Friday, March 13, 2015

Bag Limits

Back in September, California announced a ban on single-use plastic grocery bags, the first state in the union to do so. Amen to that! This has been a pet peeve of mine for a long time. I hate those bags.

I say, “announced a ban”, because the ban, which was to go into effect in July, has since been put on hold due a campaign by a lobby group, the American Progressive Bag Alliance (APBA). I can only assume the “Progressive” was added to the group’s name for the sheer irony of it. Thanks to the group’s “progressive” efforts, California’s ban will have to survive a statewide referendum in 2016 before it can be enforced.

I can boast a little professional pride when it comes to placing groceries in bags. As a teenager, I had an after school job at the local Thrifttown grocery store in my small hometown in North Georgia. I was a bag boy, and a shelf-stocker, and a floor-mopper. You get the picture. 

But mostly I bagged groceries. Even now, when bagging our purchases at the S-market a five-minute walk from my home in Helsinki, I’d like to think I still have some professional sense of how to go about it. Perhaps it remains sometime marinated into my being. Sadly.

Of course, things were different in the grocery-bagging business back in the 70s – mainly the “bags”. The bags that we rapidly deposited cans of tuna and packs of hamburger meat into back then were brown kraft paper sacks. This was long before the inquiry “Paper or plastic?” became part of each grocery shopping experience in America.

My impression is nowadays in the States you don’t really get a choice. You always get those smallish, flimsy plastic bags that California is now trying to ban. These are the bags so small (about 10 liters) and so flimsy that about a dozen or so are required to hold a typical shopping cart’s worth of stuff. I’ve seen bag boys (please excuse the lack of gender neutrality there) use one bag for a single box of cornflakes.

I guess American stores started using these modern-day annoyances only after I moved to Finland. I never have gotten used to it. On visits to my parents in the 90s, we would arrive from the store with ten or so bags – holding foodstuff that would easily fit into three old-style paper bags. After emptying them, we’d ball up the now-basically-useless bags and add them to the huge collection my parent had already accumulated. 

Eventually the whole giant wad of plastic was hauled off to the dump. Or maybe it was possible to return them to the store. I'm not really sure what happened to them.

There wasn’t much you could do with those bags otherwise, although on our road trips in America we have usually put a few to some to use as dirty-clothes bags. And I have used some to bundle old musty papers and other personal effects that I’ve carted back to Helsinki from my parents’ basement.

Anyway, these shopping bags are another one of those little prosaic facets of life where the differences between Finland and America are glaringly clear. And, of course, I wouldn’t be writing this if I didn’t think the Finnish way is better.

Here, bag boys (or girls) don’t pack your 10 items or less into eight tiny, sheer bags. No, they don’t, if for no other reason than in Finland there are no bag persons, of either gender. People here bag their own groceries, and most often they bring their own bags. It works for me.

One of our many reusable shopping bags.

If you want, Finnish grocery stores do, of course, provide bags, either paper or plastic, at a small cost (19 euro cents, or 20¢ US). 

However, in my family – and based on my casual observation, this seems true for most Finns – we instead use our own, tote-like cloth shopping bags that we bring from home. We have a dozen or so such bags that we’ve used for years. I even have a small one that I keep tucked in the fleece jacket I wear three-quarters of the year (otherwise known as winter), just in case I drop into a grocery on a whim and unprepared. 

Even if I do find myself in a checkout lane without any bag of my own, I don’t mind having to buy the occasional plastic one to carry my milk, croissants, rye bread, and vanilla yogurt back home in.

The plastic bags the stores sell are of a decent strength and size (23 liters, about six US gallons), excellent for repurposing for other uses. We always need a few around the house to line our trash and compost containers. They’re the perfect size for that.

As far as I know, this system of BYOB (bring your own bag) or paying for one has simply arisen out of the Finnish way of doing things, without the need for the government doing anything.

In the States, as the example of California shows, even government action backed by the public will isn’t always enough. Polls indicate that most Californians overwhelmingly support the now-delayed ban (and will almost certainly approve it in the referendum next year). All it took to thwart that public will was some 500,000 signatures on a petition, naturally pushed for the most part by the APBA lobby group.

Luckily, over 100 California municipalities, including Los Angeles and San Francisco, already have such bans in place, and the delay of the statewide ban does not affect those local policies.

Green-minded cities in my home state of Georgia might not be so lucky. 

At least two towns are considering a California-like ban on plastic shopping bags. One is Tybee Island, a tiny community on Georgia’s scenic coast. The other is Athens, the birthplace of R.E.M. and kind of a second home to me  a place still dear to my heart. 

To stop any such eco-nonsense as these two towns might be contemplating, however, Republicans in the Georgia Senate are proposing a law that would ban any Georgia city from banning bags. A ban on bans. Apparently, when it comes to plastic bags in Georgia, home rule doesn’t apply to local communities.

The rationale for the ban on bag banning (besides the obvious one of reaping benefits to the plastic bag industry) is that allowing individual cities to make up their minds about plastic bags would result in a confusing “patchwork” of regulations.

This is what I’ve been saying about federalism in the US for years. Letting California and Georgia, just like the cities of Athens and Tybee Island, enact their own laws leads to a fragmented regulatory and business environment. Better to have the same laws applied across the nation! Let Washington decide for everyone! (I’m only partly joking here.)

Still, it’s funny, or terribly sad depending on your point of view, how something as humble as a grocery bag can expose the cynical and hypocritical nature of some American politicians. 

That this could even be a political issue would probably never occur to most Finnish shoppers as they fill up a sturdy, and reusable, bag or two with something tasty for iltapala (supper). But, then again, things might just be a bit more sensible here.


  1. My wife take reusable bags to the grocery store when she goes shopping. Or, sometimes she insists on paper bags when she checks out (not great, but less harmful than plastic bags).

    As long as energy corporations rule the roost in this nation there will be no ban on plastic bags. For they are an oil product and their production and use will not be curbed without our masters' permission.

    1. Good to hear that some Americans take the reusable route, and I'm sure it's more frequent in some places that in others. I have wondered, though, how easy it is to get bag boys to use the cloth bags you bring from home (seeing how the whole setup at some stores is geared toward using those little plastic ones). Have you ever had anybody resist using the cloth bags?

      Also, I see no reason to be so fatalistic about the prospects of progress on this front. Some bans exist already at the local level, some in effect for a few years already. Malibu, for instance, has had one since 2009.

  2. I don't think iltapala translates as supper other than in exceptional circumstances.

    1. You're right about that. In fact, the word I should have been going for anyway is päivällinen (dinner). Makes better sense in this context.