Bag Lady

My quest to stop the plastic menace

When I could no longer close the door to my broom closet, I realized there might be a problem. The closet was stuffed with plastic bags—those white, sturdy, malleable, uniformly sized, polyethylene sacks that are dispensed like candy on Halloween whenever one purchases, well, pretty much anything.

Over the past year or so, I’d been randomly putting the bags into the closet. Then, one day, I couldn’t even open the door without bags tumbling out in a gentle (yet noisy) avalanche. Plastic bags, I came to believe, are the Tribbles of a convenience culture, the cockroaches of consumerism.

My eco-consciousness is fairly pedestrian, I suppose. But I try, in small ways, to do my part. Cans and plastics are sorted. Newspapers recycled. My husband and I share a compact car. Yet there was something about the preposterous excess, the sheer plastic-bag promiscuity that offended my Midwestern sensibilities. No purchase seems to be too small to warrant a bag. A mere tube of lip balm is automatically popped into one. When I learned that
approximately 60,000 bags are dispensed every five seconds in this country, I decided to get all Carry Nation about it. I was going to take on the polymer pests (sans hatchet, of course—at least for the time being). Yes, I can!

First, given that I carry a handbag the size of steamer trunk, I started to employ my purse more aggressively. This proved more challenging than you’d think. Even though I could easily put small items in my purse, a bag would nevertheless be offered. “Are you sure?” store personnel would ask with great concern when I declined a bag. Once, when I just said no, a clerk looked at me with a smile that managed to convey the sort of tolerance and pity usually reserved for mentally challenged puppies. “Takes all kinds, I guess,” she said.

I started carrying “previously owned” bags on my outings. Upon purchasing something, I’d hand a bag to the cashier. Instead of reusing the bag, however, the cashier would, invariably, assume I wanted it thrown away.

I came to see that bagging had become a biological impulse, a need stronger than the desire to procreate, and almost as impervious to rational thought. Often at a store, before one even has time to think about it, a bag is poofed and readied to receive its cargo, no matter what that cargo might be. On one of my recent visits to a retailer, the clerk struggled to insert an 18-roll pack of toilet paper—which is about the size of a rolling suitcase—into a bag. Even if she’d been successful, the bag would have been useless, as the handles would not have met over the top.

A friend of mine offered some insight. She’d once worked in a grocery store and had been trained in the bagging arts. “We were told never to ask ‘Paper or plastic?’” she explained. “It costs four times more to make a paper bag than a plastic bag. So it was always plastic.”

I was way beyond paper or plastic, though. Clearly these retailers didn’t know with whom they were dealing. I was the woman, after all, who’d once refused on principle to buy Ronald Reagan stamps offered up at the post office.

I began e-mailing stores and talking to managers. I asked them to train personnel to use fewer bags. I suggested they sell or give away reusable cloth ones. I pointed out that it takes 12 million barrels of oil a year to produce all the plastic bags we use in this country. I would not allow civilization to be brought down by these polymer beasts of burden.

Still, the bagging bacchanalia continued. Even a solo jug of milk warranted a bag, never mind that the jug had, you know, a handle. “Let’s save a tree!” I laughed to a clerk one day, deploying a wit that would shame Noel Coward. “Oh, these are plastic,” the sack facilitator patiently explained as he disengaged the milk from the bag before crumpling it up—and throwing it away.

Then, one day at my grocery store, there appeared a large rack of cloth bags. I felt giddy with triumph. I had become a change agent. Yes, I did! I put one in my cart, knowing then how a Nobel Peace Prize winner must feel. I put the bag on the conveyor belt along with my groceries. Smiling, the cashier promptly picked up the bag, scanned it…and placed it inside a plastic bag.

By itself.