Plastic Bags, Headed for A Meltdown

By Jane Black
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 6, 2008

On a recent Sunday, I stood in a long line at the Dupont Circle farmers market. At the front was a young woman, juggling nearly a dozen apples as she tried to hand them to the cashier to be weighed.

"Here, let me get you a bag," the cashier suggested.

"No. No," the woman answered harriedly. "I brought my own!"

The cashier glanced at the growing line of impatient patrons. And the young woman turned around, too, a pained look spreading across her face.

"Okay. But then take them out. I can put them in here."


"Really, I really don't want one."

It was, perhaps, a sign of the times. The plastic bag, that staple of modern life, is about to become radioactive.

The whole thing seemed a little silly -- even to me, one of those vaguely preachy farmers market types who brings along her canvas bag only to guiltily head home with it full of plastic bags of produce. But it's not happening just at the farmers market. In 2002, Ireland instituted a 15-cent tax on plastic bags to end the "litter menace," and Bangladesh banned them outright. This year, China and Australia will outlaw them. Here at home, San Francisco has begun requiring shops to use only bags made of at least 40 percent recycled paper. And on Jan. 22, trendsetter Whole Foods announced that as of Earth Day (April 22) it no longer will offer plastic bags to customers at the checkout counters. The move, the company estimates, will take 100 million new bags out of circulation by the end of 2008.

Get that 98 percent recycled tote ready. You're going to need it.

Sound crazy? Remember, it was less than a year ago that bottled water was the sophisticated choice in restaurants and at home. Now if you drink the stuff you're an environmental cretin, personally responsible for some of the 1.5 million barrels of oil used each year to make the plastic containers. Upon hearing that news, a guilt-stricken colleague rushed out to buy a filter for his faucet and is considering buying a gadget to make sparkling water at home. His friends who haven't made the change? "Bottle-buying, Earth-polluting pigs."

I don't miss bottled water. I regard its fall from grace as an opportunity to cloak cheapness in environmental virtue.

But this latest shift might not be as painless. While subbing tap water for bottled water is effortless, giving up plastic bags is an inconvenience. We must either take our own bag to the store or use paper bags, which environmentalists argue aren't much better than the plastic ones; after all, we need those trees to soak up the carbon dioxide spewed by our SUVs. And it means changing the hearts and minds of others. It's one thing to hold up the line at the farmers market. It's quite another at a grittier store, such as the Safeway near Dupont Circle. My friend who takes his own bags there says the cashier's reaction is somewhere between disbelief and disgust.

I remember life before plastic bags. There was no "paper or plastic" at the Giant in the 1970s. Just paper, which kids dutifully recycled into book covers for elementary school texts. I don't remember when plastic became widely available, but it was certainly before 1983. That's when my family moved to London, where I was shocked to discover that you had to pay twopence for a plastic bag -- and bag the groceries yourself. It was the first sign, besides the plummy accents, that we weren't in Washington anymore.

When we moved back to the States, we quickly fell back into old habits, using the bags as cheap totes, bathroom trash can liners and packing material. Once we even wore them as makeshift galoshes when we got caught in a downpour at Epcot Center. A good idea, though later, when we tromped into a nearby Burger King to dry off and get sustenance, we were pretty sure the staff thought we were homeless.

It was 2002 before it even dawned on me that I should feel guilty about using plastic bags, let alone stop myself from grabbing a few extra just in case. I was living in Dublin when the bag tax went into effect. In the car, my then-boyfriend and I debated whether it would make any difference. I was sure that it would not.

"Who is going to remember to bring their own bag?" I sneered as we pulled into the grocery store parking lot. Inside, even though paper bags were still available, most shoppers in the queue were clutching fabric totes or store-branded "bags for life." Within three weeks of the new levy, retailers reported that demand for plastic had plummeted 90 percent. Sales of reusable bags increased 80-fold.

I can't say the experience taught me to bring my own bags, but at least I was conscious about using them. For two years, I worked across the street from a Whole Foods, where I eco-mindedly turned down a bag for the yogurt and fruit I bought there nearly every day. Halfway through my tenure, I learned that the cashiers were supposed to be giving me a five-cent rebate each time for my trouble -- and they hadn't.

My piety quickly transformed into mild outrage, though I never did demand my five cents. At Whole Foods, one has a reputation to protect.

I was at Whole Foods again last week, a few days after they announced that the end of plastic bags was nigh. Nothing appeared to have changed. As usual, it was so packed you'd think they were giving away the food, not just the plastic bags, for free. And of course, I hadn't remembered to take my spiffy tote. As I waited to buy my wild-caught shrimp and organic vegetables, I listened to the melody of electronic bleeps and the once-innocent chorus of "paper or plastic?"

When it was my turn, I knew the answer: Plastic. But not for long.

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