Monday I was in a Washington, D.C., drugstore, buying a soda because it was 147 degrees out and I felt like kiln-dried jerky. As part of its Human Interaction Elimination Initiative, the store had no check-out clerks. There was one in the back for people who refused to beep their own goods, and you expected to see a line of nice old ladies buying talcum powder and rotary phones.
Everyone else duly queued to Self-Checkout, which should have a mirror so you can check yourself out and also check yourself out.
Beeped the bottle of popular, mass-market brown fluid. I was asked to enter my Rewards card number, lest the act of buying a Dr Pepper go unappreciated. Put the bottle in a plastic bag. The robot-lady voice — which had been calibrated to "icy disapproval," for some reason — said "please enter the number of bags you are using."
Can't you figure that out, Strange Spirit Who Lives in the Machine? It's a bottle of Dr Pepper. Unless I unscrewed the cap and poured it into 10 bags so I could go throw them at cars, the answer is probably one.
Then she explained. "The District of Columbia has instituted a 5 cent tax per bag."
Ohhhh. Now I felt stupid for using a bag, but to be honest, a bag made me look, well, honest. Leaving a store with a soda, having spoken to no one — surely a security guard would stop me and ask for my Rewards number. Don't have one. Quick glances exchanged with the manager. Come with us, sir.
So I took my 5 cent bag, went outside, threw it away, and opened the Dr Pepper, which of course fizzed everywhere like an Alka-Seltzer the size of a meteor plunged into Lake Harriet, and now I felt stupid for not keeping the plastic bag and opening the bottle inside.
I also felt stupid for not hanging around the store door and offering the bag for 4 cents. I'd be down a penny, but that meant one less bag sent into the waste-stream, where it would find its way to the sea and strangulate a turtle, or join that floating mass of oceanic plastic that will be admitted to the U.N. as a new nation in a few years.
Anyway: That's how one city handled the plastic bag problem.
Here we have another idea: Ban the crinkly things. That's what St. Louis Park is thinking about doing. Minneapolis leaders, hearing the word "ban" and pricking up their ears in interest, are considering the same thing.
Personally, I can't stand them. (The bags, not the City Council.) You load up the trunk with groceries in plastic bags, and everything rolls around; a couple of gallons of milk sounds like you're transporting human heads. There's no art to packing a plastic bag — everything is dumped in willy-nilly, and when you get home to sort the groceries you think: What does willy-nilly even mean? Well, the cantaloupe rolled over the blackberry box and got black sticky juice all over the trunk, that's what it means, and tomorrow I will have to shave the ants off the car with a hockey stick.
Of course, we save our plastic bags, lest the Earth perish. I'll tell you what we save them for: putting in other plastic bags. There is a bag of bags in the closet, each bag containing bags, and each of those bags containing bags; eventually I take them to the store and put the bag of bags into a bag that contains a hundred other bags of bags. Eventually a truck comes by and puts the bag of bags of bags into a larger bag, which I presume is compressed into a dense nodule that is shot into the sun, or perhaps recycled into that nasty folded gas-station bathroom tissue that comes in folded squares and appears to be slightly shellacked.
I would be happy not to deal with bags; that is why I bring my own Totes of Virtue, the bottoms of which are paved with receipts because they always ask "Receipt in the bag?" and you reply "I'm a ding-dong daddy from Kalamazoo" and they nod and put it in the bag, because they're not listening.
I'm even tired of paper bags, because you end up putting those into paper bags and putting them all into the recycling bin, which is supposed to make you think you performed the ethical equivalent of throwing yourself between a logger and an old-growth sequoia.
Anyway. A ban would require stores to retool their checkout lines, which would be expensive. Perhaps we could tax them, like D.C., and use the money for Good Deeds? Well, that'll fall most heavily on the poor, so how about we don't do that. Besides, when I was standing outside the drugstore in D.C., I saw a cover story in the free weekly: They'd raised $3 million on the bag tax, but instead of going for river cleanup it went for "administration costs" and "field trips."
You know how that'll turn out: If we want to save the river, the tax should be a dime.
Today you get a credit at Target and some stores if you use a reusable bag. Why not extend it to plastic? It's easier to keep one wadded up in your pocket or purse than a reusable tote — every time I walk into the grocery store with six totes it feels like I'm carrying half a dozen albatross wings. I'd still use them, but people who preferred plastic could reuse their bags.
You're saying: No one prefers them. But why are they offered? If the clerk asked, "Plastic, or a sharp poke in the eye?" you wouldn't see many people leaving the store covering their face and wincing. Yet when they offer paper or plastic, some say the latter, because that's what they want.
Well, we can't have that.