Q. I know that we aren't supposed to use plastic bags from the grocery store to gather things for the recycle bin.  So what am I supposed to use to contain debris and non-recyclable items like wet foods, and so on? And what about kitchen trash bags and the green bags the city wants us to use for curbside pick up?  We are very confused about how to do the right thing.

- J. Reilly, Phoenix, AZ

A. Your first instinct — to reuse all those grocery bags — is a good one, but you happen to live in a city that requires trash to be bagged in standard-size bags for easier collection. That shouldn’t stop you from using extra grocery sacks to contain wet messes or line small waste baskets — and doing so probably won’t affect the time it takes your trash to decompose anyway.

“In the modern American landfill, not much decomposition takes place,” says Darby Hoover, senior resource specialist for the Natural Resources Defense Council. Once you put something in a plastic bag — be it a kitchen trash bag, lawn bag, or grocery sack — it can take up to 1,000 years to break down, and one extra layer won’t make much difference.

But to answer your larger question of how to do the right thing when it comes to bagging trash and reusing grocery bags, here’s what we suggest: Use the bags that the city requires for your recycling and trash, and reuse your grocery bags as, well, grocery bags. Wad a few up and keep them in your purse for shopping trips. Think how many bags you can prevent from being manufactured in the first place and ultimately landfilled! (Of course there are also a myriad of more fashionable reusable shopping bags out there, too, that will serve the same purpose.) Beyond that, any extra bags you still find yourself faced with can be taken to a nearby recycling bin.

Story by Sarah Schmidt. This article originally appeared in Plenty in May 2008. The story was added to MNN.com.

Copyright Environ Press 2008