Once again, California leads the way


It irks me no end. California, and more specifically, San Francisco, is once again ahead of the cultural curve. The state that brought us hippies, gay marriage and the "governator" is proposing a revolutionary, albeit pragmatic and simple, answer to the paper vs. plastic-bag quandary at check-out counters.

"Paper or plastic?" It’s the fundamental question of our shopping era. The stuff of silly television commercials, talk-show monologues and environmental arguments.

Slay a tree or add to the wildlife-choking, landfill-glutting, oil-industry-fueling juggernaut? It’s a rock-and-hard-place ethical dilemma on a landscape littered with them.

Which car do I drive, and how many? Push mower vs. power? Live in town or commute from the country? Water the Kentucky bluegrass or plant some sage and rocks? Accept organic-sticker shock or buy cheaper and maybe toxic?

But it's that bag dilemma from K-Mart to Safeway that epitomizes the how-do-I-live-responsibly, and the how-can-we-cope-with-how-we-live conundrum. Problem is, we make the choice more difficult than it needs to be, because the answer is very clear if you think about it for more than two minutes: Neither.

San Francisco officials are considering charging consumers 17 cents every time they check out with a shopping bag supplied by the store. While the rest of the country obsesses over who can go to bed together and whether a woman must bear an unwanted child, folks on the bay are coping with some real issues. Hit us in the pocketbook, they say.

The idea is simple. Every time you buy a razor or toothpaste or sandwich, already packaged to the hilt, residents will ante up for the superfluous bag, or choose not to bother. Just maybe, just as we all should have been doing right along, consumers will get in the habit of bringing their own bags.

In San Francisco alone, customers tote home 50 million bags every year, which adds up to an annual cleanup cost at the dump of $8.4 million. And that doesn't factor in the other environmental costs of those seemingly indestructible plastic sacks.

"We need to change people's patterns," says incoming City Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi.

I admit that this change in habit took me awhile. Some years back, I started amassing a collection of canvas tote bags — gifts, convention center giveaways, library book bags, souvenirs. It wasn't long before my family had half a dozen or more. But though we hung them conveniently on a hook by the back door, I repeatedly found myself bagless in the grocery store.

It took 15 or 20 of these little confrontations with ingrained habit before I started to grab bags on the way to wherever my shopping needs took me. It's gotten to the point that I can't find a paper or plastic bag around the house when I need to line a garbage can. Plastic bags still arrive in quantity with loaves of bread and other products, but at least I'm free of the cheap, awkward and flimsy brand favored by grocery and discount stores. Canvas bags also never break, no matter how many cans you fill them with, and they come in handy on almost a daily basis for trips to the pool or gym or picnic site.

Perhaps, in San Francisco, there will be some habit changes on the other side of the checkout counter. With money involved, cashiers will be more likely to ask whether a bag is necessary. Do you really need a bag to carry that toothbrush all the way to the parking lot?

Perhaps, too, cashiers will have the temerity to suggest that if people are outraged, they should bring their own next time. And maybe, across the panorama of environmental issues from water use to subdivision sprawl to gas guzzlers, we'll recognize that a stiff uppercut to the pocketbook is the most effective way to change destructive habits. What's even more motivating, San Franciscans will gain the smug right to boast that because of them, there is less plastic blowing around the landscape, throttling wildlife, eddying at sea and reminding us of our profligate ways.

Admit it, it’s time to jump on the bandwagon, or endure the intolerable self-righteousness emanating from California.

Alan Kesselheim is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He writes and shops in Bozeman, Montana.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].