The Plastic Bag Paradox

Going green — By Roberta on January 30, 2009 at 8:47 am
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Plastic is sooooo Yesterday

No plastic bags for me at the supermarket. I’m totally into green psychology.  I know that plastic is made from petroleum and that the petroleum used to make 14 supermarket plastic bags could power a car for one mile.  I know too, that plastic bags clog everything from sewer drains to bird gullets all over the world and that plastic is forever in trash heaps and landfills. I’m a motivated, green shopper dedicated to doing my part to save the planet. But I am also part of the great plastic bag paradox.

I own six capacious cloth bags and I try to keep at least one or two in my car at all times. Here’s what happens more often than not.  I go off to the supermarket for a big shop. ” Paper or plastic? ” they ask me at check-out. “Neither” I proudly reply, placing my six cloth bags on the counter. All goes well.  I collect my five cent per bag rebate and carry my groceries home feeling virtuous and thrifty.

Here is My Problem:

I unload the groceries and put away the food. Now those cloth bags are empty and inside my house and here is the paradox. You would think that as a committed green consumer, I would run right out and put them back in my car.  I don’t. I’m too lazy. I get busy doing other things and just might make three or four trips to the grocery store without them, and carry home my groceries in-I hate to say it-plastic bags.

2732451725 5b0935be7f m  The Plastic Bag Paradox I know I am not alone.  The world is full of green mommies who haven’t switched to cloth diapers and green commuters who don’t ride their bikes to work.  I have friends who keep insisting they are going to give up paper napkins, install solar panels, lower their thermostats, insulate their attics, replace incandescent light bulbs with energy efficient ones, and a host of other things. It doesn’t get done because there is no personal, immediate reward for changing behavior. The carrot approach just isn’t working fast enough. It’s time to get out the sticks.

Problem Solved:

Let’s  apply some green psychology to the plastic bag paradox. If the supermarket charged me a dollar per bag for every plastic bag I used and gave me a dollar for every cloth bag of my own I brought to the store, I think my memory would improve.  You bet I’d remember to put those cloth bags back in the car and use them every time I shopped.  The supermarket would at least break even on the deal, and might even make a little money. I’d use fewer plastic bags and the world would be a better place. It’s worth a try don’t you think?

I’m going to talk to my local supermarket about it. Why don’t you?

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  1. Maria says:

    Our grocery store was giving out little cling stickers that said “remember your bags” that you can put on your car windshield. Of course, that still didn’t work for me! What has worked is stuffing all of the reusable bags into the largest bag after I put the groceries away, and then hanging the bag by the front door. That way I can’t walk out the door without seeing them!

  2. Robert K says:

    Your solution is intriguing but it suffers from the basic problem of, “somebody is picking up the cost”. If a consumer forgets to bring bags, it makes their groceries more expensive. For users who bring their own bags, it either costs the store money (via your proposed discount) or they have to raise the cost of other goods to compensate. At best it’s a zero-sum gain and unless all of a store’s competitors are also doing this, it puts them at a competitive disadvantage. It’s gonna be a hard sell.

    … which leads to some sort of government imposed system. But will voters really go for that? Dunno. I suppose you could have some sort of bottle-refund type thing, but I’m having a hard time thinking of a program that would be effective.

    … or stores could just stop offering plastic bags and only use paper.

    … or stores could just make it easier for people to reuse the other bags people have brought in. E.g. At the front of Safeway, there’s a bin where you can return shopping bags to be recycled. If those were brought to the checkout stands the bag-boy/girl could say, “paper, platic, or reused?”, instead of just “paper or plastic?”

    This latter idea seems the most practical and efficient. Sure, you might forget your bags, but knowing they can be reused you’ll probably eventually get them back to the store. In the meantime, you can use the bags other people bring back.

  3. Roberta says:

    Thank you, Maria for that good idea. I’ll try it:-)

    And Robert, I like the idea of “paper plastic or used’. As for my solution to the plastic bag paradox– well we have got to try something as what we are doing now just isn’t working. When you hit people in their pocketbooks you get their attention. Nobody thought deposits on aluminum cans would work in the ’70′s–but it does.

  4. Hey doesn’t Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods or both do something like you have proposed at maybe a 20 cent level and offer to have you contribute it to charity? At least they are doing the positive reinforcement side, I believe. Check it out. I’m pretty sure Whole Foods in Bend does this.

    Love your site and your premise!


  5. Roberta says:

    Don’t know about Trader Joe;s, but Whole Foods gives you five cents per cloth bag. I think if they raised the ante to 50cents or $1.00 per bag and covered that cost by charging $1.00 for every plastic bag you used, people would change pretty quickly– enlightened self interest, dontchaknow:-) Glad you like the site and thanks for the comment.

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