Curbing the Public’s Bag Consumption

There are many theories on how to do this.

In San Francisco, we’ve had a local ordinance for a while, demanding a ten cent fee for each paper or “reusable” (thick) plastic bag used by customers when they pay for store merchandise.  It’s meant to encourage customers to bring their own bags, or use no bags when buying just one or two things.

I got into the habit of using my own bag way before there was a law, and I’ve been making general allowances in my routine to reduce waste since the early 1980s.

“Save the dinosaurs,” I used to say to my friend, Mike DeSomer, when I handed him a used — but clean — plastic bag to contain the small items I bought at the health food store where he worked.

Mike and his co-workers wanted to be nice to customers at all times, so they always reminded me the company wasn’t experiencing a shortage of bags.  Nevertheless, I was adamant about not contributing to the public’s bad habit that was resulting in many of those bags piling up in people’s homes for no good reason.  I heard about the pollution in lakes, rivers, streams and oceans later.

There were bags — paper and plastic — I did bring home from supermarkets, and I knew of thrift stores in the neighborhood that couldn’t budget for bags.  Out of necessity, they did the Blanche DuBois thing.  Thrift store managers were dependent upon the kindness of strangers, and the bags I donated were used a second time by those stores.  Still, it wasn’t lost on me that if everyone made the effort we could get by without using so many of those materials in the first place.

By the 1990s, a used bookshop with no bag budget opened on the hill above my apartment.  I accepted as many bags as possible from the supermarket for a long time after that because the bookstore was always running low on them (unlike thrift stores, that used bookshop didn’t have very many customers who thought of donating bags).  Plastic is useful for people who shop for reading material on rainy days, and when a storm was forecast I’d make the effort to stop by with my contribution to keeping other people’s books dry.

A few thoughtful customers and dedicated store employees brought in wadded up bags inside of plastic bags.  Although well-intentioned, those individuals didn’t have my obsessive compulsive traits.  I wondered if those people even left the bags on doorknobs overnight to ensure they were dry before wrinkling them permanently.  Didn’t they know the routine?

I did not stop at meticulously allowing my plastic bags from the supermarket to air dry.  Once they were free of any dampness from the produce aisle, I flattened them on a table and folded them the way a nun would.  The reasoning was the store might not have space behind the counter for a sloppy basketball-sized bunch of wrinkled bullshit.

Currently, there are six plastic merchandise bags and one umbrella bag, folded neatly inside my purse.  They’re the emergency stash.  When I’m leaving the apartment with the intention of shopping, though, I put a neatly folded canvas bag in my purse.  The umbrella bag has been used several times already, and I’m not giving it up until it’s pulled out of my cold, dead hands.  Either that, or it starts leaking.

Canvas bags receive criticism because the textiles industry uses large amounts of water and energy.  I believe I’m using the cloth bags responsibly, though.  I launder them in warm water with my clothes, and they’re wearing like iron.  If you want to criticize my canvas bags, first you must register a protest against companies that churn out budget priced, trendy garments that fall apart after one season — if they last that long.

Think of a high quality canvas bag the way you think of that pair of jeans you’ve worn for years:  Initially, it was a major project, but it’s paying off.

At the end of this post is a link to a Vox article by Matthew Zeitlin, exploring the ways public policy impacts the consumption/litter problem.  Plastic straws are mentioned.

While reading any of these pieces, one thing that should be considered is the lack of attention given to the needs of disabled people when planning policy.  On the topic of straws, very little has been said about persons with cerebral palsy and other conditions that affect coordination.  There are people who need plastic straws to consume hot beverages safely.  A person with this need will compress one end of a straw and slip it through the sip opening in a coffee lid.

Yes, there may be a health risk associated with using plastic straws to drink hot liquids.  However, they’re the best answer anyone has found for protecting disabled people from scalding injuries when they follow the same routines as their more agile peers.

Perhaps a compromise can be found to accommodate restaurant and coffee house patrons who need items that the rest of us don’t.  However, there’s also a valid question:  Will these businesses, responding to a partial ban, bother to stock small items that only a minority of people need?  If a fee is required, is it appropriate for a food/beverage business to charge one person for something vital that most of us can do without?  It’s a matter of conscience, and conscience isn’t always reflected in policy — or frugal business strategy.

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