Grocery bag revolution
I made a run to Safeway last night for sale produce: blueberries at $2.50/lb, tomatoes at $1.50/lb, summer squash and lettuce at $1.00. (I love summer.) At the checkout I put my nylon bag at the front of the conveyor belt, then unloaded my groceries.
The checker gingerly picked up the turquoise cloth and dropped it again as though it had slimed him. “What is this?”
I blinked. “It’s a bag? … For the …” I waved at the groceries.
He looked at it again. “Oh! Sorry.”
Bemused, I busied myself with the payment pad and watched the totals as he rang up the groceries. Corrected him on the type of lettuce (red leaf, which was on sale, rather than butter, which was not). Signed the electronic pad and moved down to pick up my groceries …
Which were packed into three plastic bags. Along with the nylon bag that I’d brought.
At this point, I snapped a little. “Um, the whole point here was to not use the plastic bags,” I growled at the bagger, while extricating my cloth bag.
“Oh! Sorry.” Together we repacked all three bags’ worth into my single reusable one. He tossed the plastic bags to the side and began packing new ones for the next customer, and I winced, realizing that my environmental diligence had resulted in zero effect.
To be fair, I’ve been exclusively bringing my own bags to the grocery for three months, and this is the first time I’ve been met with such utter incomprehension. I thought the timing was ironic, since yesterday the Seattle City Council approved a controversial twenty-cent disposable bag fee.
Starting January 1, shoppers will be charged twenty cents for every plastic or paper bag they carry out of a grocery or drug store. This news thrilled me.
That might seem like a contradiction — why would someone concerned with saving money support a new expense? — but it’s core to my philosophy. I love bargains but have never espoused Frugality Uber Alles; I have a vivid environmentalist streak and a strong compulsion to do the right thing.
But even that compulsion is not always enough to battle inertia. I’ve known for years that both plastic and paper bags pose environmental problems, but it wasn’t until a few months ago that I finally got off my butt and purchased a functional alternative.
Many grocery stores already offer a few pennies’ rebate for bringing your own bag, but it’s not really enough to matter. (I was amused to note that I received three cents’ credit for bringing my one large bag, when apparently I was saving them three plastic bags.)
En masse, people are creatures of habit who aren’t motivated by long-term benefits. It’s not pretty, but it’s true. Most of us have to be given clear, short-term incentives to embrace change. And it works.
From the New York Times:
In 2002, Ireland passed a tax on plastic bags; customers who want them must now pay 33 cents per bag at the register. There was an advertising awareness campaign. And then something happened that was bigger than the sum of these parts.
Within weeks, plastic bag use dropped 94 percent. Within a year, nearly everyone had bought reusable cloth bags, keeping them in offices and in the backs of cars. Plastic bags were not outlawed, but carrying them became socially unacceptable — on a par with wearing a fur coat or not cleaning up after one’s dog.
In six months, cloth bags will be the norm here in Seattle, not a weird exception that baffles grocery employees. I think that’s a huge victory, more than worth the expense.
(Photo by taberandrew.)