The Nickel Pincher: Create a Perfect Replacement for Plastic Produce Bags

You can transport your fresh, tasty produce from market to kitchen without adding more plastic to the trash pile.

April 18, 2011

RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—Shopping is one of the biggest trash generators, at least in my life, and it makes sense on many levels to reduce the amount of packaging you bring home. But until recently I still ended up with bunches of the flimsy (and difficult to reuse) disposable plastic produce bags.

Reusable cloth bags are fine for most groceries, but for your fruits and veggies, you can do better. A few months back my friend Lynn gave me a set of sturdy, washable, nylon net produce bags and I'm hooked on them. They're easy to stash and keep with you, see-through (which makes cashiers happy when they ring up your order), the mesh is fine enough to use for most bulk dry goods (just about everything except flour), and they're machine-washable. They can go from the store right into the fridge veggie bin. Plus, after a recent study detected hormone-disrupting chemicals in all plastics out there, it's good to know my produce isn't absorbing weird chemicals while it's in the bag waiting for me to eat it.

There are many different brands of reusable mesh produce bags available online, like these from But making your own is about as simple a sewing project there is, and you can use pretty much any fabric scrap you have lying around your house (and you won't have to pay any shipping!). They may not be mesh, but retired bed linens, thin tea towels, and mismatched cloth napkins all make very serviceable cloth produce bags. If you're the really creative sort, you can even use the instructions that follow to fashion decorative fabrics or T-shirts into colorful reusable gift bags, school-supply carrying cases, travel bags—pretty much anything you need a bag for.
Step 1: Decide how large you want your bags to be. The standard flimsy plastic produce bags are about 14 inches wide by 19 inches long and are big enough to hold large bunches of leafy greens, long stalks of celery, and leeks. You can make your bags smaller, for fruits and bulk grains, or bigger, for large quantities of whatever you need. Whatever size you choose, you'll need a rectangle of cloth that is twice the finished size plus one inch in each direction for seams. So for a 14-inch-by-19-inch bag, you'll need a 15-inch-by-40-inch rectangle of fabric (two 15-inch-by-20-inch rectangles of fabric scraps would work too, but there will be one additional seam you'll need to sew).
Step 2: Make a tube for the drawstring. Fold ½ inch of fabric along the long edge of the fabric (in this case, the 40-inch-long side) and pin it in place. Sew the two layers together near the edge of the folded-over fabric. This folded area will serve as the tube for the drawstring. If you'd rather not have a drawstring, it will just be the top of your bag.

As you sew, occasionally reinforce your stitches to strengthen the seam and prevent the fabric from bunching up along the thread. Every inch or so, double back and sew a second stitch on top of a stitch you've already sewn.
Step 3: Sew the bag. Fold your rectangle in half, so that the two 15-inch-long sides are now on top of each other. Keep the folded bit you just sewed on the outside. Sew the two layers together, ½ inch from the edge of the fabric. End your side seam about ¼ inch below the line of stitching you made in Step 2 so you can add the drawstring. For larger bags you'll be using for heavy things like potatoes or apples, you may want to sew over the side and bottom seams a second time to make it extra strong. If you want a bag with no drawstring, sew right through the first hem you made, turn the bag right side out, and you're done!

If you're using scraps, you'll need to sew both sides and the bottom together, also ½ inch from the edge of the fabric.
Step 4: Thread the drawstring. Cut a length of cord, light rope, or even string—anything that will slide easily through the top, is easy to tie, and will not come apart in the wash—twice as long as the bag is wide, plus a few inches to hold on to. Since our bag is 14 inches wide, we're using a 30-inch piece of nylon chord. Find a small safety pin, pin it to the very end of your drawstring and, using the safety pin as a guide, thread the end of your cord into and through the top tube until it comes out the other end. Remove the pin and tie the two ends of the cord together. Turn the bag right side out, and you are done!
Using Your Bags:

You can store many items right inside your cloth bags once you get home from the store or market. Delicate veggies like leafy greens will dry out and wilt quickly a mesh bag, so either transfer them to a tighter storage container or wrap the entire thing, bag and all, in a moist tea towel and sprinkle it with water as needed to keep it moist. You can store greens in a solid-fabric bag, though. Rinse out your solid-fabric bag once you get it home, and while it's still damp, put the greens back inside. To prevent wilted produce, sprinkle your bag with water as needed.

If you used a nylon mesh to make your bag, you can even wash your produce right inside the bag. Just dunk the bag up and down in a basin of cool water (with a splash of vinegar or your favorite produce wash added, if you like) until you are satisfied, and then let it drip dry. Or use your bag as a "salad spinner." Step outside (or put your hand into your shower stall), hold the drawstring firmly, and spin the bag rapidly in a circle.

When your reusable bags are empty, rinse them out or machine-wash them, and let them dry on a line, preferably in the sunshine, before stowing them. I'm about as far from a germiphobe as you can get, but dirty bags may make my produce spoil faster (which wastes money) or worse, so I wash my reusable produce bags after every few uses, even if they look clean.

Farm gal, library worker, and all-around money-pincher Jean Nick shares advice for green thrifty living every Thursday on