The Paper Bag lobbyest teamTimes are changing, for sure.

I’m not sure I remember the last time I saw a paper bag from the grocery store. Even those are taboo now.

It’s darn near impossible not to get dirty looks from the crunchy tree-hugging granola-eating Whole Foods crowd these days.

How on earth do kids make bookcovers for their text books now? What do they use? Really, I’d be curious to know. 

Anyway, there was an article by David Funkhouser in my local paper today about how the State is considering banning plastic bags.

Since their debut in supermarket checkout lines in 1977, plastic shopping bags have become the tote of choice.

Back then, plastic seemed like a good option: a way to stop cutting down so many trees to make all those paper bags. They take less energy and are less polluting to produce than paper. They’re lighter, easy to carry, reusable.

But they are also starting to look like the quintessential environmental nightmare. Shoppers use 100 billion a year in the U.S. alone, and they have become a universal symbol of a throwaway consumer culture — use them for a few minutes, then throw them out. And, like many things plastic, they last a long time — by some estimates, up to 1,000 years.

The bags wind up as litter, blowing in the wind, and tons of them float out to sea, where they pose a different kind of threat. Sea turtles, who love jellyfish but seem unable to tell the difference, eat them and die from suffocation or starvation. The bags also harm birds, dolphins and seals, environmentalists say.

Now, the legislature is considering a bill to ban them.

Which Pamela Rome is OK with.

Rome paused this week outside Whole Foods in West Hartford to rearrange groceries in a large paper sack. The store went plastic-bag-free last Saturday, and Rome said she does not mind at all.

Whole Foods likes to stay a little ahead of the curve: The company gave away tens of thousands of reusable bags — made from 80 percent recycled plastic bottles — as part of its nationwide campaign to wean its customers from the more disposable kind.

“I still use [some plastic bags], but I try to use reusable bags — when I remember to take them out of the trunk,” Rome said. “I’m trying to save the environment for my children.”

But clearly, a society without plastic bags will take some getting used to.

Kathy Velez of Hartford, who was shopping Tuesday with her young daughter at Wal-Mart on Flatbush Avenue, is not ready to give them up.

“To me, it’s harder if you have to bring the cloth bags in. I’m not a big fan of using those,” she said.

She tosses most of her plastic bags in the trash but like many people reuses some around the house. They’re handy for lining small wastebaskets, covering up stuff in the fridge, packing a lunch, collecting a few toys for your child to carry around, emptying litter boxes.

In parts of Africa, women weave the bags into baskets and sell them.

Valerie Rivera, Jessica Rodriguez and Yamarilyn Vega, all from Hartford, see the problem from both sides of the counter: They work as cashiers at Wal-Mart, and were outside after a shopping trip there Tuesday.

All three said shifting away from the plastic bags would slow things down at the checkout line.

“I would miss them,” Rivera said. “I use them as little garbage bags and for dirty diapers.”

Lindsay Mejnartowicz of Naugatuck works behind the counter at a Subway sandwich shop on Route 17 in Durham. She agrees that eliminating plastic would be less convenient for customers. Not to mention a little juicier.

Connecticut was one of several states last year to consider the mandatory recycling of plastic bags.

Although this year’s proposal would go even further and ban the bags completely, Sen. Edward Meyer, D-Guilford, co-chairman of the legislature’s environment committee, said he expects to see a compromise, perhaps a mandatory recycling provision.

The bags wind up as litter, blowing in the wind, and tons of them float out to sea, where they pose a different kind of threat. Sea turtles, who love jellyfish but seem unable to tell the difference, eat them and die from suffocation or starvation. The bags also harm birds, dolphins and seals, environmentalists say.

Now, the legislature is considering a bill to ban them.

Which Pamela Rome is OK with.

Rome paused this week outside Whole Foods in West Hartford to rearrange groceries in a large paper sack. The store went plastic-bag-free last Saturday, and Rome said she does not mind at all.

Whole Foods likes to stay a little ahead of the curve: The company gave away tens of thousands of reusable bags — made from 80 percent recycled plastic bottles — as part of its nationwide campaign to wean its customers from the more disposable kind.

“I still use [some plastic bags], but I try to use reusable bags — when I remember to take them out of the trunk,” Rome said. “I’m trying to save the environment for my children.”

But clearly, a society without plastic bags will take some getting used to.

Kathy Velez of Hartford, who was shopping Tuesday with her young daughter at Wal-Mart on Flatbush Avenue, is not ready to give them up.

“To me, it’s harder if you have to bring the cloth bags in. I’m not a big fan of using those,” she said.

She tosses most of her plastic bags in the trash but like many people reuses some around the house. They’re handy for lining small wastebaskets, covering up stuff in the fridge, packing a lunch, collecting a few toys for your child to carry around, emptying litter boxes.

In parts of Africa, women weave the bags into baskets and sell them.

Valerie Rivera, Jessica Rodriguez and Yamarilyn Vega, all from Hartford, see the problem from both sides of the counter: They work as cashiers at Wal-Mart, and were outside after a shopping trip there Tuesday.

All three said shifting away from the plastic bags would slow things down at the checkout line.

“I would miss them,” Rivera said. “I use them as little garbage bags and for dirty diapers.”

Lindsay Mejnartowicz of Naugatuck works behind the counter at a Subway sandwich shop on Route 17 in Durham. She agrees that eliminating plastic would be less convenient for customers. Not to mention a little juicier.

Connecticut was one of several states last year to consider the mandatory recycling of plastic bags.

Although this year’s proposal would go even further and ban the bags completely, Sen. Edward Meyer, D-Guilford, co-chairman of the legislature’s environment committee, said he expects to see a compromise, perhaps a mandatory recycling provision.

China has banned free plastic shopping bags as of June 1.

“We’re very much for mandatory recycling of plastic bags,” said Stan Sorkin, executive director of the Connecticut Food Association, which represents grocers and others in the food industry. The organization, however, opposes an outright ban.

“The grocery industry has been in the forefront and recognizes the role we must play in using and reusing plastic bags,” he said. “Everybody has had their eyes opened in terms of the environmental message … reduce, reuse, recycle.”

Most grocery stores these days sell reusable bags of canvas or recycled plastic, typically for 99 cents each. Some like Stop & Shop have set up bins where customers can recycle the disposable bags.

Whole Foods plans to end the use of disposable plastic grocery bags in all of its 270 stores in the U.S., Canada and the United Kingdom by Earth Day, April 22. Its paper bags are made from 100 percent recycled material, and the store offers refunds of 5 cents a bag to consumers who bring their own.

Wal-Mart started selling reusable bags for $1 in October, and the company is setting up recycling bins at most of its stores, company spokeswoman E.R. Anderson said. The company developed an effective recycling method and has recycled 97 million pounds of plastic, she added.

Anderson declined to speculate on what the company might do if Connecticut passes an outright ban.

Dropping plastic bags might seem a lightweight assault on environmental problems.

But proponents argue the change of mindset might be just as important.

“It’s a process of thinking beyond the purchase,” said Lisa Mastny, an editor at Worldwatch Institute, an environmental organization based in Washington. “It translates into a lot of other things. It ingrains in people the idea of thinking before buying. That hasn’t been in the American consumer consciousness.”

Plastic bags have yet to achieve the socially unacceptable status of fur coats or littering.

Like many consumer habits, this may come down to a matter of money.

Consider that when Ireland put a 15 cent tax on the bags in 2002, use of them dropped by 90 percent in a few months.

At the Durham Market on Route 17 in Durham, owner Chet Mounts says he would not mind cutting out the plastic.

But he notes that consumers may pay for the change: His paper bags cost him 8 to 10 cents each, as opposed to about 2 cents for plastic.

Over the past month, Mounts said, he has sold about 500 cloth grocery bags to his customers, “but I don’t see many coming back.”

“The consumer’s going to have to be retrained,” he said.

At the market’s checkout, part-time clerk Amy Ercolani of Durham agreed.

“People just need to adjust,” she said, with a hint of frustration. “People come in and get one item and want a bag.”

She herself has used cloth bags for years.

Meanwhile, eco-conscious shoppers like Pamela Rome will try to remember to grab the reusable bags before they hit the store.

“I’m getting better,” she said. “My kids remind me.”

For plastic, what about the sea turtles?

For paper, what about the rainforests?

For the re-usable, can I take a Target bag into a Walmart?

I’m not really sure where I stand on this issue. We use the re-usable “green” bags for the grocery store regularly now. It took a while to get used to them, but they’re actually a lot nicer than paper or plastic.

They hold a lot more, they have a flat rigid bottom, and they look kinda neat. On the downside, it feels a little weird walking in to a store with a bunch of empty bags tucked under you arm…

Which ever way they go, I’m sure some interest group will come along saying it’s hurting the environment even more regardless of the outcome.

The key is to leave the environment out of the marketing ploy to get people to change.

Change to the reusable ones because they’re simply better. Not better for the environment, just better period.

It’s a lot easier to swallow that way. For the turtles too.

2 COMMENTS

  1. Check out these very cool and very green multi-purpose reusable bags – BaggyShirts! They are made from recycled shirts! Made in the US, the folks who make them work from home and are paid a decent wage…www.baggy-shirts.com!

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