Reusable bags: A wife's tale

  • Article by: LAURA REILEY , Tampa Bay Times
  • Updated: February 3, 2014 - 6:39 PM

‘Paper or plastic’ is really no choice at all — but try telling that to a reluctant spouse. Will a little hard data help?

Creationism or Darwinism? Either way, the original marital dispute was about groceries.

Eve says to Adam: “Eat it. You need more fruit in your diet.” Or Homo erectus lurches out of the cave 1.8 million years ago until his female companion pads to the cave opening to yell after him, “Ook ook.”

Which, of course, translates as: “Don’t forget the bags.”

Men don’t like reusable bags. It could be because Judas Iscariot is said to have worn a purse or because Freud had all kinds of smutty interpretations of women’s handbags. Either way, my husband isn’t going anywhere near a “murse.” Nor, by extension, the dozens of reusable grocery bags I’ve placed within arm’s reach of his car door.

It’s biology. The hunters went out, killed something big and dragged it back. The gatherers, on the other hand, had to do a little advance planning with receptacles. Nuts and berries needed to be corralled. It doesn’t help that eventually those nuts and berries became lip gloss, Altoids and dry-cleaning receipts.

But we still need to gather the nuts (especially the bulk almonds, because they are a mondo superfood).

My husband’s preferred style: Return from the grocery store with fistfuls of plastic bags that — when wadded up and stuffed into one bag — equal a giant beach ball of shame. Only its worse, because it’s a giant beach ball filled with other beach balls, each of which will clog the landfill for at least a quadrillion years.

When I’ve explained this, I’ve gotten my husband’s patented middle-distance stare, which signals extreme not-listening.

Grocery stores and municipalities around the country have debated whether to use the carrot or the stick about the bags. Some prohibit single-use plastic bags entirely, some attach a fee to such bags and some give you a little something back for bringing your own bag from home.

While I can imagine using the carrot or the stick, but definitely the stick with my husband, hard data seem to work best. So I ran some numbers in the hope of making him feel bad — and maybe even showing him that he’s part of the problem.

Turns out, fewer than 10 percent of plastic bags get recycled. If added to other plastics in a curbside bin, they tend to jam sorting machines, so facilities often reject them. And because they are often contaminated with food or pet waste, most of the world’s estimated 1 trillion plastic bags are incinerated or shipped to a landfill. Plus, these things are so aerodynamic that they tend to get lifted up on the wind and enter our marine environment, choking wildlife. (You can, of course, bring them back to the bin outside the grocer.)

Maybe I should get my husband at least to switch to paper, the bags that dominated in the 1970s before every bagger murmured “paperorplastic?” Trees are a renewable resource, so maybe paper bags aren’t so bad.

Nope, they’re bad, too. One thousand paper bags weigh 140 pounds; 1,000 plastic bags, a mere 15 pounds. Thus, paper means a much bigger carbon footprint and more greenhouse gas emissions. (Some studies say 80 percent more than plastic).

So we’re back to persuading the husband to tote those reusable bags. Unfortunately, they have a larger carbon footprint than either paper or plastic. (The energy required to make one is the same as making about 28 traditional plastic bags.) Reusable bags are superior to plastic or paper only if you reuse them. A lot.

How to incentivize the spouse?

First, reusable bags can’t be girlie, nor can they be emblazoned with the name of one grocery store if he’s heading to another — he’s sensitive. A bag should be so small and collapsible that it might attach to a key chain or a belt buckle, yet strong enough to carry a six-pack of Guinness cans with the floating widgets. The grocery list could be written on the side in erasable ink, and a rearview-mirror air freshener (bacon-scented?) could flash LED lights when the car door opens and the bags have been left in the trunk.

Far-fetched? Maybe. But until there’s legislation, I know what I’m going to be left holding.

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