Paper or Plastic?

27 Apr

I have been a user of canvas bags for as long as I can remember. From the first I became environmentally aware, I brought my own cloth bags to grocery stores. Later, as a business owner, purchasing boxes of bags showed me there were real savings to be had; bags are not cheap. So I never saw how bringing canvas bags to the store should be a seeming endless source of confusion on the part of nearly everyone, except myself.

As a fellow in my early twenties, I would go to Publix with my bags, toss them in the cart as I entered and do my shopping. This rarely ended in simply packing my goods in the bags and leaving. No. That particular chain likes to have bagboys. A sexist term, true, but it sounds better than bagpeople, which brings up images of unshowered unfortunates with rusted carts and thinned frocks with pockets full of cats. The bagboys (and baggirls) range in age from fifteen to one hundred and sixty. They happily pack your defrosting, sweating ice cream next to the soon-to-be soggy cereal for you and don’t like at all if you should pack for yourself. Instead, they insist on having their own people put the milk carton on top of the tomatoes. It is just one of the many courtesies they offer.

Lately, Publix has taken to hiring the developmentally disabled and the packing has much improved.

Still, I prefer to bag the items myself. I can pack them in fewer bags, know what is where, be less grumbly and, as my wife tells the bagpersons, it is just generally safer for them all around.

Approaching the checkout counter with my cart, I’d toss the bags on the conveyor first so the bagperson would see them and know, obviously, where the groceries would go.

“What’s this?” the cashier asks, turning one around, looking for a price on the sack old enough the words are hard to read, seams now only half-sewn.

I would, invariably, inform her it was a bag.

“How much is it?”

“It is nothing. It is old.”

“How do I charge you for it?”

“You don’t. It is a bag. You pack in it”

“Where in the store did you get this?”

“Nowhere in the store. I got it from my truck. I brought it with me. Does it really look new to you? I brought it to pack groceries in.” And she would look at me, turning the bag over again and again as if a tag would appear and make the liar of me. Then, she would toss them to the end of the counter and begin to tally my bill.

Not just Publix, of course. Winn Dixie, Harris Teeter, one Kroger, once, Food Lion, Shopright, Super Foodtown, Kash N’ Karry. South Florida, Central North Carolina, New Jersey.

The bags are in the hands of the bagboy. He also turns them over again and again, pulls them inside out, looking for goodies. He then opens a plastic bag on the frame and tosses my bags inside it, into the bottom, placing the food on top of them as the items pass the scanner. I watch.

Slowly, wide eyed, I ask, “Whachya doin?” the way one talks to a boy who has just put a bit of his anatomy in a lightsocket but you are more concerned with the socket than with him and, in the end, you might just flip the switch on just for the show.


“I can see that. Don’t you think the bags inside the bag might be more effective outside the bag? Perhaps we could put groceries in them?”

“Oh, was I supposed to pack in those?”

“What on Earth did you think they were for?”

“I don’t know. I just packed them.”

“I know. I saw that. Not planning on medical school, are you?” I ask, with stress on each, individual word to assure understanding.


He continues packing anyway.

“Undo it. Put the food in the cloth bag please.”

He scoffs, snarls, sniffs and grudges as he reverses course and out of the plastic bag comes the food and, finally, a clump of cloth.

I watch. He packs the food in the plastic bag again, my cloth ones laying beside it, empty, heaped. As he finishes the bag, he picks the top cloth one from the pile, opens it wide and puts the half-full plastic bag inside.

This is a matter of principle now. I’m not letting this go.

“Can you tell me what is the point in what you just did?”

“You said you wanted it in the cloth bag.”

“Why do I need it in the plastic bag first?

In truth, sometimes I do request an item in plastic. If it looks leaky. If it is wet. I didn’t want to go into that with this fellow. His water seemed muddy enough.

I ask, again, that it be undone. Packed into my re-usable bags.

He does so to a stream of barely audible mutterings. The cloth is still wrinkled and convoluted for all the extra room left by the little in it. He lifts the bag by the handle and, with great difficulty, as I watch, patiently, head cocked to the side like a confused dog, he lowers it into the plastic bag. I have three items inside a cloth sack, inside a plastic bag.

“Ok… I am confused. It must be me because I am not the bag-professional here, (I was a bagboy, truth to tell, but so what? My forte was offering carryout service to old women who had walked from no fewer than half a dozen blocks away. I would be out of the store at least two hours every day. No less. “Carryout is our policy.”) but can you tell me why I need my cloth bag inside a plastic one?”

He said not one word, lifted it out and threw the plastic bag away.

“Nope. My purpose in using cloth bags is to save the plastic and paper. How do I accomplish that if you throw it away?”

“Well, it’s used.”

“What? Is it dirty? It had packages in it just like the next set of packages it could have in it, to go home with the next person in line unless they have cloth bags too. Then you can torture them. At least, you could put it in the recycle bin instead of the garbage.”

I took it from his hand, smoothed it out, put it back on the frame and smiled.

I wish I could say this happened only once.

Sometimes I have fewer bags than I need. Some may be in the laundry or I have purchased more than my bags can handle and I opt for a plastic bag. Often, the bagger will put in one or two items. Why? Do they fight? I’m not saying I am against the separation of hot from cold or chemicals from foods; I am talking about cereal boxes. Surely, this cannot be a weight issue that a bag can hold only a box of Cheerios and a can of tuna. Why do I need to take home scores of bags containing only two items each? And if I ask for the items condensed, again, the bagger takes them out, put them in new bags and attempts to throw the original bags away. Foiled again. Why not throw them out? They are, after all, only a non-renewable resource.

Ah, you say, but some of the bags we use now are made of corn cellulose. Still, while corn is renewable, the fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides used to grow them aren’t. They are petrochemical in origin and none too good for our environment. And even if they weren’t finite, polluting and carcinogenic, why waste a perfectly good bag?

Bag in a bag? Bag my goods and put the bag in a bag? Maybe for an extra heavy item, a sharp one, but I have had a bagger do this with everything.

I once, just once, asked to speak to a store manager. I explained it might be good to tell the bagboys what to do with cloth bags. I asked for a ballpark figure on how much the store would save if bagboys stopped putting one item in a bag, throwing bags away, bagging bags in bags. He admitted it was a goodly sum and had actually looked into it. I asked, why not talk with them?

He explained he had tried once and it just doesn’t work. He shook his head. Indeed, let us continue concentrating on State-wide Highstakes Testing and No Child Left Behind. That way we can have a whole generation of people who can write a mediocre essay under pressure but can’t figure out how to use a cloth bag.

I wish I could say it was just the large, run-of-the-mill stores. I wish I could, but I can’t. I started going to Whole Foods and such places, in part, because they knew what to do with the bags. Or so I thought. I had, not along ago, a long talk with the manager of a Whole Foods on the issue.

I had one item. It was a jug. It had a handle. The employee put it in a bag. Because it was heavy, he then put that bagged jug into another bag. I suggested his employees should know better. I shopped there, in part, because I felt they did.

He said I was wrong and, if I worked there a week, I would swear the environmental movement was doomed by stupidity.

Walgreen’s. I purchase an item. A four pack of cassette tapes. Light. Easy to carry. He places them in a bag.

“I really don’t need that. Thanks.”

“Ok,” he says, taking them out of the bag, balling it up and –

“What are you doing with the bag,” I ask quickly.

He stops. “Why? Do you want it?”


“Ok,” he says, shrugs and reaches under the counter to throw it away.

“Is the bag bad? Is it ruined? Is it being punished? It had cassette tapes in it. Does that mean you can’t use it for the next person? Can you tell me one good reason it should go in the garbage?” Does it have something communicable?

“No.” He is confused.

“Good.” So was I.

I still am.

Do the Earth a favour: bring your own bags. And next time a clerk or bagboy asks you “Paper or Plastic” just point behind him and tell him his mother wants him. Then, while he goes running to find her, bag it yourself.

Happy Earth Day.


Posted by on April 27, 2007 in Culture, Food, Nature, Social


10 responses to “Paper or Plastic?

  1. Indigo Bunting

    April 30, 2007 at 7:35 PM

    This is so sadly, utterly believable. And among the reasons I’m such a bag user. I’m just too freakin’ lazy to fight.I recycle my plastic bags, but hey. I know I’m choosing to think it’s really helpful.

  2. Lupa

    May 2, 2007 at 2:12 AM

    I hear you. I use canvas bags, and while most stores have been good about using them (even giving me my 5 cent discount per bag–woohoo, I’m rich!) occasionally I get weird looks. I’ve never had anyone think they were something I just purchased, though!

  3. Earthpig

    May 3, 2007 at 2:43 AM

    Thank you. I mean that on many levels. First, thank you for trying to help save our planet, I think you are probably doing more than most. Second, thanks for letting us know that we aren’t alone when the bagprofessional gives us that pained expression after we say, “No, I don’t need a bag, I’ll just carry it.” Third, thanks for the laugh, I needed that.

  4. Joyce

    May 9, 2007 at 12:25 AM

    OMG!!!!! I cannot tell you how this reads from actually events in my own life. I mean repeatly. And yes the ” I just packed your stuff in plastic to put it in your cloth bag” so irritates me. Ok I thought I was the only cloth bag freak. Wow Adam, right now I feel closer to you than ever. LMAO!!

  5. FWA Melbourne Writers Group meets the 4th Wednesday of each month at 7PM

    May 9, 2007 at 11:09 AM

    OK, now I’m mad. I did not know we are supposed to get a 5 cent discount for using our own bags! Holy Cow (no, I’m, not Hindu). I’ve gotten the same reactions. They are trained to do things one way and they don’t really know how to work outside their boxes.I’m glad to hear you think the persons with disabilities are an improvement. I worked for ten years , in another state, training those people. They really are great, and they take their jobs very seriously. For this, this is a career improvement to sitting in a day program. For the others, it’s just a link in their chain on their way up – despite the fact that some will never do more than make a lateral move.Thanks for the humor in here.

  6. Susan

    May 14, 2007 at 3:08 PM

    The word is out on your great post, and with good reason. So funny, and so sadly true. I remember those Publix bag boys. But the last time I was in FL I noticed at least half the “boys” were over 65. If that trend continues, the “mother wants you” diversion just won’t work anymore.

  7. Anonymous

    June 13, 2007 at 10:15 PM

    Ah, retail and the bag issue . . . having just ended a 3 1/2 year retail stint, I can speak to some of this. “They are trained to do things one way and they don’t really know how to work outside their boxes.”It’s true, there are a lot of ah, less-than-stellar intellectuals in these jobs(at those wages?!? fer sure!)but let us not forget what the effect (even on someone of reasonable cranial capacity) is of doing something the same way 500, 1000, 2000 times (in a hurry, so you don’t hold up the line). Let us also not forget store policy (frequently handed down from Higher Powers who don’t have to cope with implementing it). In my store, there was a war being waged on shoplifting that included putting EVERYTHING in a bag, to help prove it had been paid for (so as not to cue the security guard to follow innocent customers out the door). It pained me to put small items in bags (over the customers’ protests) but this practice was emphatically NOT left to my discretion.

  8. effex

    August 2, 2007 at 3:31 PM

    That’s was a great read. I used to be a bagger at Publix back when I was 16/17, some of the policies are ridiculous and no one accounts for the situation. The way we had to bag bugged the hell out of me.The reason they put so few items in a bag is because if the bags are packed to heavily the elderly customers will complain they’re to heavy.When double bagging is concerned what I love is the bagger that puts one bag in another and pushed down the inner bag’s handles. I’ve tried more than once to explain to them how in order for both bags to support the contents your hand has to grasp all 4 handles otherwise the internal bag is useless. I don’t know if it’s that the baggers are unintelligent so much as it’s their will has been broken by the tedious work, low pay and horrible a side not Publix now sells reusable bags for $1.50 each. they’re small, green and made out of some thin plastic synthetic fiber.- ray

  9. thentorisaidd

    August 14, 2007 at 10:00 PM

    I love this one. Funny stuff, sir. And very true. :]And yes! I shall tell everyone now! Horray.

  10. Terence

    September 6, 2010 at 7:38 PM

    I've always actually preferred baggers, to be honest, but I understand your angst. My favorite part of the experience up here comes from the cashier. "How many bags did you use?" she asks, so she can tally the discount my local chain offers per bag. It's a tricky question, since I don't take a bag census and I didn't bag the groceries.


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