Paper or Plastic

, Tuesday, February 5, 2008

I've always thought that the hardest part of grocery shopping comes at the end. Maybe that's just the exhaustion from all of the accumulated effort of planning meals, compiling a list, and shopping for the items.

When Elizabeth was a baby I used to shop with her hanging off the front of my body in one of those fabric baby carrier things.  One time as I was getting in line to pay, I realized that I had forgotten my checkbook. Back then grocery stores didn't take credit cards, so I had to leave my basket, pack the baby back into the car seat, drive back home, run in for my checkbook (do I leave the baby in the car, or take her in with me?), and get back to the store before my frozen food melted or the clerks put the food away. My cart was still waiting when I got back, and as I entered the line I heard an announcement over the loudspeaker; "Congratulations to the customer who is just entering line 3, you have won a free basket of groceries!" I was that lucky customer and I thought, "How ironic that I don't even need my checkbook anymore."

But they didn't mean that the grocery basket full of food I had selected for myself was free; what they meant was that they had their own selection of generic pork 'n bean, styrofoam-looking bread and nearly outdated food that was going to end up in the dumpster that night if they hadn't decided to make a fanfare out of giving it away.

By the time I get home I'll have moved each item more than half a dozen times - from shelf to cart, cart to belt, belt to bag, bag to cart, cart to trunk, trunk to floor, floor to counter and finally counter to cabinet or fridge. I've already decided whether to buy the regular bananas or organic, regular eggs or free range; I've compared name brand with generic, looked for sales, contemplated whether the item listed as "2 for $3.99" will be $2 if I only buy a single, and by the time I reach the checkout I'm tired of making decisions.

I miss the good ol' days when they bagged your groceries for you, no questions asked. But these days they have to give you one more choice; "Do you want paper or plastic." I always want to say, "Just stick it in a bag however it makes sense to you." But usually I act contemplative by taking a moment to decide and reply, "Plastic is good." I want the checker to think I made a good decision. 

Tonight I had a glimpse of those days when the checker never asked. The bagger put some things in paper, and some things in plastic, which is the way I think it should be done anyway but I'm never given that option. Relieving me of my decision making was liberating, and I had extra brain power to be witty with the bagger. "Do you work out at the Y," she asked? "No," I answered, "but if you saw somebody really buff there I can see why you were confused."

How are we supposed to make an informed decision about bagging, anyway? I don't know how much energy it takes to make a paper bag versus a plastic one. I don't know which is more recyclable. Thankfully, I've stumbled onto a list of relevant questions to help me make a more informed decision:

  1. Which bag is approved by an official council?
  2. Which bag is safe for infants and children?
  3. How many items can I put in each bag?
  4. Which bag comes with clear instructions for use?
  5. Which bag is handcrafted with pride?

If the bagger gets irritated by these questions, I can just point to the bottom of the bags, where the answers are clearly printed. Then we can both make a more informed decision.


  1. Margaret said...

    I read that plastic bags are called Africa's national flower, because there are so many blowing around. . .

    One time, a clerk at Barnes & Noble asked me if I wanted a bag, or if I wanted to "go green". I told her we have a dog, and can use every plastic bag we can get. She looked at me blankly.

  2. M3 Pilot said...

    I noticed something funny about the paper bags. The one photo shows stamps reading, "Made with pride by Sheila Smith" and Made with Pride by J. Guerrero."

    Begs the question, "How many people does it take to make a plastic bag?" Apparently more than it takes to change a light bulb - at least at our house.

    And if the bag fails, who do you blame - Sheila or her co-worker?

    And why does "J" not give their full name? Are they worried about identity theft? Worried that an angry shopper with a busted bag will hunt them down and threaten revenge?

    I wonder if there's such a thing as angry shopper insurance...

    Casts a whole different light on check-out lines.

  3. Claire said...

    You should say something about holding the paper bag with both handles. : )

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