REACH is a webzine devoted to helping people live more consciously, offering articles and tips on health, community, the environment, and personal productivity and growth.

It’s In the Bag

Years ago I began bringing my own shopping bags with me when I went grocery shopping. I lived in a large urban area and at the time it was a fairly rare thing to do. Occasionally I’d get a strange look from someone when I pulled out my knapsack and fabric totes, and some clerks never did get the principle behind it, trying to wrap all the glass bottles in separate paper sleeves and the meat in plastic to “protect it.” They couldn’t accept that items could be safe without a bag around them, and so I would patiently remove these extra bags and repack the items myself. There were even a few occasions when bringing my own bags was taken by a checkout clerk as a personal affront. I was challenging the system.

Then, a few years ago, certain grocery stores like Whole Foods Market began to recognize environmentally aware consumers by paying them back a nickel for each bag they brought in. Although I was pleased with this change of events, I felt I didn’t need to be “rewarded.” Then, a little less than a year ago, my city passed a new ordinance: Now, instead of receiving money back for bringing our own bags, we were going to be docked 5 cents for each bag the store gave us. Environmental conscientiousness had gone from something praiseworthy to something punitive. Although my own BYOB approach had not changed over the years, I found myself resenting what I perceived as a heavy-handed attempt to “make” people do the right thing. It had reached the level of absurdity when clerks at the local deli would hand me a slice of greasy pizza and expect me to carry it out of the store without a bag unless I was willing to pay an additional nickel for it.

It seemed to me that the bag situation had become a metaphor for big, intrusive government, and I was pretty sure I was turning into a libertarian. I wondered why big brother felt it had to force me to do the right thing, and why it assumed (condescendingly) that it had the moral authority to do so. If the government was so concerned about the environment, I reasoned, why was the burden falling solely on consumers to protect it? Why weren’t recycled bags offered to customers upon entering the store? Why did stores continue to pack items in plastic bags at the checkout counter? Why weren’t larger, sturdier reusable bags made available in the produce section so that consumers could place all their produce in one bag rather than having to use a separate bag for each item? Why weren’t meats better wrapped so there was no chance they would “bleed” onto other items and contaminate them? Why weren’t consumers made more aware of the actual cost to the environment, not to mention their wallets, when plastic is used? And why weren’t the savings to the environment showing up in lower grocery bills?

Then I moved to another state, where only certain areas banned plastic bags. It was disconcerting to be thrown once again into a maelstrom of plastic, but I noticed that many people were choosing, of their own free will, to recycle and bring their own bags. They didn’t need a law to guide them. Ultimately, this seems to me to be a more effective way to institute positive change, because it reaches people’s hearts and minds, not just their wallets. In the end, perhaps the more progressive method isn’t to penalize people into good choices but to encourage and inspire them.