COLUMN: A new trend is in the bag

A few months ago, I brought a couple cloth shopping bags to the local produce shop.

Surveying the heaping basket of fruit and veggies on the counter, the woman at the till weighed a few bell peppers on the scale, pulled them off and was about to drop them in her at-the-ready plastic bag holder.

“Hang on,” I said, holding up the re-useable bags, a tad sheepishly. “I’ve got these.”

She eyed the bags, hesitated a second, then appeared to have recalled a painful memory. Her nose crinkled, mouth puckered and there was a faint sucking sound as she thrust her arm out to snatch the bags away.

Her comfortable routine had been disrupted.

It got better though with future visits. The crinkling, puckering and sucking dropped off, and I grew more bold, proffering my bags the moment I reached the till.

I still forget the cloth carriers most of the time when I’m shopping for other things, but little by little, it’s becoming a habit.

And no doubt, my friend at the market is getting used to the growing number of customers with custom-packing needs. Indeed, plastic bags haven’t really been around that long, and some people never gave up re-useable bags when they were introduced in the 1970s.

And they didn’t necessarily dominate right away. For many years, the question before “cash or charge?” was always “paper or plastic?”

But in the past decade, plastic hasn’t just replaced cash – it’s almost completely replaced paper bags, too.

And now, with the awareness we are producing between 500 billion and a trillion bags annually worldwide (no kidding), and that they are clogging drains, leaching toxic chemicals into the soil and washing garbage up on the shores of desert islands and Antarctica – the plastic has finally hit the pavement.

Cloth bags still aren’t the norm, of course, but more and more, alternatives to plastic bags – including biodegradeable versions –are cropping up.

Shoppers are shunning conventional plastic bags, some shops are ditching them, and some cities are even banning them – most notably, San Francisco. In that city, an ordinance went into effect last month requiring all large grocery store and pharmacies grossing more than $2 million annually to offer only bags made from corn or potato starch, or paper bags of high percentage post-consumer materials.

It wouldn’t be surprising if some communities in Metro Vancouver follow suit.

That is, if retailers don’t beat them to it.

Just last week, the two Burnaby Choices Markets held a promotion to get people using more cloth bags. Most Safeway stores have offered plastic bag recycling for years. As well, Superstore has been pushing its cloth bags and “bin shopping” purple tubs as alternatives to disposable polyethylene. In fact, among major grocery retailers in Canada, Superstore’s parent company, Loblaws, seems ahead of the curve, pledging to divert one billion plastic bags from the landfill within one year. This is being done through recycling programs and promoting re-useable bags and containers. And last month, its new Langford location on Vancouver Island became the first major grocery retailer in B.C. to go plastic-bag free.

Environmentally speaking, we’ve still got much to do. But it’s impressive how quickly people are jumping on board.

Despite everyone kicking them around these days, plastic bags do have a certain charm. The 1999 Academy Award-winning film American Beauty featured a scene in which an aspiring videographer shares footage of a bag floating in the wind.

It takes on a surprising eloquence, a sort of metaphor for the beauty in everyday mundane things.

As it floats up on a gust of wind, drops, and twists, it appears to dance on invisible legs.

A solitary bag might be quite nice. But 500 billion a year? Too much of a good thing.

Chris Bryan is acting editor of the Burnaby-New Westminster NewsLeader.


Chris Bryan

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