both unethical and illegal.

    Great suggestions. Thank You

  • Who knew grocery bags could get people so riled up?? :)

  • Shoe savers when you find yourself in a muddy mess (you thought the pumpkin patch would be dry since it hasn’t rained for days but surprise! or hey, I’ve got to go change a tire now in my cute shoes, or whatnot), I keep a stash in the car. Like previous commenters– great for clearing out car trash, or sparing your hands from having to touch something gross!

    As for the paper vs plastic perennial argument– you can find just as many “scientific facts” that support why each is better than the other. Yawn. Sure, carry your tote bag around, but gasp! there will be times you won’t have enough, you’ll forget, etc. Chill.

  • Keyuri

    Sometimes we use them to put the wallet in plastic bag if it starts raining suddenly, at last moment keep the food pouches and water bottle,, if can not find any good bag handy.
    My daughter makes balloon out of empty plastic bag of bread (or grocery bag)by blowing them with the the air-when she runs and my son bang on it, its fun for free.When maintenace guy or cable guy comes inside the house and if they don’t want to remove their shoes everytime they entre to prevent the carpet from outside dirt(we don’t usually wear shoes on carpet-in the snow)I give them plastic grocerry bag to wear.

  • Anne

    I use recycled plastic bags from my local supermarket as art smocks for my preschoolers. Of course when they are done I immediately put them away on a high shelf (can’t trust those little buggers). just make a hole on the bottom and sides and slip it over them like a t-shirt.

  • wierdo

    I am not so sure about #22. I don’t think I would use a plastic bag for TP. I would rather stop on the side of the road and pick up a leaf.

  • Lots of good ideas!

    I wrap beautiful fabric around cordage made of plastic bags to make rag baskets and bowls. To date, I have taken over 1000 plastic bags out of the environment! Plus, my baskets, bowls and wine bottle carriers are pretty cool themselves.

    appalachiangap.etsy.com

  • Anthony

    While the reusable bag is touted as friendly to the environment, the bag is not friendly to the environment based upon the fact the Life Cycle Assessments are incomplete with respect to the reusable bag. Life Cycle Assessments fail to address the use of water, energy, and generation of greenhouse gases as a result of the consumer washing the reusable bag on a recurring basis in order to maintain them in a sanitary condition.

    The reusable bag presents health issues related to cross contamination of food items, and the reusable bag can serve as a carrier for contagious viruses and make other people sick. To mitigate these health issues, the bag must be washed on a regular basis. Some people dismiss these concerns and say common sense tells you to wash the bag when it is visibly dirty. However, bacteria and viruses are invisible to the naked eye. Therefore, adopting a regular schedule to wash the bags as a precaution is warranted. Hand washing or machine washing the reusable bag with soap and bleach will kill 99.9% of all bacteria and viruses. Some people say to wash the bag between uses; others, weekly or monthly.

    Every time you wash your bags you consume water, electricity, natural gas, and generate greenhouse gases. Since washing bags is done on a recurring basis over the lifetime of the bag, the cumulative consumption of water and energy and generation of greenhouse gases is so large, that on a per use basis the reusable bag no longer has the lowest impact to the environment. In other words, using a reusable bag has a larger negative environmental impact than using plastic or paper bags.

    Simply put, sanitary plastic and paper bags are available off-the-shelf and are more efficient to use than for every household to wash reusable bags and consume scarce water and energy resources. Water and energy resources that are estimated to cost households between $37 and $76 per year (Machine wash and dry) not counting the cost of bags.

  • If you crochet, you can make them into PLARN!:
    http://www.myrecycledbags.com/2007/02/17/instructions-for-cutting-plastic-bags-creating-recycled-plastic-yarn/

    I’m planning on making more plarn, making more tote bags out of it, then visiting a place that has outlawed plastic bags to use them. I love irony! :)

  • We give them to goodwill and other places like that when we get an excess amount.

  • I have used them as a garbage bowl in the kitchen, for instance when i am peeling potatoes or carrots or peeling an onion, i do that right over the bag, then i put the foam plate that held meat from the market in there along with any cans i have opened.mso all the mess from cooking goes right in the bag and then bag into trash. I have also used it to empty any leftovers from food that cannot go in disposal. I hate throwing stew leftovers right into trash as it may leak, so i throw it into a grocery bag and tie it up then place in trash. So much cleaner and less smell.
    Great post, good ideas!

  • Love this list! I posted this on my company’s facebook page.
    Thanks for all the great ideas.

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  • [...] them; now, in lieu of throwing them away, we hoard them, saving them for other purposes. There are plenty of ways to get maximum use out of a plastic bag until it’s truly worthless. Still can’t find [...]

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