Another Perspective

Two Bag Ugly

In which the author fights his way out of a plastic sack.

By 2.23.04

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LOS ANGELES -- I was recently driven to vow bloody vengeance against the everyday supermarket plastic bag. As I recall, I was in a parking lot, fists clutched vainly around a crumpled, ripped, useless shred of plastic, contemplating the groceries lying at my feet.

I cursed it as the common consumer item unequivocally least effective at providing the service it was meant to. Unfilled, it crumples uselessly, making it hard to fill. Partially filled, its aperture twists and buckles and folds in on itself, making it difficult to top off. Completely filled, it tends to tear. Filled and sitting, it still lacks vertical stability, allowing everything within it to slip out while sitting in back seats or trunks.

It is in most respects a blessed thing to be an American living in the material world in the early 21st century. An economic machine unparalleled in human history gifts us with an abundance of physical and technological marvels that have gotten, as long as I've lived, progressively both cheaper and generally better.

SO HOW, I WONDERED, as I stood there over my poor fallen consumer goods, did our birthright as Americans for high-quality products get snatched from us as regards the humble, but vital, grocery sack?

I called the experts in plastics: Dow Chemicals, whose Tony Kingsbury helped me understand. Kingsbury credited the plastic sack's dizzying rise to dominance at the checkout stand -- in the past two decades it has achieved an 80 percent chokehold on the grocery bag market -- to those hoary old excuses: price and performance. They are very cheap, at pennies or less per unit. But the performance argument seems a bit of a stretch.

Granted, plastic bags have a few advantages over their rival the paper sacks: They don't soak and rip when wet, and they have handles, which allow you to slip several bags on each arm, or grasp many of them at once. But they are so lacking in volume and ability to handle weight that it takes many plastic bags to equal one old-fashioned paper sack.

There was another, cultural issue in the ascendancy of plastic. Anyone my age's (mid-'30s) most vivid martial memories involve not the Vietnam War or even the Gulf War, but the paper vs. plastic wars waged at every checkout stand and in the hearts and minds of every trying-to-be-environmentally-conscious youngster. This seemed strangely important if you went to college in the mid-to-late '80s. I think it had something to do with impressing chicks.

It was hard to know which side was the just one. On one side, plastic costs less in energy and resources to make or to recycle than paper. On the other side, the argument that many greens employed back then was that, well, it was plastic, and everyone knows plastic is bad. It had… something to do with petroleum, I think.

ALTHOUGH THE WORLD is awash in literally billions of them a year, I learned my flimsy nemesis is on the run. Not from the market, alas, but from angry governments. Ireland recently passed a 15 cents per unit tax on the little bastards, which has reduced use of them by 90 percent or so on the emerald isle. The stern Taiwanese went for a straight ban. California has floated the idea of an Ireland-style tax.

As my hatred boiled into an obsession, and bags flopping around in the breeze haunted me like ghosts in my dreams, some of my laissez faireer friends suggested it was heresy to think that there could be anything wrong with such a widely used product. Clearly, it was optimizing a perfect balance between cost and convenience.

But I cheer for free markets myself not because I believe they optimize anything in particular, except freedom. They don't create a world in which everything is exactly as it should be. Error abounds in markets, allowing room for entrepreneurial improvement. After all, wasn't the paper grocery sack the perfect solution in its time? Everyone used them as well, until they stopped.

And the plastic bags' main appeal to stores -- their cheapness -- is often stymied, as Kingsbury admitted and my experience bears out, by the fact that many consumers, mistrusting the thin devils, insist on double bagging. Stores tell the plastic makers that even thinner but tougher bags can't be successfully fobbed off on consumers, who have learned to mistrust them.

I found that this mistrust is marketable. Few will launch boycotts over crappy plastic bags but they might prefer a shop with sturdy ones. Thus, my favorite grocery store ever, the chain known as Trader Joe's, has a miraculous big paper sack with glued-on handles. While Trader Joe's refused to discuss details of their bags, Kingsbury told me they have to be more expensive than plastic. But they are better, and they make shopping at the supermarket chain more appealing.

While I still question the marketolatry which holds that no mere individual ought ever question the wisdom of what the benevolent market provides, I was missing perhaps the most important economic idea with my quick and angry dismissal of plastic bags: tradeoffs. Perhaps in the end the acceptance of plastic sacks was the beginning of wisdom. Yes, they are very bad in many ways. But they do have countervailing benefits as well -- for example, the handles, the reason why Trader Joe's paper bags make for the best of both worlds (until it rains). I began to see the bags as a metaphor for life itself in this respect.

AH, SCREW THAT ZEN CRAP. I came to bury the plastic bag, not praise it. Even after my quest for understanding led me to a grudging toleration for them, it still seems to me the worst day-to-day technology we put up with. America shouldn't be just cheap -- that's Third World thinking. We are, to pilfer from that fake Tocqueville quote, both cheap and good.

Thus, I anticipate, in high spirits and good faith, that the plastic grocery bag of today will be replaced by something cheaper and better across most available metrics -- even if just a bigger, sturdier plastic bag. These things matter: Well-being must be measured in the small things as well as the large.

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About the Author

Brian Doherty is a senior editor at Reason magazine and author of This is Burning Man (Little, Brown).