My local rulers recently banned the use of disposable plastic shopping bags. Their stated goal was to promote the use of reusable bags and probably something about the environment.1
I was unhappy about this. I’m usually unhappy when technocracy rears its ugly, empty head, but above and beyond that, this has make my life worse in a few small but noticeable ways.
First, trash bags. I live alone and don’t generate a lot of trash, so standard plastic shopping bags were just the right size. They worked well enough that I went through most of my adult life not having to buy trash bags. I don’t currently generate a lot of wet trash, so the paper bags sort of get the job done… but not as well, and if my diet changes to include more produce and/or home cooking again…
Soeaking of wetness: I do a bit of shopping at the two convenience stores that are within a half hour’s walk. Previously this was just a chance to get a little exercise; now, I have to check the weather first, because a passing rain shower might make a paper bag disintegrate when I’m halfway home. And fall is a rainy time of year.
For the first few months, I had to be equally careful about buying refrigerated or frozen food, because of condensation. Winter will be hit or miss: snow won’t be nearly as much of a problem as rain, as long as I don’t go anywhere it’ll melt before I get home and empty the bag.
Oh, and low-end paper bags tend not to have handles, so they’re harder to carry.
Then there’s the bag fee. Until just recently, I was cash-poor enough that I noticed the five-cent minimum price of a paper bag. I’ve seen one business charge ten cents and heard a rumor about another that charged a dollar per bag to further encourage (and probably sell) reusable tote bags; if I ever find that business the hard way, I’ll probably have to cancel the transaction that led me there and walk out.2
A couple stores – or at least the cashiers I’ve dealt with there – have gotten in the habit of forgetting to charge bag fees. A few other stores, though, have gotten out of the bag business entirely; if you don’t have a reusable with you, then you shouldn’t buy more there than you can carry without one.
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The obvious response – “just buy reusable bags, dumbass” – doesn’t really work for me, even now that I can actually afford to. I walk most everywhere, because of that exercise I mentioned3 and because, more often than not, walking is at least as fast and convenient as public transit. And I don’t do the stereotypical one shopping trip a week, but several. And I don’t often plan shopping trips out in advance, because my nebulous work schedule doesn’t allow me to plan anything more than a few days in advance.
So picture me walking around town with a couple tote bags stuffed into my jacket pockets. No big deal, right?
While you’re thinking that, think about the kind of tote bags you’ve seen for sale in grocery stores recently. They aren’t built to be wadded up in a pocket.4 They’re big, bulky canvas things that are meant to be tossed in a back seat or permanently stored in the trunk of someone’s car.
Because of those stores that stopped using disposable bags entirely, I had no choice. I’m now in the habit carrying a shoulder bag everywhere I go, whether I think I’ll need it or not, just in case.
I don’t exactly enjoy being shackled to the thing, but I also wouldn’t enjoy carrying a sandwich, a half-gallon of milk, and a bag of chips home from the store in my bare hands if I decide to stop at the corner store on my way home from work, nor do I want to reorganize the parts of my routine I can actually control (looking at you yet again, work schedule) around the deliberately difficult logistics of shopping.
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None of this matters, though.
It doesn’t matter that I was already reusing the plastic bags and thus reducing my need for trash bags; only conspicuous and centrally-directed reduction and reuse matters. It doesn’t matter that food and other merchandise is now slightly more expensive and buying it is moderately more logistically complicated; from my rulers’ perspective, that’s probably a plus, and even if it isn’t, my money, time, and stress are a small price for them to pay to feel like they’re Doing Something.
And it doesn’t matter because, if you look at any one of these problems, it’s small, If you look at a few of them at a time, they’re still small. And very rarely do we add up how many small problems like this we inflict on ourselves, how much they add up to, and how little we get in return.
- The news coverage I saw at the time the ban took effect didn’t mention a rationale for it, instead presenting it as a settled fact that we should all just get used to. Debates elsewhere about banning disposable plastics, though, have claimed that replacing plastic in the “waste stream” with something that decomposes faster is just sensible.
Eaactly why it’s sensible to replace plastic waste with paper, though, when (1) readable century-old newspapers have been recovered from landfills and (2) we’re all supposed to be doomed in 20 years from climate change, is usually left as an exercise for the imagination.
- I’ve also seen stores post notices about how they’ll happily use a customer’s “clean” reusable bags, which, while reasonable at first glance, could be another vector for chicanery. If a store’s management wants to increase reusable sales, they can “suggest” to their employees that other stores’ bags or unbranded bags are less likely to be clean.
- Some men exercise as a hobby, to impress people, or to build up their physical prowess for some other purpose (sports, for instance). I exercise defensively; I’m old enough now that “use it or lose it” is a very real concern.
- I once bought a tote bag that could be wadded up in a coat pocket, a tough little nylon-mesh thing that I got ten years’ use out of. Unfortunately, I bought it about fifteen years ago, and I haven’t seen one like it for sale this year.