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Ralph Gardner Jr: Bring Your Own Bag

Plastic shopping bags caught in trees along Central Avenue in Albany, New York.
Dave Lucas
Plastic shopping bags caught in trees along Central Avenue in Albany, New York.

Dealing with guilt can be a long drawn out affair, occasionally requiring professional assistance. So when government steps in to help address the issue you’ve got to give them credit. The guilt I’m referring to is using flimsy single-use plastic bags, the kind that end up in trees and whale bellies and are used over 23 billion, yes billion, times a year in New York State alone.

Come March 1st such bags will be banned. That means that if you go to the supermarket and aren’t wearing a garment with extra large pockets or if you buy more than you can clutch in your hands you better bring a reusable bag. Or purchase one there. Paper bags may be for sale for a nickel but they create their own waste stream.

My family and I have been on this anti-plastic bag bandwagon for a while, led by my environmentally hyper-conscious older daughter who has guilted me into not even using the plastic baggies provided for bulk produce, in addition to those supplied at the checkout counter. She’s even made me feel like a bad person for buying onions or oranges sold in those disposable net bags.

On a recent trip to the Caribbean she spent time gathering and bagging garbage on the beach, which I admire. I’ve long subscribed to the notion that you should leave no sign you were ever there when you go into nature. The easiest way to do that is to depart with one more piece of trash than you arrived with.

Europe has been charging for plastic bags for years. No one complains and most people bring their own. But America isn’t Europe and it’s unlikely we’ll change our behavior unless there’s a financial incentive, or penalty, no matter how modest.

The problem with bringing your own is that reusable bags have a maddening habit of vanishing. A California cousin suggested one amass a huge collection – preferably heavy duty plastic or washable cloth bags – and keep them in the trunk of your car at all times.

That sounded like a good idea to me. But whether I carry one bag or twenty they still seem to disappear sooner or later. It’s not dissimilar to the strange way umbrellas have of going missing.

Also, and I’m not sure to what extent this applies to anybody else, I become attached to particular reusable bags, either because they’re efficient – strong yet light enough that you can pack them in your pocket, or because they’re attractive, or because they provoke pleasant memories of the place where I acquired them.

At the risk of sounding pretentious – scratch that; I mean Warning: I’m going to sound really pretentious here – I enjoy picking up bags on my travels and bringing them home.

Recent additions to my collection include a reusable green bag bearing the logo of the Rite Way supermarket chain in the British Virgin Islands and a handsome beige and brown bag from Le Bon Marché, the mother of all Parisian food emporiums. (Come to think of it I haven’t seen that bag lately.)

Leave it to the French to design an attractive reusable bag. It’s probably only a matter of time until some of them become status symbols. There’s probably already a reusable Hermes shopping bag, costing an arm and a leg, in the works.

However, the problem with becoming unnaturally attached to your favorite reusable bag is that when they disappear as they inevitably do you find yourself mildly bereft. There’s so much in this world to break your heart. Do we really need to add one more thing?

But even worse is to arrive at the supermarket and to find the trunk of your car, filled with reusable bags the last time you checked, without a single one remaining. What I’ve discovered is that the only way to have them at the ready is to return them to the front door or better yet your vehicle immediately after they’ve carried your groceries into the house. However, this requires a degree of compulsiveness that some of us, for example my wife, don’t possess.

The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation website seconds me on this, offering helpful hints such as leaving your bags by the front door or in your coat closet so you don’t forget them on the way out. They also suggest clipping a reusable bag to your purse, if you happen to carry a purse.

So now in addition to your keys and wallet you’re supposed to remember to bring along a bag since not just grocery stores but any merchant required to collect New York State sales tax will be banned from distributing single-use bags.

And there’s one more issue. To describe them as single-use bags may be a mistake. At our home they did double duty as garbage bags, food storage bags, and a dozen other useful things. I miss them already.

Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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