Friday, September 3, 2010

Still Life With Robin: Bag Estimation, My Newest Life Skill

by Peggy Robin

Since January 1, 2010 I have been carrying eight reusable grocery bags around in the trunk of my car. Now whenever I go grocery shopping, before I enter the store, I need to look over my shopping list and estimate how many bags I’m likely to fill if I find everything on my list. (As you know from my column of August 20, I don’t do well unless I have a list.)

The new law has had exactly its intended effect on me. I am making my best effort to avoid the use of plastic bags. It’s not the nickel charge per bag that spurs me on -- if I use as many as ten plastic bags in a single shopping trip, that’s all of fifty cents. No, for me the point is that we've become a society concerned enough about the environment to have laws that encourage the reusable over the disposable, and I like to think I'm the kind of person who observes the spirit, rather than just the letter of the law. Even if I paid the price for using plastic, that still leaves a larger carbon footprint than if I bring my own bags to the store. So now I always have bags with me in my car.

The problem is: How do I know how many to bring into the store with me? It took me maybe two months of shopping to get a feel for it, but now I’m proud to say, this is something I excel at. I hit it right on the money perhaps as much as 75 percent of the time. Now I love that feeling at the checkout when I bring in five bags and find that my shopping items fill that fifth bag just to the top, not a smidge over. About fifteen percent of the time I overestimate, and end up bringing an empty cloth bag back to the car. That’s annoying but on such a low scale I probably shouldn’t even be mentioning it.

It’s the other ten percent of the time that presents something of a dilemma. If I peg the number of bags I’ll need at, say, four, but I end up seeing some great special -- the cereal I like for half-off but the catch is you have to buy six boxes -- then I’ll need more bags. Now this could go either of two ways: I can run back to the car in the parking lot and bring back a few more bags, or I can simply request some plastic or paper bags at a nickel each.

For some silly reason, I feel like I’ve lost at this game when if I must confess to the checker the need to buy a bag or two. Better to go back and fetch the bags. But if I’m finishing up a big shopping expedition, it kills the rhythm of the trip to run back to the parking lot at that part of the process. The only way this can have satisfying ending is if I happen to have one of my teenagers with me. Then I delegate the running part to the kid, who can’t complain about either the exercise or the purpose of the run. My kids remind me daily how much more environmentally aware they are than I am. I let them prove it by becoming the cloth bag go-fers.

If I don’t happen to have a teenager with me, however, I am likely to find a third way to solve the problem: I will restrict myself to the amount of shopping that I know will fit inside the number of bags I’ve brought into the store. So here is yet another hidden advantage to the plastic bag tax: It actually has the effect (on me, at least) of discouraging impulse buying. I bet that’s an argument no one made when the bag tax was being debated!

I know many DC residents are still unconvinced of the merits of this or any of the other arguments in support of the bag tax. I’ve even read comments on the Cleveland Park Listserv by shoppers who say they’d rather drive to Maryland or Virginia where bags are free than spend an extra dollar or two on bags, or bother about bringing their own. Of course, it surely costs more than a buck in gas to go to the suburbs and back. On top of that, Virginia slaps a sales tax on food items which are tax free in the District, so there’s no question that you’ll pay more to cross the river to buy groceries -- even if the bags are free.

Whether you like or dislike shopping with reusable bags, I think you’ll get a laugh out of this short mock-umentary narrated by Jeremy Irons about the place of plastic bags in the environment.

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