Bag by Bag

Sometimes, I feel so overwhelmed by the enormity and complexity of the problems facing our world and my seeming inability to do anything that feels real about them. Kind of like Marion:

“At times the problems seem so enormous, and there seems to be so little evidence that anyone else cares, that I’d like to simply give up.  Why should I continue to embarrass myself with my homemade curtain-lace produce bags, I wonder, when the woman standing next to me at the grocery store is plastic-bagging a single sweet pepper?  How can one person make a difference against a seeming tide of head-in-the-sand indifference?” (From Green, Grey, and Gezellig)

But Marian, of course, isn’t giving up. (Anyone who’s writing about a problem isn’t giving up.) And in that first post of hers I’ve quoted from above, she went further and pushed me to a new place:

“There are facts, arguments, and–unfortunately–veritable diatribes swirling around my brain. They’ve been percolating for the better part of a year, and I think if I don’t get them out, I may just go crazy. I wish I were joking, but at times I feel I’m in danger of becoming a supermarket vigilante. Perhaps an occasional diatribe on the internet will de-fuse the ticking time bomb I feel I’ve become; perhaps it will work to prevent the as-yet unacceptable (even if delivered politely) what-the-hell-are-you-thinking-wasting-our-precious-resources tongue-lashing in the grocery store.”

You see, as much as Cane and I have written about wanting to be responsible citizens in the world, I read Marian’s post and couldn’t help looking at the (wo)man in the mirror and seeing a big ol’ hypocrite. I don’t plastic-bag single produce items, but I could easily be a person Marian is about ready to unleash her (justified) wrath upon in the grocery store.

Which is how I finally decided that I could no longer use disposable grocery store bags for our groceries.


Yes, we do re-use these. But let’s be real: No one needs this many emergency lunch bags.

When I set up my own household following my divorce in 2008 and began grocery shopping for the first time in more than a decade, I bought re-usable bags. Bags I never, ever remembered to take to the store with me.

I finally figured out that I should store the bags in the car–but then I’d forget to take them into the store with me. Invariably, I’d remember when I was approaching the check-out line. By that time, I was usually late for wherever I was going next, tired, and feeling overwhelmed. (It wasn’t easy for me to become the person who grocery shops for a whole family when I’d never done that before.)

I finally told myself that it was something I just wasn’t going to do. I’d try to do other environmentally sound things, but I was going to play the single-mom card on this particular issue.


Doesn’t this woman look like someone who needs a break? Pretty much anything having to do with food is a challenge for me.

But that was six years ago, so even though I do not have faith that making this small change will have any real impact on our environmental issues, I decided it was time to stop with the plastic bags already.

I did a little bit of searching online for various grocery store bag solutions, and in the end I decided to make myself a set of tote bags to use as grocery bags.

I found a great online tutorial from Skip to My Lou, which you can see here.


The directions were clear and simple. I am a pretty novice seamstress, but I could tell that even I could manage this one.

Now, it would be so, so easy for me to use this new project as an excuse to go the fabric store–something I love doing–but that would not be very green, would it? Especially since I have a good stash of scrap fabric from earlier project false starts and fails. These are grocery bags, not fashion statements. I decided to use what I’ve got (which felt good).


A lot of what I had were fabrics from the time my daughter was a little girl. These make great liners for the inside of the bags.

I’ve been following the tutorial directions exactly as written, with only one exception:  I found the dimensions for the original bag a little small. Also, I don’t like fussing over things like exact measurements, and I’m using scrap pieces. So this is my method:

I look at the fabric I’ve got, and I cut one rectangle that fits the fabric and looks like a good size for a bag. Then I cut the other pieces to match it. I do follow the given measurements for the straps (mostly) because I like the length of them.


I’m having a hard time cutting into this piece, though. I was so sure I was going to make something awesome with this for my son, who has always loved geography. But that was back in, oh, 2005 or so. Time to move on.

I will admit that the going has been slow. Since starting in late August, I’ve only finished about a bag a week. Or maybe a bag every 10 days. I’m up to a whopping 3, and it will likely be Thanksgiving before I have enough bags for a typical weekly grocery trip, but that’s OK.

I’ve been thinking of Dear Abby’s response to the 36 year-old person who wanted to go to med school but worried about how old he’d be when he finally finished: “How old will you be in 7 years if you don’t go?” she asked.

Good point, Abby:  That it will take me a while to finish is really no reason to keep from starting.  I can use what I have now, and eventually I’ll have enough that I no longer have to use plastic.


I’ve been thinking, too, of Anne Lamott’s now-famous advice to writers who feel overwhelmed by the enormity of a large writing project. In her book Bird By Bird, she recounts the story of her brother, who put off a 3-month long bird report project until the day before it was due. Their father’s wise advise to his son?

“Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.”

Really, isn’t that the only way we can do anything, whether it’s changing a habit or changing the world? Isn’t it only through small actions–say, speaking up at a meeting or sitting down at a lunch counter–that larger transformations begin and develop? Are there any momentous events that aren’t actually the culmination of many smaller ones?


I can’t think of any. That’s why I’m OK with a slow pace on this project. I don’t know if ditching plastic grocery bags will save the world, but I do know that not ditching them will contribute to its demise. And starting late is better than starting never.

I’m just going to take it bag by bag, for however long it takes.


What about you?

What one small thing you can commit to (or have committed to) that might make a difference if lots of other people did it, too? Had an experience of getting a big task done by taking it in small steps? You know I love to hear about your experiences, so please, share! :-)