Roger Marolt: Roger This

Roger Marolt
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO, Colorado

I don’t think that many people believe the eradication of plastic grocery store bags would have a major on impact saving the planet. The ones who do have already written letters to the editor, so we know there are only a couple of dozen. I do believe, however, that quite a few people think it would be a good first step in the right direction. So then, what is the second step?

The second step is more important than the first. The first step breaks inertia. The ones that follow get you somewhere. And don’t get me wrong, I’m not talking a giant second step, like first we eliminate plastic bags from City Market, and next we convert all automobiles to hydrogen power. I’m talking about a second step that follows from the first without pulling a groin muscle.

So then, what is that next step in the case of plastic grocery bags? Because, I mean, we really are going somewhere with this discussion about grocery bags, aren’t we?

In the big picture, the plastic bags we carry our groceries in are really just an extension of product packaging. By taking reusable bags to the store instead, we are simply replacing a tiny component of the whole packaging scheme/debacle. Coffee stops have been encouraging this for years already. If you bring your own cup, they give you a discount. We can pit incentives against disincentives some other time, but the point is that you are responsible for bringing your own container.

So, the next step in the plastic bag discussion might be to gradually eliminate other parts of the packaging of groceries besides the obvious bags. This could get cumbersome for the average shopper. If we are really dedicated to following this through to eliminate all “unnecessary” packaging of our food, everything we eat and drink will be sold in bulk. And, who on earth likes to buy bulk food except campers subsisting on homemade gorp?

At any rate, this would mean that the average shopper would arrive at the store with myriad canteens, bottles, boxes, along with reusable bags to get their food home in. It would require a cart and third-degree back strain (if there is such a thing) just to get all the empty containers from the car to the store! I won’t even mention that all those containers need to be washed and stored between uses. (Oops.)

Of course I am paid to be skeptical, but even if I weren’t hauling in the big bucks to say it I still wouldn’t think this type plan is any good. The ironic thing is that I really do care about the earth, too!

This leaves us, of course, with a first step in the right direction with a giant pile of reusable containers blocking further forward progress, which some will still say is better than doing nothing at all. To which I say, doing nothing sometimes has its merits.

Yes. That was an oblique reference to the potential unintended consequence of outlawing plastic grocery bags. Now I will go straight at it, sort of, by asking this question: What won’t the producers of food products do in order to sell more of their products? The answer, of course, is: nothing. That’s a potential problem.

If I am a potato chip maker, for example, and I know that lots of stores around the country have been forced to outlaw plastic bags at great inconvenience to customers who often lose, forget, or simply loathe using their reusable grocery bags, what can I do to ease these potential customers’ pain and make my product more attractive in the process? Well, there are two things. First, I could put a cheap plastic toy in each bag of chips. Or, I could attach an expandable compartment to my chip bag that the customer can unfold to carry other groceries in – a built-in, expandable, disposable, utterly convenient über grocery bag! Either way I am using more plastic now than I otherwise would have. Even worse, if other manufacturers recognize the genius of my maneuvering around the bag ban, they too will offer expandable compartments on their packaging and then way-more-than-necessary expandable compartments will be produced than there ever were plastic grocery bags to begin with! Disaster!

Or, the Glad bag company will simply begin selling 12-packs of disposable grocery bags in a rack conveniently located next to the check-out stand, which will require additional packaging of their own and of which most customers will use only seven and throw the other five away. Disaster!

Or everyone will be so sick by the big, bad, local bag ban that they will just drive to Carbondale to get their groceries in good ol’ plastic bags after burning gobs of fossil fuel in the process. Disaster!

So, what’s my point? It’s that sometimes making a loud statement is just noise. And, it won’t be easy to save the planet and requiring people to do so won’t work because people are clever. Saving the planet is volunteer work. Education works best.