small change toward a rich life

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.

(You can read details of the bag fee at the Seattle PI and Seattle Times.)

(Photo by taberandrew.)


5 responses

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  1. Jak says

    I am incredibly pleased by this news! And thank you for the great story. I sincerly hope that you were dealing with a noobie checker.

  2. Anya says

    Hi Karawynn,
    I was reading your cat toilet training site about Mischa earlier this year. Anyway, I was at Borders and flipped through this book, http://www.borders.com/online/store/TitleDetail?sku=1416547568 – and there is a picture of Mischa using the toilet in it. I am pretty sure it is the identical photo of her from your website! Then underneath there is a short bio which lists her name as Einstein or something. I thought you might like to know…

    by the way I like your article on grocery bags. I have started bringing my own to stores also and they often give weird looks!!


  3. karawynn says

    Hi Anya,
    Thanks for the heads-up on the pilfered photo. Sadly, that happens a lot — make something popular and people rush to steal it.

    Good for you bringing your own bags!

  4. Aubeard says

    I have been going to the local supermarket in my town (Acme, recently bought by Albertsons) since the 1960′s. Even before Green became the smart way to go, my complaint with them has been a ridiculous waste of bags (paper even prior to the advent of plastic) by putting only a few articles in each bag. I simply started packing the bags myself after finding a 5 lb bag of peanuts and a 10 lb bag of birdseed in plastic bags! THEY’RE ALREADY IN A LARGE BAG! I do get a few(3) plastic bags for carrying small items as I use these as trash can liners in the bathrooms and for a small wastebasket in the kitchen that is used only for things that rot. This not only saves money on buying trash can liners, it also allows me to use the stronger bags for canned goods, frozen food, refrigerated food, that might leak on the way home. The rest goes in paper which I re-use for wrapping packages for mailing, and/or recycling. When I do the WEEKLY shopping (as opposed to quick stops for milk, veggies etc.), I use 2 thermal/cold bags that I bought 3 years ago that hold the majority of the items needed. They are large and hold the equivalent of 3-4 of those store plastic bags. They were well worthwhile as they only cost $1.49 each in 2005.
    My favorite stupidity-at-the-supermarket story is buying a 24 pack of Pepsi and watching the packer fight with trying to put it into a bag until I had to explain “It’s too big, it’s too heavy, IT HAS IT’S own HANDLE!-it doesn’t need a BAG!
    Welcome to America!

  5. Emma is that you? says

    Christ, you sound like my ex-girlfriend.

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