It's good for the planet and keeps me from carrying loose shrimp around in my hands.

By Kat Kinsman
Updated March 09, 2020
Eduardo Munoz Alvarez / Getty Images

You’ll hear varied statistics about how long it takes for human beings to form habits, but here are a couple of things about that: 1. Our brains are highly individualized machines that don't necessarily conform to the parameters of your Gregorian calendar, maaaaan. 2. We don't always have much say in the timetable. On March 1, 2020, New York City's ban on most single-use plastic bags went into effect, and unless a person had been prepping for this since sometime between the tail end of December and the beginning of February, it's been a learning curve.

First off, yay, Earth. The goal of this measure is to reduce the amount of discarded petroleum-based bags that end up in landfills and waterways. Unless you have a personal vendetta against fish, this is great news. But intent isn't action, and changing our habits will take some serious retraining.

Read more: 11 Smart Reusable Bags to Reduce Waste in Your Kitchen

We New Yorkers are stubborn souls, set in our ways. For all the splendors of our city, it's a complicated and often difficult place to live. It’s crowded, and anything you buy, you have to figure out how to shlep home. So once you settle into your routine (here's where I get my coffee to chug down before I squeeze myself into the rolling sardine can that is the rush-hour R-train, that's where I stand on the platform so I emerge at the exit near the bodega that sells the seltzer I like) you stick with it. And there's a plastic bag for everything.

It's not like we haven't figured out how to reuse them; New Yorkers are nothing if not resourceful by necessity. Plastic bags are ersatz umbrella sleeves, rain hats, dirty-laundry totes, garbage-can liners, delivery-dude gloves, weird-stuff picker-uppers, and thoroughly indispensable if you have a dog that needs cleaning up after. But the law's the law-ish; on the first day of the ban I was in a large outer-borough market that had clearly not gotten or was blatantly ignoring the memo The cashier marveled at my motley collection of reusable totes, saying, "Woooow, you know how many bags you're saving?" as dozens of plastic crimson sacks sat in heaps at the registers. It made me feel a tiny bit virtuous—and a little bittersweet, too. Plastic bags are a New York City icon, but then again, so are Pizza Rat and Rudy Giuliani. Some things must change.

OK, I had to change. It's a work in progress, but I've taken measures to thwart my own ADHD sieve-brained tendencies. I’m also trying to help make the process easier for my husband who benefits from the mostly unspoken male privilege of rarely having to haul a bag around with him because all his clothes come equipped with adequate pockets. So, pockets! In the chillier months, this is not so much a hassle. I stocked up on rip-resistant, easily foldable nylon totes in a rainbow of colors (and some neutrals) for both of us to keep stashed in the pockets of our winter coats so they're just there. I've had to make a mental note to replace them in the pockets once they're deployed and unpacked, but it's worked out so far. Any larger bag that I carry has a couple of lightweight bags nested inside out of apparent paranoia that I'll happen upon a massive sale on something I love—let's say shrimp—and I'll otherwise have to carry it home in my fists.

For my husband, who always does the wallet-phone-keys-headphones patdown on himself before leaving the house, adding another item to this ritual is a work in progress, but I believe in the man. He's clever, and also incredibly dapper, which may prove to be a stumbling block in the warmer months when he's rolling sans coat and concerned about the line of a lighter-weight suit. We must suffer for both beauty and righteousness, I suppose. He'll get there.

But to get us both there, I have instituted one simple measure that's thus far proven effective. I hung a bunch of brightly-colored bags on the hook where the keys go.This way, I can't get my key without touching a reusable bag, which reminds me to make sure I have one. Easy as that, and I have yet to bare-hand any shrimp on the way home. OK fine—thin plastic bags are still permissible for meat and fish, but I grew up Catholic and we're big on the self-flagellation-for-sins thing.

And in this time of environmental concern, loose shrimp, and coronavirus, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that it's crucial to sanitize those reusable bags on the regular. Wash your canvas bags in hot water along with the rest of your laundry and send them through the dryer. Hand-wash nylon bags with soap and warm water and let them thoroughly line dry, and use disinfecting wipes on insulated bags. Yes, on the outside, too. If you're using them to transport produce, meat, fish, or precooked food (and you should indeed designate specific bags for this), do this after each use. This might seem like a lot of paranoid effort, but soon you won't be able to imagine life without it.

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