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Reusable Sandwich Bags: Win or Fail?

Reusable freezer bags hang dry together with clothing.

If you’ve been pondering dropping some bones for a whole set of reusable food storage bags, Rachel Presser shares her thoughts on the matter now that she's been using them for a couple of weeks.

Podcast Version

With the planet cooking like a forgotten pot of mac and cheese while you were on the phone, people have been examining their consumption and food storage habits. Or at least making a good faith effort to: how many people have stacks of those reusable grocery bags that mysteriously never ever make it to the grocery store? (Hi! It’s me!)

Then on the legislative front to combat the 8 million tons of plastic that wind up in the oceans every year, 50% of it stemming from single-use plastics, my state (New York) is instituting a state-wide ban on single-use plastic shopping bags. While this move received more support than straw bans set forth by other states and cities that have come under fire from disability activists–after all,  there are communicable long-term illnesses that can’t be washed out of a silicone straw, paper straws are a no-go for people with sensory issues, and edible straws are harmful if the drinker winds up being allergic to it– plenty of obstacles remain to combat plastic use given who the real culprits are for climate change.

Still, plastic is indestructible and not very earth-friendly. 

And it’s used in eeeeeeeverything now. We can’t avoid it if we want to pack food up, even if you never order in or go out to eat. Plastic is also sometimes necessary for accessibility and sanitation purposes (which is why straw bans are ableist bullshit). But while single-use plastic bags meant to carry your purchase home are being phased out and this means you’re going to have to get serious about finally using those reusable tote bags, what about the bags you actually eat directly from?

When I was browsing the random home goods at my local Marshall’s, I came across a small set of reusable sandwich bags for $3. I figured it couldn’t hurt to try them out for the price since the packaging said they were dishwasher-safe. (And I got a rule: if it can’t go in the dishwasher, then it can’t come in this house.)

Overall, I think I got my $3 worth. But if you’ve been pondering dropping some bones for a whole set of reusable food storage bags, here are my thoughts on the matter now that I’ve been using them for a couple of weeks.

Should You Go for Silicone or Ultra-Strong Plastic?

Person holding a collapsible zero waste cup on one hand and a donut on the other.

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So, there are tons of options for reusable sandwich/food storage bags out there nowadays. Definitely a wider selection than the random $3 impulse purchase I did at Marshall’s, which was dual-layer plastic. There are different materials and price points based on design, durability, and how many you get in the package. But usually, your main choices are dual-layer plastic and silicone. 

Silicone is something of a miracle material when it comes to reusable home goods. Originally thought to be the realm of boob implants and HVACs’ sealant, it got a serious glow-up in the past decade as the main star in cramped Millennial kitchens. It’s used to make everything from bakeware to reusable straws (if you’re physically able to use them! They’re fine for most biotypical people, but not recommended for people with communicable diseases where they won’t get fully sanitized) to cookware like spatulas and whisks, and now food storage items. Silicone has become really popular because it’s so soft and pliable that even gigantic muffin pans can be easily folded up for storage, and it can withstand extreme hot and cold temperatures alike. Subsequently, it’s also dishwasher-safe.

The closer cousin to the single-use sandwich bag is the reusable bag made from dual-layer plastic. It’s not silicone, and can’t take the same kind of beating that silicone can. This is the type that I bought and it IS dishwasher-safe if that’s your main concern. However, I wouldn’t jam that puppy in the microwave. I haven’t tried it and don’t feel like buying a new microwave in case I short-circuit the one I currently have with this particular science experiment.

While silicone has a very smooth and soft, slightly squishy feeling to it like petting a tree frog, dual-layer plastic is hard and shiny. It’s like having a food storage vessel made of the same material as that hard, clear plastic report covers every 1990s kid had to use for book reports in school.

Multicolored folders.
I never had to use these damn things for report reports at any day job I had prior to make games and entertaining you. ONLY book reports at school. It’s a short treatise on If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, not the third-quarter sales report at a major conglomerate! WHY DID YOU ASSHOLES DOCK MY GRADE FOR NEVER HAVING THESE.

They have these slight functionality differences along with price point. I paid $3 on clearance for six bags that contained two small “snack” bags, two standard size sandwich bags, and two slightly larger bags that were somewhere between a standard sandwich bag and quart bag. So that comes to fifty cents apiece. Most of the sets on Amazon sell for about $1-4 apiece regardless of material, though higher-end silicone reusable bags sell for about $8-12 per piece.

If you don’t like the texture of silicone if you have sensory issues, or just don’t feel like it’s going to be sturdy enough for the contents, you might want to opt for the dual-layer plastic since it’s more like the “real thing”. Because the plastic is also a lot thinner and doesn’t require the same thick “seams” silicone would (if it wasn’t cast from a seamless mold), some dual-layer plastic models can actually hold more than silicone bags of comparable size.

Ultimately, it depends on your texture preferences, budget, how often you expect to reuse these bags relative to your budget, and the kind of food you’re putting in there.

Does a Sandwich Actually Fit in There?

Club sandwich with tomatoes and cucumber slices.

It depends.

Let’s face it, “sandwich bag” is a misnomer like “half-truth” and “Microsoft Works”. Unless you’re using that factory-made soft sandwich bread that can drape on your arm like a sleepy cat, MOST sandwiches do not fit in those things. It’s like ordering a swimsuit online and knowing damn well it’s not going to look like it does on the model.

I don’t buy typical “sandwich bread” super often, but when I do, it’s usually that wider whole grain kind. I actually never use sandwich bags, but this Sistema sandwich container. Sistema containers are more airtight than a military-grade submarine, and I like that it can safely knock around my sandwich without disturbing the contents. There is nothing worse than unpacking your lunch at your desk just to find that the sandwich has transformed into a less appetizing form of a pancake.

If you made a REAL sandwich from a roll, it’s also impossible to fit them into standard plastic sandwich bags. I found that the slightly larger bag of the pack I bought could JUST about fit a buttered kaiser roll I hastily threw in to have breakfast on the bus. The standard one could barely fit the slightly wider “standardized” bread.

If you plan to use these to store actual sandwiches, you’re going to need two bags for each half or closely check your dimensions to get the bigger ones. 

Pro: They’re Much Stronger and Sturdier Than Single-Use Sandwich Bags!

Hand wrestling or rivalry

Single-use sandwich bags are puny as fuck. Creating all this waste in the ocean, and for what? They tear easily! They can also only hold so much before they can’t close, or end up tearing as you’re trying to jam them shut.

The dual-layer plastic bags I’ve been using are definitely stronger. I’ve been using the snack-sized bag to take a small fork and spoon with me to the new business digs I started renting. While not long enough to accommodate full-size silverware, I can fit those pieces in there with the confidence that it won’t burst open OR puncture the bag in transit. Single-use sandwich bags would absolutely tear open with those.

While they don’t “hold shape” like the Sistema container for sandwiches that I mentioned, they’re still strong enough to not completely obliterate chips, crackers, or any other crunchy snack foods. It was always so disappointing when I had packed lunches throughout the elementary school where my cooler ranch Doritos that came from a larger bag and funneled into a sandwich bag would be half intact, and half transformed into silty orange, coral, and teal ashes about to go salt the parking lot. 

Nacho chips crumbs
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But when I shook a handful of lentil chips into my new dual-layer plastic bag, only about five of them cracked by the time I unpacked in Midtown! (After schlepping down from The Bronx, no less.) That extra “shell” the dual-layer grants creates more resistance against the other items being knocked around in your lunch bag like a grinding anthem at a Municipal Waste show, so unless you’ve got a REALLY heavy object in there or step on it, the contents are less likely to break although a container is still always your best bet for things you don’t want to get squished. But when you have to pack a bag with less room, these reusable bags work pretty well.

One drawback though about the dual-layer plastic though is that it doesn’t really “stretch” like the single-use kind does, or that some forms of silicone are capable of. Like if you’ve got that sandwich or apple that JUST won’t make it, it’s super tough and resistant. It’s like when you’ve gone volcel for a long time then the right date makes you want to pull your de-winterization stickers off? IT JUST WON’T GO.

Con: They’re a Major Pain in the Ass to Clean, Even with a Dishwasher

Handwashing dishes

Have you ever given a frog a bath? No? Don’t worry, I got you covered.

On a serious note as a toad mommy, I have to interject that you should not keep this many frogs together or handle them this roughly! But if you want to know what washing one of these reusable bags is like, that video should give you an idea. It’s a lot like giving your frog or toad a bath because it’ll keep slipping out of your hand. Except unlike a frog or toad, the bag needs to be dried off and this part can be incredibly annoying.

Arranging these in your dishwasher can be a little vexing. Because I have a compact model, I couldn’t wash them all in one go since I found it easiest to just place them on top of the dish spokes on the bottom rack or the part that separates the coffee mug section from the middle of the top rack. Then you should carefully secure them with a small, dishwasher-safe chip clip so that they’ll stay on the spokes but also get their interiors properly cleaned.

Top rack wins. The ones I pulled out of the bottom rack were leaking this soapy residue that made me feel like I was recording for Pornhub. The ones on the top rack were just wet but clean. Those toweled off easily…or so it seemed.

If you have the dual-layer plastic kind, check if they have a “folding seam” on the bottom that needs to be broken first just like those front pockets in blazers. (Why do clothing manufacturers still do this?!) Silicone ones, it ultimately depends on the style and how thick the material is but those should fare better on the bottom rack.

If you’re going to hand-wash these things, you’re either brave or foolish. Those frogs in that video will escape less than the damn bag will.

Will Reusable Sandwich Bags Help Me Save the Earth?

Glowing Earth on a person's hands.

No, probably not. You shouldn’t dump boxes of single-use sandwich bags into the Long Island Sound for the hell of it, and cutting down on our single-use plastics definitely wouldn’t hurt, but individual choices only go so far. You can also refuse all the straws all you want when Exxon-Mobil is probably going to kill us all for sport. Bottled water is going to be a bigger commodity than oil when the climate Hunger Games eventually break out.

But if you’re tired of buying boxes of sandwich bags, or other food storage bags, anyway and don’t mind cleaning silicone or dual-layer plastic, they’re not a bad way to spend $3-30.

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