Annoying Rules that Just Might Save Us

Plastic-Bag-Pollution

On July 1, an ordinance that bans disposable bags from grocery stores took effect in my county. In the weeks leading up to the ban, I noticed numerous flyers designed to prepare us for this impending shift, and yet in spite of this ample warning, and in spite of the fact that I’ve had nearly a month to adjust, it seems that I’m always forgetting about my reusable bags (and I have many!) until the moment I’ve set foot in the grocery store.

This isn’t a calamity, because I still have options. A) I can try to heft my purchases with my bare arms, B) I can buy a reusable bag, or C) I can shell out five cents for a paper bag. Five cents means nearly nothing in the context of my grocery bill, but still it hurts my pride, and so in general I opt for A when I can. Yesterday, because I had a range of items too awkward to manage, I opted for B, and after asking the cashier to sell me a reusable bag, I tried to start a conversation.

“Has this bag ban been a pain for you?” I asked her. I’d been wondering this for a few weeks, imagining that the first week or two had yielded an endless stream of frazzled customers and a few choice tantrums. I expected her to simply confirm that, so I was surprised by her answer.

“I had to look for a new job,” she told me. “I can’t take it anymore.” Apparently, there have been more than a handful of tantrum-throwers; she reported that since the bag ban passed every line of customers includes at least one who’s ready to go ballistic, to raise his fist, make idle threats, and conclude “I’m never shopping here again!” (Of course, he’ll have to shop outside the county if he wants a free plastic bag.)

I was more bewildered than surprised to learn this about my fellow Thurston County citizens. It strikes me as quintessentially American that we’ve collectively decided that everyone is entitled to free bags as a part of our shopping experience. And not just that, but since this is a democracy, we need a choice: paper or plastic.

And I guess it’s just as American that we have to legislate an end to this waste, to mandate it rather than trusting in the fairness and responsibility of people’s choices. I mean look at me, Miss Bleeding Heart Liberal: week four of the bag ban and I’m still walking three paces into the grocery store before noticing my empty hands.

Apparently, this is the right tactic because some of us won’t get there on our own. Some of us (e.g. me) may want to keep plastics out of our land and waters, we may collect over a dozen reusable bags only to forget them when it matters and say “yes, please” when we’re offered a plastic bag for our three items. Sometimes it takes a rule to get us to do the right thing, and the disruption to routine is surprisingly noticeable. Apparently, that’s what progress feels like.

But it seems that if we’re ever going to get anywhere, we need to embrace the inconvenience of changing bad cultural habits. We can’t shout at every grocery clerk, proclaiming our god given right to plastic bags. We’ll need to recognize that saving our future will require a great many shifts; remembering to bring my own bag to the store is really just the tip of the iceberg—which, as you know, is melting as I am writing this.

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15 comments

  1. Jenn — You might be interested to know that many citizens in Watertown have been pushing for a “ban plastic bags” movement in town. Others have done it: Cambridge and Concord. Watch this space!

  2. Absolutely brilliant! I’m pretty good about my big shopping trips (thank god, because $250 worth of groceries would take a looooong time to load into my minivan an armful at a time…) but for the short trips, I’m terrible! So glad to know that someone else forgets. And has to buy whatever random reusable bag they’re selling for $1.50. May I recommend? They make these cloth bags that roll up into a teeny-tiny ball you can tuck in your Mom-bag so you always have it with you when you need it. Now if only I could actually remember to put it back in my Mom-bag after I’ve used it… (It’s by Envirosax and it can heft about $30 pounds. Mine has lasted 7 years… just saying.)
    This post made me literally laugh out loud! You rock.

  3. Isn’t it interesting how such a seemingly small thing can cause people to go into a tizzy. This rule was recently enacted in my ‘hood as well. Someone at Whole Foods told me it’s unbelievable how many people were preferring to handhold their bundle of groceries instead of paying the 10 cents for a bag when they didn’t bring their own. Love your observations and how you wrote a whole blog post about this.

    1. I know, it’s funny, because what is ten cents compared to the price of all the groceries? I guess it’s just the principle of paying for something you don’t need.

  4. When I spent a semester in the UK, I had my illusions shattered that I deserved a free bag for my groceries. Not to mention that I often had to bag the groceries myself. Until circumstances force us to change, it’s hard to us to comprehend that we don’t have to keep doing things the way they’ve always been done.

  5. There are always people complaining about any new rule, even if it benefits almost everyone. (What about the poor plastic bag company workers who will lose their jobs? is a common tactic to argue about any change where I live.) People yelling at the grocery store people about it is ridiculous though.

  6. Out here in old Europe, several countries are advocating for a similar bill. I bet an EU proposal is coming in a few years’ time too. As a teenager, my groceries experience is rather limited (Except when someone needs to haul ass to the grocery store to get one thing, which happens more often than you might think), so I can’t make a good judgement on how it will change things around, but I don’t see the problem. The social brownie points you get from being pro nature will probably convince the majority of people… Is that a good or bad thing, I wonder?

  7. Wow, I can’t believe this is a thing in some counties (or is it county?). Philadelphia has no such ban but I try to bring my bags and I seem to forget half the time. I think you’re right though, it sometimes takes an actual ordinance to get people to break a bad habit. Maybe that explains my Snapple fact of the day: some town in Ohio has it on the books that it’s illegal to run out of gas!

  8. Another thing you can do when you forget your bags is have the checker (or do-it-yourself) just put everything back in the shopping cart after you have been checked out. Then take the cart to your car and put everything in your bags, to make it easier to bring your stuff in the house.

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