A few weeks after my boyfriend and I moved into our new apartment, I was spending a lovely afternoon at home, painting and arranging furniture, when I discovered an interloper: a three-inch-long cockroach living in our silverware drawer. We named him Michael Douglas (I’m a big fan of ‘80s and ‘90s thrillers) and lived in fear of him for 10 days. Every time we opened the drawer, there he was, antennae tickling our forks. But he was fast — he always darted back into some unseen hiding place and we could never figure out where he went.
That is, until we waged all-out war one night, Matt with the hose of the vacuum cleaner, me with a shoe. It was an elaborate process, but we got him. That was how we spent Valentine’s Day.
For weeks, Michael Douglas haunted my dreams (and my waking hours; I’d hallucinate cockroaches in the edges of my vision), and I lay awake at night afraid that he might have a body double—or offspring. So I called up an exterminator and stayed home one morning to meet him. I had my questions written down. “Do you think there are more?” I asked. “How can we prevent this from ever happening again?”
Having lived in New York for nine years, I was ready for some of what he told me: Don’t leave dirty dishes or trash sitting around. Don’t leave standing water in the sink or shower. Get rid of cardboard boxes as quickly as possible.
But I was not prepared for what he said next: Our cockroach was probably a one-off, since we’d just moved.
“Sometimes they hitch a ride in,” he said. “One thing you should never do is keep paper grocery bags. Those are stacked in the basements of grocery stores, and cockroaches can lay eggs in them or travel in them.”
I thought immediately of the stacks of grocery bags that I’d so diligently saved. They were, as we spoke, stockpiled under our sink. I thought I was being so eco-conscious, carefully collapsing and folding them to re-use to carry our recycling and, occasionally, to tote old clothes to the donation bin. Little did I know, I may have been unwittingly giving cockroaches a loading dock into our apartment.
When I reported this to friends the next day (after I’d promptly recycled every single grocery bag the moment our exterminator left), they were as horrified as I'd been. Turns out, they’d been stockpiling grocery bags, too — tons! One friend even used good-looking versions to bring flowers and wine to dinner parties. They went right home and recycled their stock.
If you’re like me, pre–Michael Douglas episode, you might forget to bring reusable cloth bags with you to the grocery store. But here’s yet another reason to make the effort: They’re better for the environment and have had no occasion to collect cockroach eggs. To help myself remember, I hang a bag of totes on one of the hooks by our front door, within my line of sight when I head to the grocery store. I also switched my everyday work bag to a roomier canvas one, so I have plenty of space for dinner supplies if I decide to stop at the market on my way home.
If you do forget a reusable bag and must get paper bags at the store, give up the idea of saving them: Unpack your groceries and then promptly recycle the bags. Then, designate a cloth or reusable bag to hold your recycling. No cockroaches welcome.
I don’t know whether it’s our new commitment to cloth grocery bags or whatever the exterminator did, but (knock on wood) we haven’t had any unwanted tenants since — and our under-sink cabinet's a lot less cluttered, too.