Bag Lady

Oh ye plastic baggers, the day of reckoning approacheth?

Image source:

Oh that it were so simple.  “Nothing that’s worthwhile is ever easy.” ― Nicholas SparksMessage in a Bottle

The other day I dutifully brought cloth bags to the grocery store.  While I was chatting with the checkout clerk, a bagger packed things up.  “Have a nice day!” she said and smiled, setting the groceries in a cart.

Everything, including my cloth bags, were bagged in plastic.

Serves me right you say?  I should bag my own damn groceries?  All right.  Let’s not anybody not get their danders up.  I smiled back and said, “Thank you.”

Image source: /directory/c/checkout_girl.asp

But there we have it, the plastic grocery bag, icon of American wealth and folly. There is momentum toward banning them.  City councilors in our town of 150,000 recently gave the go-ahead for a draft ordinance banning single-use plastic bags. Portland, Oregon, the nearest big city, recently enacted their own plastic bag ban. Others in the club:  San Francisco, Austin, the big Island in Hawaii …

Activists in Portland's city council chambers. Source: Oregonian newspaper

… And there is a veritable storm of anger, science, art and righteousness coalescing to defend or do away with the polyethylene prince.

In one corner, the (villainous?) plastics manufacturers …

Image Source: Time Magazine, "The Patron Saint of Plastic Bags"

… represented by Stephen Joseph, who points out that because most reusable bags are made overseas and most plastic bags are made in America, bag bans kill American jobs. He doesn’t believe that consumers use reusable bags as often as they should. The bags get dirty, so people don’t want to use them for food.  Also, while plastic is a huge problem on land and sea, it is only a tiny portion of the total waste stream.

In the other corner, the bring-your-own baggers …

Image source:

… like Andy Keller, founder of a multimillion dollar company, ChicoBag, which sells trendy reusable shopping bags.  In the photo above Andy is wearing his Monster Bag outfit, made of 500 bags, about the number used per person per year in the US.  He tracks laws banning bags and publicizes information about the harm they cause to the environment.

Mr. Keller was recently sued by three plastic bag companies, Hilex Poly Co. LLC, Superbag Operating LTD. and Advance Polybag Inc. for “irreparable harm” to their business. He is philosophical.  “When you get sued for trying to make a difference in the world,” Keller says, “you must be doing something right.”

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There are controversial studies like this one:

“…a draft report by the Environment Agency, obtained by the Independent on Sunday, has found that ordinary high density polythene (HDPE) bags used by shops are actually greener than supposedly low impact choices.

“HDPE bags are, for each use, almost 200 times less damaging to the climate than cotton hold-alls favoured by environmentalists, and have less than one third of the Co2 emissions than paper bags which are given out by retailers such as Primark.” 2/20/11,

The researchers studied seven types of bags and the pollution caused by each of them via extraction of raw materials, production, transportation and disposal.  They concluded that cloth bags are less damaging to the environment than plastic if you use them 171 times, but that most use their cloth bags only 51 times. Paper bags? You have to use them four times. This report was scheduled for publication in 2007 but is sidelined while it is peer-reviewed, or perhaps, as bag lovers claim, because of a conspiracy by environmentalists who can’t take the truth.

Image source: The Torontorist, Brian McLachlan
There is a question of money.  If grocery stores stop offering plastic bags, they will have to have reusables available. Should they charge a lot, making people value them less and thus more likely to throw them away before their 171 uses?  Or charge more, and make people mad?
We can go around and around about public policy and economics, but in the end, common sense must prevail. 

We don’t need a new plastic bag for every apple we buy. Most of us have access to washing machines, and can keep cloth bags sanitary.  We are, like it or not, part of a waste stream.

Here’s the rule: Use grocery bags 172 times.  Yikes!  Really?  Really. No excuses. Use them for about a year and a half.  Nobody is going to be counting for you, not if we want to keep the American Way strong and healthy. Need something for dog poop? Use compostable poop bags.  Five bucks for 50. If you can afford a dog, you can afford these.

Need something to line the garbage pail in the kitchen?  Newspaper works fine.  So does no lining at all.

It’s not easy.  Most things ahead of us aren’t.  We had a great run with our plastic bags. They are light and convenient and just disappear into the garbage trucks at the end of the week — right to the landfills and the treetops and into albatross gullets.

Unaltered photo of contents of a dead baby albatross' stomach. Source: Huffington Post. Photo by Chris Jordan

No need to wait for a city ordinance.  Attach yourself to some fine quality bags, and use them.  Keep in mind though, you might have to help with the bagging.


  • Plastic bags? I’ve had cloth bags for 30 years; but 19 times out of twenty I leave them in my car. In fact I now have so many free, reusable cloth and plastic bags I’ve sent some to Good Will. I’ve bought others at a buck a pop; but usually I leave all of them in my car. Sometimes I remember before I get to a check stand and I scoot back to my car, but this is rare.

    It’s like seat belts: ten years after they were mandatory I was leaving home unbuckled half the time and rehearsing excuses in case I got caught (“My back is stiff officer. I need more room to look over my shoulder”)

    I tell grocery clerks to put my stuff back in my cart, thinking that loading it up, shivering in wind and rain, will remind me next time. Nope.

    I’m carrying more stuff in my arms and pockets and dumping it on my passenger seats. Few things are more permanently fragrant than pockets where old meat, spilled milk or overripe produce rolled under my seats.

    And then there are those melting chocolate bars I pull out of my jacket pocket at inappropriate moments.


  • Ha! I hear ya! Note I didn’t say you have to use your bags 171 consecutive times. Might take ten years, but …


  • I used to do the same thing as Andy with my reusable bags. I’d leave them in the car all the time. It took some time and some self discipline, but I finally got to the stage where I take them into every store I walk into. Not just the grocery store. I’m still working on the part about not using liners in my trash cans though. Things get stuck to the inside of the cans all the time. Yuck.


  • I know what you mean about the trash can. There’s something so attractive, feels so right, about putting in a clean bag and tying it shut when it’s full. Finally let myself run out of trash can liners, which forced me to try alternatives. A newspaper is working for me for now. Of course, how long before we’re all reading the paper on line?


  • We still buy kitchen garbage bags and try to fill ’em up before tossing them. Groceries almost always go into my over-sized shoulder bag, lists stay short and organized with Werner Freytag’s Shopping List app. Our CSA brings paper bags and we re-use those or send them back. We even try to buy less generally. I would like to unwrap obscene over- packaging and leave it for merchandisers to recycle or rethink. 🙂 This seems like a cultural thing, for example, double and triple wrappings from the Japanese shop in Seattle, and where I shop in Eugene, bring your own containers for bulk, having tare-weights measured in advance. I wonder how small a factor this is in a big view?


    • It would be an interesting thing to look into — the cultural aspects of over-packaging. I wonder how much Japanese packaging has to do with worries about sanitation? Thanks for the visit and for the tip on the shopping list app.


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