Annoying Rules that Just Might Save Us

Plastic-Bag-Pollution

On July 1, an ordinance that bans disposable bags from grocery stores took effect in my county. In the weeks leading up to the ban, I noticed numerous flyers designed to prepare us for this impending shift, and yet in spite of this ample warning, and in spite of the fact that I’ve had nearly a month to adjust, it seems that I’m always forgetting about my reusable bags (and I have many!) until the moment I’ve set foot in the grocery store.

This isn’t a calamity, because I still have options. A) I can try to heft my purchases with my bare arms, B) I can buy a reusable bag, or C) I can shell out five cents for a paper bag. Five cents means nearly nothing in the context of my grocery bill, but still it hurts my pride, and so in general I opt for A when I can. Yesterday, because I had a range of items too awkward to manage, I opted for B, and after asking the cashier to sell me a reusable bag, I tried to start a conversation.

“Has this bag ban been a pain for you?” I asked her. I’d been wondering this for a few weeks, imagining that the first week or two had yielded an endless stream of frazzled customers and a few choice tantrums. I expected her to simply confirm that, so I was surprised by her answer.

“I had to look for a new job,” she told me. “I can’t take it anymore.” Apparently, there have been more than a handful of tantrum-throwers; she reported that since the bag ban passed every line of customers includes at least one who’s ready to go ballistic, to raise his fist, make idle threats, and conclude “I’m never shopping here again!” (Of course, he’ll have to shop outside the county if he wants a free plastic bag.)

I was more bewildered than surprised to learn this about my fellow Thurston County citizens. It strikes me as quintessentially American that we’ve collectively decided that everyone is entitled to free bags as a part of our shopping experience. And not just that, but since this is a democracy, we need a choice: paper or plastic.

And I guess it’s just as American that we have to legislate an end to this waste, to mandate it rather than trusting in the fairness and responsibility of people’s choices. I mean look at me, Miss Bleeding Heart Liberal: week four of the bag ban and I’m still walking three paces into the grocery store before noticing my empty hands.

Apparently, this is the right tactic because some of us won’t get there on our own. Some of us (e.g. me) may want to keep plastics out of our land and waters, we may collect over a dozen reusable bags only to forget them when it matters and say “yes, please” when we’re offered a plastic bag for our three items. Sometimes it takes a rule to get us to do the right thing, and the disruption to routine is surprisingly noticeable. Apparently, that’s what progress feels like.

But it seems that if we’re ever going to get anywhere, we need to embrace the inconvenience of changing bad cultural habits. We can’t shout at every grocery clerk, proclaiming our god given right to plastic bags. We’ll need to recognize that saving our future will require a great many shifts; remembering to bring my own bag to the store is really just the tip of the iceberg—which, as you know, is melting as I am writing this.