The brown paper bag I carried out of the bookstore wasn’t there for the sake of discretion. Truth be told, the bookstore refuses to handle plastic anymore.
Ideally, the clerk told me, the store was on the verge of going entirely bagless, so I was lucky to be handed a brown paper sack. But it was raining, fortunately, and as I walked down the sidewalk trying to shield my new purchase, I secretly imagined a few genuine watermarks marring the surface of a page or two—indelible reminders that the spine of the West’s summer drought had finally been broken.
When (and if) the electronic book revolution gets more flexible and affordable, this bookstore might also be going bookless. Despite our latest national fixation with banning disposable plastic bags, nobody knows exactly how the future will be packaged. From an eBook merchandiser’s point of view, the traditional book is the archetype of excess packaging, and the ideas on the page are the only product an ecologically minded consumer should have to purchase. As a wordmonger, I tend to agree, but not entirely.
Like a lot of people, I’ve been thinking that the Earth would be a lot better off without plastic bags. At the time of their appearance in the consumer world, they were touted as cheaper, lighter, more durable and a blessing when it came to saving trees. Now, as is the case with many innovations, the blessing has been transformed into a curse: No matter where you live, plastic bags billow and blow like dried leaves across the landscape or clog up the rivers. Allegedly, 100 billion of them get tossed out annually, a one-use trip from the checkout line to the landfill.
Major cities in the West have taken action to ban the plastic bag, some going so far as to charge shoppers 10 cents and a nasty look if they must beg for paper. Last month, California became the first state to enact a ban.
During disposable-bag debates, I wonder if anyone is talking about the sheer volume of packaging being hauled away inside those plastic and paper hammocks that cradle the products we buy, not to mention the shipping cartons and reams of plastic wrap that arrive by the semi-load at every shopping outlet before the merchandise gets arranged as stock on every American retail shelf.
Yes, there’s plenty of waste to go around, but the burden of it manages to fall, once again, squarely in the shopper’s cart.
I try to remember my reusable bags when I go out. Just like the 15 pairs of reading glasses I tuck into every corner of my house, bags are stuffed all over my vehicle, into the trunk, under the seats and in the glove compartment. I compress them into the tiny pockets of my backpack, bicycle and scooter saddlebags. Yet somehow, inevitably, I sometimes end up standing bagless in the checkout line, forced to accept plastic bags, or if I’m really lucky, increasingly rare paper bags, which come in handy as garbage-can liners.
I’m guessing that this new set of regulations will only prompt human beings to find sneakier ways around them. Some cities that have banned the bag have already reported increases in shoplifting, thanks to the influx of personal reusable sacks in their stores. Sadly, as long as saving money is the bottom line, the planet will never be our No. 1 concern.
As a community, I know we should be more than semi-conscious about the problem, but then again, is anyone keeping track of how many customers reuse or recycle the plastic bags they collect in some form or another? I know we’re offered secondhand bags with every secondhand purchase we make at garage sales and thrift stores. Surely, education and not just banning plastic bags, is key to solving the problem. Or am I a Pollyanna?
Though I may be compost before the average plastic bag breaks down, I can’t help foreseeing a future city or coastline where mounds of tote bags—all discarded—have come to rest. Ah, someone tells me, this is our newest unnatural wonder, the great dunes of our good intentions.
David Feela is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a column service of High Country News.