paper or plastic?


When I lived in France for a couple of years when I was growing up, people generally never got bags with purchases. Sometimes you even had to pay extra to get a bag at the grocery store. People would instead bring their own baskets or bags. Oftentimes, string bags. These really cool, very expandable bags made of a string mesh. They could fit tons of groceries. Well, if not tons, a lot more weight than you’d expect. And certainly a lot more weight than the flimsy plastic grocery bags.

When I saw string bags available for sale at a large health-food oriented grocery store in a nearby town, I was very excited. I bought some.

I was quite pleased with myself, and my new motivation to conserve and reduce waste. Whenever we’d go shopping at that granola store, when we’d get to the checkout counter and they’d ask the big question, “paper or plastic?”, I’d cheerfully answer, “string!” They always took it in stride. Lots of customers were starting to bring their own bags. Not the majority, but I’d look around and see a goodly number of others. After all, this was a store that really marketed environmentalism. They even gave a discount for bringing bags.

But for some reason, going to the closer-to-home (and cheaper) white-bread supermarket felt like going to a different world. Believe it or not, I had to work myself up to bringing out my bags.

I’m a funny bundle of insecurities. One thing about me is that I don’t like to stand out. I like to blend into the crowd. It feels safer. I was never popular through highschool, and was decidedly unpopular in junior high school. I was quiet, shy. Different. I moved around a lot growing up. That was part of what made me different. I was an outsider. And I was also a smart kid. Worse, a smart girl. Social death.

I learned to fade into the background whenever I could. Because in my experience, attention from my peers was usually negative attention. I got picked on. Teased. Ostracized. Occasionally even threatened.

So when I’d go to the white-bread supermarket in this nearby rural Massachusetts town, I’d often feel like I was back in high school. Showing up from out of town in a new school. Seeing what all the other kids were doing. Trying to stay out of their way. Trying not to get noticed. And nobody, I mean nobody, was bringing bags. People were into their disposable bags. “Pack them light,” they’d say. “I don’t want them breaking.” This was the norm.

My first step was to start letting the bagger know I didn’t need many bags. They could leave the big items out of the bags.

“Don’t you want the big bottles in bags? I could double bag them.”

“No thanks,” I’d say. And I’d cringe when they’d still give me a bag for a single loaf of bread or a bottle of shampoo (“to keep it separate”), a dozen bags for a fairly moderate purchase. I’d feel disappointed with myself, unpacking the groceries, and adding the latest wads of bags to the ever-growing stash of plastic bags to reuse.

So I made the leap. One day, I brought out the bags at my white-bread supermarket. And when the bagger asked “paper or plastic,” I explained that I didn’t need either. I had my own bags. I mean, I really had to explain. A pioneer.

It’s been a few years now that I’ve been bringing out the string at my local supermarket. And it’s gotten easier. Some of the cashiers and baggers occasionally don’t even seem surprised when I bring them out. I’d like to think that someone else out there also brings their own bags. Maybe. I’ve actually never seen anyone else.

The funny thing is, I feel like using the string bags does a lot more good than the plastic or paper it saves. It’s been part of finding my voice. I’m making a choice to reduce waste that people can see, that others can notice. And they do notice. The cashiers, the baggers, and the sometimes even the other customers.

And what’s really made me think lately is that this step I’ve made has made it easier for me to take other steps in reducing waste. I notice more when I make wasteful consumer choices. I notice more when I buy products with excess packaging. And I start changing my buying habits.

Then I’ve noticed other ways that I have been allowing wastefulness to happen in my life, in our house. The piles of junk mail. Those catalogs I never look at that usually go right into the recyclables bag. I made the step to call some of the catalog companies, and have them take me off their mailing list. It was liberating. I use fewer household disposables. I’m not perfect, by any means. But I’ve reduced. And each reduction has been a little bit easier.

Taking this one tiny little step has made me think.

And this thinking has me thinking. That in the fight for making change in the world, we can focus on the small things as well as the big. The small battles are worth fighting, too. Those small actions can create ripples of change.

6 thoughts on “paper or plastic?

  1. I like your theme of finding your voice, and I agree that small actions can have a ripple effect and are worth it.

    Have you read “Millions” by Frank Cottrell Boyce? I just re-read it, and one of the themes is exactly that– not being discouraged when big, sweeping changes seem impossible, because small things can make a big difference. It’s about lots of other stuff too- I highly recommend it. It’s one of those kids books which is really for adults. If I had written a list of my favorite books like you asked for a while back, Millions would have been on the list.

    (this comment certified “brief and rant-free” by the Committee for Brief and Rant-free Comments, which has been alerted to recent violations of CBRFC standards on the part of this commenter)

  2. It’s really wonderful that you’re making these changes in your life, that you are finding your voice. Middle school and high school can be so oppressive- that whole fitting in, wanting to be popular must make the majority of people cringe in thinking about their own experiences. Even in medical school I was downplaying the grades or exam scores I got.

    Why does being a smart girl have so many negative connotations? I wonder if it’s the same way in private schools? (public school product speaking)

    I try not to be wasteful, but I could definitely learn from you.

  3. Amen. We were just talking about this yesterday, the small yet big ways we can change our habits and have a small impact. we’ve been changing out our lightbulbs. It’s small. It’s something.

    TIME mag has a feature on this in this week’s mag. Plastic bags are featured, and the impact matters. Your impact matters.

  4. bs-
    Thanks for the encouragement. And the tip about Millions. I should check into it. (And I’m glad the CBRFC citation hasn’t kept you from commenting!)

    kc-
    Yes, those were oppressive years. Sad thing is, I never tried to be popular, just not to be harassed! I did actually attend a couple of schools where it wasn’t so bad to be smart, one public (in Northern California) and one private (in Paris, France). Both were very college prep oriented. I mean, it wasn’t so bad as long as you didn’t mind the never getting a date or being invited to social events…But at least there were plenty of others in the same boat.
    As for the wastefulness–I’m trying to learn, too.

    jen-
    Cool. I must have somehow psychically tapped into that. (Haven’t actually seen the magazine for a while.) It’s nice to know that even the little bits matter. And we just tried some new lightbulbs, too.

  5. With the small changes you’ve exactly tapped into my reasons for starting my Global Warming Wednesday series. I’m so tempted to fall into the “Why should I try? Nothing I do will be enough!” trap (and do at times), but I also feel that if everyone would make some changes, it would add up to something significant. Not necessarily enough to make the difference we need, but you’re also right that each small change makes the next one easier–so maybe that will get us closer to the goal.

  6. Mouse-
    Thanks for coming by. I so well know that trap. But having others trying to avoid the trap, too, makes it just a little bit easier. Here’s hoping we’ll keep moving in the right direction.

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