Smile Politely

The Bagger’s Bane

It’s good to see cloth grocery bags now being sold at most local grocery stores as an alternative to the tyranny of paper or plastic. The bags are always accompanied by a happy sign underscoring the environmental benefits of such a purchase.

The only snag is that this commitment to environmentalism seems to taper off logarithmically after the purchase of the bag. Whether I go to County Market, Meijer or even Schnucks (whose logo is blazoned across two of my bags), the poor grocery bagger always has the same bewildered expression on his or her face when I hand over my cloth bags to actually be used.

“Use these first, please,” I optimistically request. “Oh, also there are some used plastic bags in there to use after the cloth ones are full.”

The bagger regards my cloth bag as if it is some newly discovered object for which no known human use has yet been determined. He or she looks longingly at the plastic bag chute and then back to my bag of bags, unsure how to proceed. This is followed by tentative picking through my bag, as if its contents might be toxic.

I love my cloth bags. They are heavy-duty and can hold probably dozens of pounds of tightly packed goods. It’s satisfying to fill one up to the brim and know that no space or resources have been wasted in the service of this one simple, weekly task. And yet, the baggers never fail to treat them exactly the same as a flimsy plastic bag. They toss in a few cans of beans and a bag of carrots, quickly put it in my cart, and then reach for the comfort of their shiny plastic bags. It’s as if they are being paid by the plastic tonnage.

I recently bought a single liter of soda, which the bagger placed into a plastic bag before I noticed. “Oh, I don’t need a bag, thanks,” I smiled politely. The bagger took the soda out of the bag, handed it to me, then wadded up the plastic and walked 20 feet over to a trash can to throw it away.

Most plastic bags measure their functional lifetimes in minutes (the time it takes you to drive home and unpack). This poor bag’s entire life purpose was to hold a liter of coke for three seconds, without even the dignity of having anything to transport. That’s one sorry life, given the bag then has to spend a millennium in a landfill pondering what might have been.

To be honest, trash has never been near the top of my Dying Planet Worry List. Climate change, war, over-population, unsustainable resource consumption — these are the things that in the end will make the difference between sustaining human life and a scorched and barren landscape ruled by lawless overlords.

But don’t get me wrong. I recycle. In fact, I get more self-satisfaction than I deserve when my family generates more recycled trash than landfill trash in a given week. It’s just that landfill space will be the least of our worries once the icecaps melt or we run out of breathable air.

And yet, it is all interrelated. A few months ago a friend sent me one of those depressing links about the world’s plastic bag problem. Some facts include:

  • Five trillion are manufactured a year, made from petroleum.
  • Only one percent of bags are recycled, and even so, it takes $4,000 to recycle them into a bundle that can be sold for $32.
  • It takes 1,000 years for them to degrade, and when they do they release toxic substances into the soil.
  • Many are dumped into the sea, where they strangle and kill sea life.

OK, message received. Plastic bags are bad. Recycling them should not make me feel any better about using them. It’s not difficult to use cloth bags at the grocery store.

But old habits die hard. It took me literally months to retrain myself to remember to take them with me in trips to the store, and even when I did, I’d still forget to actually bring them from the family van into the store. I’ve finally gotten into enough rhythm in using them that I now feel like I am personally strangling little seabirds if I forget them.

But back to those poor baggers. I know why they look confused and a bit exasperated when I hand over my cloth bags. It’s more work for them. Instead of the clean, machine-like efficiency of their plastic bag chute, they have to unpack cloth bags, which don’t fit in their bagging area as well, and then they must uncrinkle the used plastic bags, which have the additional drawback of being icky.

But, unfortunately, that’s the price of improved sustainability. It is not the path of least resistance, nor is it always picking the cheapest option. As a culture, we consistently choose to use extra resources instead of doing extra work. We drive when we could ride a bike or walk, we use paper towels instead of cloth ones, and we use plastic dinnerware when we could wash china. Our culture is built on the purchase of highly packaged and processed products that are convenient and disposable.

Simplicity experts have always demonstrated that simple doesn’t mean easy. Simplifying my life often complicates other people’s lives. My brother often likes to point out that our choice to be a one car family affects him when we have a transportation emergency. (He also likes to point out that he drives a Prius and we drive a minivan, his ace in the hole for environmental superiority arguments.) The poor bagger is simply another person that gets extra work for my minor little sustainability choice.

The downside is that one person being slightly more responsible on sustainability does almost nothing by itself to solve our global problems. It’s nice that I choose not to add a few hundred plastic bags to landfills every year, but that’s not going to make much difference in the end. The only thing that really solves these problems is social policy that requires everyone to pitch in.

If plastic bags cost everyone 50 cents a bag, or five dollars a bag, we’d suddenly see vast numbers of people using cloth bags. We’d figure out ways to make cloth bagging more efficient.  It would no longer be an annoyance to baggers who have to step out of their routine to accommodate the people who want to be responsible.

So, I guess this is a roundabout way to say that we need higher taxes.  Maybe one of the candidates for Urbana Mayor can add this to their platform. It just might work over there.

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