Wednesday, August 22, 2012

The Plastic Bag

Not the most beautiful thing I've ever seen
I've had a lot of thoughts about plastic bags lately.  This is kind of strange, because I really don't use plastic bags anymore--or I try not to.  Lately, it seems, the forces of the universe have aligned to make me wake up in the morning thinking BAG!  And just like when you first become aware of something, you see it everywhere.  So here's how I got here.

I just got back from a Scandinavian vacation, as I've mentioned before.  As I always do, I brought my reuseable bag that I got from Target that scrunches up small to fit in my purse.  This came in handy more times than I can count, particularly when we were staying at the hostel in Denmark and I would have had to lay my clean clothes on the wet shower tile, or try to hang them on tiny hooks had I not had this lovely bag. Ah, the joys of shared showers.
Not the one from Target, but it scrunches
up into a strawberry!  How cute!
When BF and I were in New Brunswick last year, we may have unwittingly stolen a plastic bag from a grocery store.  The cashier didn't bag any of our stuff, so we did it ourselves, and then once we were outside the building we agonized as to whether or not they charge for bags (it was a nice bag) and maybe we had committed theft in another country.  Naturally, we knew that Sweden and Denmark are some of the most environmentally committed countries, and since we didn't speak their language at all, we wanted to avoid potential bag thievery altogether.

What I didn't realize though, was that when I'm on vacation, I count on encountering plastic bags at some point--usually in a hotel room or store, and then re-pack my dirty clothes in them.  Since we didn't stay in hotels, and I had only had the foresight to bring one bag for my shoes, I just wound up putting my dirty clothes in with my clean ones.  I may have also accidentally worn the same shirt twice, but since I brought seven v-neck t-shirts, that's just my fault for being unimaginative.

The point is, two days away from the end of the trip, both bf and I had the revelation that we had not encountered a single plastic bag.  We admitted that we found it strange and mildly inconvenient, but really not a big deal at all.

So I then found it quite annoying when I came back to the states, went to the grocery store with my reuseable bags, and found myself walking out with some plastic anyway.  Last time (and I realize that this has happened before) the bagger only filled my bags half-full, and then proceeded to put the rest in plastic.  The bags were not full of cans or heavy items and certainly could have held more, plus I had my back-up bag in my purse.  Had he or she asked, I would have said fill the bags all the way or use this instead, but they didn't ask.  I hate to seem rude by screeching no plastic at someone just trying to do their job.

But seriously, how else do you stop this?  I emailed the grocery store, but I fear I will sound like a crazy person and be dismissed.

Even though I try to never come home with plastic bags, I still come home with many, many plastic bags.  I always forget to bring bags to Target, and even though I have my backup bag, who the hell has ever gone to Target and only bought one bag's worth of stuff, amirite?  I went to Old Navy the other day, and it barely registered that the girl was giving me a plastic bag, but bringing your own bag to a clothing store seems weird.

I've also realized lately that there are a lot of situations where plastic bags seem almost necessary.  For instance, I'm obsessed with The Biggest Loser, which is streaming on Netflix and completely taking over my life.  They frequently have contestants volunteer at the Los Angeles Food Bank, which is awesome, but I noticed something recently that made my toes curl.  They were handing out pre-packed bags to a long line of people, and all the bags were plastic.  The contestants gleefully announced that they'd given out 500 bags of food, and all I could think was '500 bags.'

In this case, I don't know what a better solution is.  If people are required to bring their own bags, then the food bank can't pre-pack everything and it takes way more time.  What if people forget their bags, or don't have any?  Do you give out reuseable bags every time?  Is that any kind of a solution?

Part of the reason I'm so strident about this lately is because I've been reading this book:
Which is fascinating and horrifying (I mean seriously, a book about garbage is fascinating--I'm not kidding!), and is really making me think a lot about just how much I, even as a person who tries to avoid waste, throw away in a day--and where it goes.

Unfortunately, many of the plastic bags wind up here:

That's the ocean and what is affectionately called The Great Pacific Garbage Patch.  This is scary stuff not just because of the fact that our ocean is full of trash that sea creatures choke on, but also because some sea creatures eat this stuff, it doesn't kill them, and then they become human food.  We're basically eating our own garbage, and plastic is not good eats.

So what to do?  In various cities around the US, people have tried to enact laws either taxing or banning plastic bags, but the plastic lobby frequently sued and got those laws overturned or made ineffective.  In Ireland, when people noticed that their beautiful green hillsides were taking on too much trash, they enacted a  22 euro cents fee for each single-use bag, which all but stopped people from using them.  People are happy because there's less trash floating around and stores are happy because they're saving tons of money by not having to buy the bags in the first place. One of Ireland's largest grocery chains even pointed out that there are consumer savings to be had, "Now we're saving the environment, we're reducing litter and since we're not paying for bags it ultimately save money for us and that reduces the price of food for our customers."  Considering the way food prices are climbing everywhere, this would be an easy way to reduce them.

My store offers an incentive to bring a reuseable bag, but there's no disincentive to take a single-use plastic one, and, as I pointed out, they just love to give them to you.  Honestly, before I read this book and really thought about the larger implications, I had started using reuseable bags just because the plastic ones are so shitty.  I've had so many bags break on me that they're just not worth it--even for free. Plus, reuseable bags have longer straps, which makes them much easier to carry.

For my part, I'm just not taking plastic anymore, even if that makes my interaction with a salesperson weird and slightly awkward, and even if it means un-bagging something that a grocery store bagger did.  I'm going to take the plastic bags that I currently have at my house to the plastic bag recycling at the grocery store, and then I'm just not going to bring any more into my house.  I'm also going to talk about this more--not to the point of being a zealot or annoying people, but just mentioning that maybe you don't need to put a single object in a bag. If we get out of the habit, we won't even see it as an inconvenience.


  1. This was a great post! We've talked about this a lot recently at our house; and while we aren't plastic bag collecting hoarders, they always seem to just start adding up. I can't tell you how many times I just want to ask the person in front of me at the grocery store if they really need a bag for that one bunch of bananas, bottle of juice, box of pasta...imagine if everyone just started by using common sense and saying "no bag". Even just once or twice a week.

  2. I worked at a grocery store briefly in High School, and I was shocked at the way people seemed to think they needed a bag for EVERYTHING. Usually if it was just a single item, I would ask if they wanted a bag, and they would always say yes and look at me like 'why the hell is she asking, of course I want a bag'

  3. I have no problems stopping the cashier or bag boy if I see him or her putting my groceries in plastic bags. My grocery store has this habit of wrapping meat (which is already enclosed in styrofoam and plastic wrap) in an extra bag. I also feel silly crying out "no! I don't need that bag" and I get weird looks, but seriously. I'm not going to select a package of meat that has blood on it and if you pack the bags correctly, there's very little chance of it leaking onto my other groceries.

    I used to keep a small bag in my purse to use for quick grocery or drug store runs or at clothing stores, but I lost it and never replaced it. I need to get a new one.