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.