When we look back on material history — object-oriented, actual, archaeological — what will characterize 2019? I’d nominate reusable shopping bags. They speak to the half-measures of liberalism and the overwhelming political climate of the moment: too little, too late, but backed by a rush of realization and dreadful emotion.
Until October, I worked part-time as a cashier at a major U.S. grocer, infamous for its crunchy origins and high prices. (We can call it, I dunno, LOL Foods.) Like all service jobs, it was a window into the messy, agonizing, unflattering guts of humanity, and very little actually happened. Each shift was much like another, with all the compulsory niceties limply disintegrating into white noise: Find everything you need? Are you a member? Do you have a bag with you?
The last one, ostensibly a yes or no, proved strangely volatile. At least within this typically liberal, typically privileged customer demographic, there were at least 10 common reactions to this question. Each was more bizarre and pathological than the last, but the two main categories boiled down to yes, praise me or no, absolve me.
There were little riffs; the let me tell you’s: how very many bags I have — grand bags, great bags, love ‘em; how often I bring them — always; and yes — have you applied my five-cent discount? I earned that discount. Great bags, wouldn’t you say? I do my part. And also the repentants, who would wail and gnash their teeth, rend their garments, rub ash on their faces until you came around the counter and gently took them by the shoulder and looked in their eyes and said with all the Robin Williams-in-Good Will Hunting kindness you could muster: It’s okay. It’s okay. It’s okay. And they would say I swear I always have them! And you would picture Robin Williams’ kind eyes in your head and say Look at me son. It’s not your fault. It’s not your fault. Shhhh.
Not literally, but it’s not too far from the truth. I started to sound out more sympathetic ways to pose the question. It felt like no matter the tone, do you have a bag with you kept being interpreted as a coded way of asking are you a good person, a backhanded rhetorical trick like referring to produce as either “organic” or “conventional” (conventional, not dirty or lowbrow; just respectably traditional — but have you considered doing the right thing?). The only possible interpretation is this: These customers, panicked and despondent about their culpability in imminent ecological death, had stuffed their anxiety into recycled plastic decorated with smiling root vegetables.
Spending eight hours at a time congratulating and comforting a stream of people whose lives seem to be otherwise going pretty alright about how they’re getting a wedge of brie and lemon-rhubarb jam home — it naturally leads to a lot of thinking. How do these people handle other minor setbacks? How did this end up being a central component of my job? And is all the fuss worth it?
Though the details differ, a single reusable plastics-based bag typically needs years of regular use to offset the carbon footprint of its manufacturing process; that figure skyrockets if the reusable bag is a cotton-based tote. The profit margins on the bags are huge, giving companies yet another kickback for greenwashing while allowing them to implicitly continue passing sustainability buck to the consumer. More insidiously, studies show encouraging personal greenness can be a lobbying technique to weaken broader policy reforms.
To cap it all off, empirical observation would suggest that the reusable bag stands alone as a conscious lifestyle decision, making it more coping mechanism than mindset shift. Beyond the compulsive single-use plastic purchasers (water bottles) and the left-my-bags-in-my-fossil-fuel-burning-vehicle folk, most baffling were the bag-bereft who, when confronted with the damnation of a paper bag (recyclable, versatile), opted to purchase more reusable bags on the spot at $1.99 a pop.
For years, environmentalism has been cleft by debate over individual action versus systemic change: Of course adjusting consumption on personal scale is important, but only if the numbers square up overall. Genuinely, yes, thank you for bringing a bag — but don’t let it end there. I don’t want to argue that cutting down on single-use plastic and paper bags is only marginally significant, because at the very least it signals an individual attempt at fostering a better cultural norm. The tyrannical horror of bag bans (a true attack on individualism, and thus America) have been part of the right’s larger war against environmentalism for a while, attracting wide-ranging potshots such as the Daily Caller’s accusations that the crackdown on plastic boosts shoplifting, and Fox News’ attempts to link the movement against plastic bags to um, Al-Qaeda. Besides, reusable bags? Feminine! Gay!
However, the reality remains that a meaningful environmental ethic requires a lot more than the personal self-satisfaction of anyone voluntarily adding to Jeff Bezos’s imperial largesse, and it’s rude to make a worker share in personal guilt, so eventually, I stopped. This was a job for a therapist or a priest; I was just a burnt-out cashier, with neither the financial motivations of the former, nor the afterlife rewards of the latter. “We have plenty of bags here,” I’d say with a tight smile, gesturing to the ever-ready stacks of brown paper, leaving customers to wander out of the store examining their tormented souls and cathetic relationship to their shopping bags all by their lonesome.