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Paper or Plastic: The Silence Grows

This won't be yet another attempt to discern which kind of supermarket bag is more likely to send us hurtling toward the end of life on Earth. That analysis has been done ad nauseum, and the bottom line is that both paper and plastic bags require a fair amount of energy to produce and end up sitting in landfills.

Nor will this be another plea to ban plastic bags, which the folks over at Fresh Fields (aka Whole Paycheck) are doing, effective today. (Hey, for the prices they charge at Whole Foods, you'd think they'd give you handcrafted artisan plastic bags lovingly assembled by carefully selected farmers who work while being serenaded by native singers and dancers.)

No, I come neither to sing the praises of paper bags nor to cry out in defense of the poor, maligned plastic tote (the Film and Bag Federation does a splendid job of taking care of that lobbying, including this clever list of myths about plastic bags, which will at least get you to question your righteous love of brown paper bags.)

Rather, in these last days of the "paper or plastic" era, I want to point out that the demise of the free plastic bag--and the inevitable elimination of free bags of any material--will contribute to another unfortunate trend in modern society: The decline and fall of casual conversation at the supermarket checkout counter.

Much as I loathe the "paper or plastic" inquiry, much as I feel for any worker whose job description includes the required recitation of some inane corporate phraseology ("Do fries go with that shake?"--George Clinton's classic response right here), the sad fact remains that "paper or plastic" is one of the last excuses for actual human contact during the otherwise deadening experience of shuffling past the cashier.

No, this is no reason to save the bags option. And perhaps supermarkets will someday require cashiers to initiate conversation with customers in order to get us to buy the reusable bags that are the main way of carrying groceries in European markets. But I've found that ever since "How are you?" became so ubiquitous and so routinely ignored as entree to conversation with strangers, it has taken words such as "paper or plastic" to shake people out of their blank stares on the cashier line.

A small thing, to be sure, but I usually end up enjoying those brief exchanges with the supermarket workers, and I often learn something from overhearing the conversations ahead of me on the queue. And random conversation is a phenomenon that's rapidly disappearing in our wired society (sorry, hearing one side of a cell chat doesn't do it.) One of the great, unspoken joys of living in a city is the chance to overhear bits of conversation that get you thinking or give you a chuckle. Now we have one less opportunity to get that fix.

(Also, for those of us who are cheap, the prospect of having to shell out 10 or 25 cents for each bag--this is coming, I assure you--makes me recall when I lived in Germany, where that's been true for many years, and where I often chose to walk out of the store with a dozen grocery items teetering in a pile against my chest because I declined to buy or bring a bag. Made for some funny scenes, but, trust me here, you're better off spending the quarter.)

By Marc Fisher |  April 22, 2008; 8:04 AM ET
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Have you been to Trader Joe's? The cashiers are trained (forced?) to make conversation with you.

Posted by: Foggy Bottom, DC | April 22, 2008 8:33 AM

Better not take away my plastic bags at Wegman's or I will be forced to use Marc to scoop the poop.

Damn Green's need to stay out my life and telling me how to live it. Oops hold on I have to fart. More methane gas for the environment.

Dont mind doing my part as long it ahs no effect on my lifestyle and doesnt cost anything. If it does then screw it. Global Warming rules!

Posted by: Anonymous | April 22, 2008 8:49 AM

Are plastic bags so bad if you recycle them? That's what we do. Although getting everyone to recycle them is a pretty tough task.

Posted by: Rockville | April 22, 2008 8:57 AM

For want of a plastic bag, the dog could not do, being forced to hold it in until returning to his home where a copy of yesterday's internet is spread out on the floor waiting for him.

Posted by: Springfield | April 22, 2008 9:00 AM

Mark, did you fall asleep in 1990 and just wake up now? Most stores haven't offered a choice in years and years. If "Paper or plastic?" is what passes for pleasant conversation these days, we're really in trouble. At least the cashiers at Whole Foods ask, "Did you find everything you were looking for?" If your answer is no, they'll page an employee to look for it. That's the kind of thing (once known as basic customer service) that makes the customer's day. I'd also like to point out that Whole Foods often gives away large, sturdy reusable bags for free (they cost $1.00 otherwise). No, I don't work for the company.

Posted by: ZF | April 22, 2008 9:15 AM

I love that you mention that "How are you" is mostly ignored now. I walk my dog every day around our apartment complex and nearby neighborhoods. I offer a Good morning/afternoon/evening, or if I'm feeling particularly fun, a Howdy. I don't always ask how are you, but I want to acknowledge people. I don't find any problem with that. But if you ask me "How are you" you should be prepared to talk, not say it in stride while walking past me with no intention of listening. When I used to work retail, I loved meeting new people, and if somebody asked how I was (I had them trapped because I was helping them) I actually talked. And the 'deer in headlights' look was never so amazing.

Posted by: Patrick | April 22, 2008 9:16 AM

Marc sure must of had writer's block today. This is the lamest excuse for a story I have ever read. Grocery bags have never been free. The expense is added to the price of the groceries. Do you also think the cashiers (what's left of them) work for free because you are not charged separately for their service?

Posted by: Anonymous | April 22, 2008 9:18 AM

If you want chit-chat at the register, go to Safeway. The cashiers talk and talk and talk. I like to exchange a few pleasantries with the cashiers, but honestly, the bottom line with me is to get out of the store efficiently. So, I avoid Safeway, where the lines are long and the cashiers too garrulous.

Posted by: Arlington, VA | April 22, 2008 9:20 AM

Most plastic bags that are taken in for recycling do not end up getting recycled - about 98% of plastic bags end up in the dump. Please use reusable bags - IKEA has some really great ones for about $1.00 each and they will last a long time. The bags aren't cloth, but they are heavy heavy coated plastic that will last a long time.

We do have dogs, and we do use plastic bags to clean up after them, but we do not need very many of them.

We should have to pay for each plastic bag we take from the store - we are hurting the environment with every one that we use. PLEASE get some reusable bags.

Posted by: Anonymous | April 22, 2008 9:22 AM

"the reusable bags that are the main way of carrying groceries in European markets"

Just came back from 2 weeks in Spain, my 3rd trip to Europe in the past 18 months. I've bought groceries in Britain, France and Spain. Always got a plastic bag for free. Oh and btw, check the other cars on "green" European roads. I've never seen so many single occupent cars during rush hour. I asked about car poling and/or slugging in London and you would have thought I had suggested pedophilia.

"One of the great, unspoken joys of living in a city is the chance to overhear bits of conversation that get you thinking or give you a chuckle."

It's called eavesdropping. Polite people try to avoid it where possible. But then one of the joys of urban living is turning rudness into a virtue.

Posted by: Anonymous | April 22, 2008 9:25 AM

Mark - if you want more checkout asle conversation I suggest bringing your own reusable bags. Then, when the cashier automatically starts placing your items in an evil plastic bag, you have to say 'I've got some bags'. I've been shopping with reusable bags for years, and in addition to being more environmentally friendly they also work better than plastic or paper bags. Mine have stiff bottoms so I can easily fit 2, and sometimes 3, plastic bags worth of items in each resuable.

Posted by: CB | April 22, 2008 9:36 AM

I just returned from Italy and they do charge for plastic bags. I believe it does change behavior - it did change mine. I bought the plastic bag the first time and kept it in on me during my travels, using it the two other trips to the grocery store and well as for making purchases at places other than the grocery store.

As someone who would like to be more "green" but has a difficult time achieving this asperation, I appreciate that the marketplace is beginning to stop subsidizing anti-green decision making. Maybe soon Kermit will no longer have to say, "it's not easy being green."

Posted by: Reston | April 22, 2008 9:47 AM

Are there alternatives for the plastic bags used in the produce aisle? Putting the plastic produce bags in my reusable grocery bag does not seem very green.

Posted by: produce non-plastic bags | April 22, 2008 9:50 AM

you can buy reusable produce bags-- i've even had a number of farmers at my local farmers' market offer me a discount because i use them! i bought mine at

Posted by: christy | April 22, 2008 10:00 AM

I read that the glossy bags provided by the Department stores can't be recycled. True? If so, I'll have to start carrying my Earth Day big bag everywhere. Will also have to stop stuffing them in with the grocery plastic bags for the recycling bin at the store. Wish I had known!

We need easier sources of information.

Posted by: cc703 | April 22, 2008 10:10 AM

I've been lazy about buying reusable bags and I plan to do so in the near future. But in my defense, I usually save all my plastic bags (from the grocery store or department stores or whatever) and I just re-used nearly ALL of my truly giant stash while moving to a new house over the weekend. And I re-use them all the time for other things, too.

Posted by: Sarah | April 22, 2008 10:12 AM

For produce, not everything has to be bagged. I chide my husband for "gift wrapping" a bunch of bananas, an avocado, a couple of onions, etc. Grapes, lettuce, tomatoes (squishy/fragile stuff), I agree need to be corralled, and I don't see a way around the plastic bags (but don't see why they have to be so huge!). For the rest - go naked!

Posted by: Falls Church - re produce bags | April 22, 2008 10:13 AM

Mr. or Miss April 22, 2008 9:22 AM If you want everyone to use reusable bags then what are people going to use when they walk their dogs or what are people going to use when scooping the cat litter boxes. I am sorry but my family reuses every single plastic bag we get for either scooping up the dogs poop when walking them, scooping litter boxes, cleaning the birds cage, or cleaning up after an accident in the house. You want to buy reusable bags and use them by all means go right ahead but reusable bags don't keep parks and children's play areas clean of dog poop plastic bags do.

For all you "lets ban plastic bags and only use paper" ponder this, at least the uses of plastic bags don't kill thousands of trees that provide the oxygen that every living creature on this planet breathes. Use your brains a little and think about other people's lives and what they use these everyday items for and not just think about your own narrow minded life.

Posted by: Anonymous | April 22, 2008 10:42 AM

On the other hand, who will miss urban tumbleweed, abandoned plastic bags floating down city streets in every gust of wind?

Posted by: Mike Licht | April 22, 2008 10:42 AM

To the person complaining about their dog waste problem, there are alternatives to plastic bags. When I was growing up my family used cardboard milk containers to collect the waste from our dog. These containers are coated on the inside, and because they are much sturdier than a plastic bag can be re-used until they are full. Scoop your yard, and then stick the (closed) box behind your drain spout, or some such out of the way place, until it is full. When full, dispose of it in the trash.

If you're going on a walk with Fido, take along one of those scooper/bucket on a pole things. Collect the waste from your walk and add it to your milk carton when you get home.

Plastic cartons would also work if you cut the tops off, although since they are transparent you might want to hide them in a flower pot or something.

The continual argument put forward by dog owners in favor of plastic bags strikes me as more laziness to change than any real sanitary problem.

Posted by: CB | April 22, 2008 10:55 AM

How dumb! If you want to have conversation with a cashier, then start it. That is what I do. You could say "hello, how are you" even if he/she does not. And to all you people who don't understand that global warming is one of the reasons you are paying more for everything (there is a huge drought in various parts of the world, look it up) I can only say you are part of the problem. If you want to grouse about not having free plastic bags instead of asking how can we improve the world we live in, then go ahead, but know that you are contributing in every sense to the killing of the earth we live in.

Posted by: DB | April 22, 2008 10:56 AM

On the other hand, who will miss urban tumbleweed, abandoned plastic bags floating down city streets in every gust of wind?

or the plastic bags that are permanently stuck in trees?

Posted by: MMinNoVA | April 22, 2008 10:58 AM


Do you currently have a dog. Its a lot easier to stuff a few plastic bags in your pocket and the go for the walk with Fido. I dont want to carry a scooper bucket pole things. Plastic bag insert hand into bag then scoop poop and tie off. Quick and easy.

Now if I am forced to use paper I will have to carry lighter fluid and a lighter. Scoop poop into paper bag tkae bag to Marc's or Cb's house. Douse with lighter fluid, light bag, ring doorbell and run.

Now hoss which is better for the environment?

Again boy, I dont tell you how to run your life please dont tell me how to run mine.

Posted by: Anonymous | April 22, 2008 11:15 AM

Plastic bags have so many re-uses. Trash can liner, dog poop scooper are the two major ones that come to my mind. I always double-bag at the store so that I can always have some handy for the two forementioned purposes.

Posted by: rhadams | April 22, 2008 11:19 AM

"Its a lot easier to stuff a few plastic bags in your pocket"

This is exactly the 'laziness' I'm referring to. No one said that fixing this global mess we've created would be easy or cheap.

I don't currently own a dog, but I did in the past and dealt with the waste as I described above. If you are going to have a pet, you should be willing to take responsibility for said pet. And I don't understand why stuffing bags in your pocket is any faster than grabbing the poop pole.

Posted by: CB | April 22, 2008 11:27 AM

The other day, I watched as a bird struggled to free itself from a ripped up plastic bag. These things are everywhere and its ridiculous that we're wasting precious fossil fuels to make something that litters the environment so much.

In Europe, I found that while most stores have free bags to give you if you need them, enough stores charge or don't have them so that people have acquired the habit of taking a sack or two along with them when they shop. There are more grocery stores in the city so most city residents can walk to a store. Not the case in the DC area, alas.

Also, Safeway's reusable bags suck. Trader Joe's are great, but a bit too small. Giant's are the perfect size and constructed quite sturdily. Ikea's are way too big. Stuff that thing full of groceries and you're bound to pull a back muscle or two.

Another thing to keep in mind is if you use the self check-out at a store like Home Depot, the bags are completely optional. If all you're buying is a hammer and nails or a few cans of paint, what do you need the bag for anyway?

Posted by: mdreader1 | April 22, 2008 11:29 AM

plastic bags are good for not only dogs, but also small trash can liners (bathroom, home office, etc.). i bring reusable bags to the store unless i'm running out of either plastic (trash cans) or paper (recycling)...

Posted by: bg | April 22, 2008 11:36 AM

April 22, 2008 10:42 AM:

I didn't advocate that you need to use something besides plastic for picking up after your dog. I simply said that this doesn't require the number of bags that you get with your groceries. Perhaps you need to pick up after your dog every time it poops - even so, this is only once or twice a day. I find that I would leave the store with 15-20 bags per trip and that is for only two people! You just don't need that many bags.

Plastic bags are very very bad for the environment - I am just encouraging people to use as few as possible. I am sure there is some eco-friendly solution at PetSmart or something - but the most important thing is to just use a lot less of them. . .

Posted by: Anonymous | April 22, 2008 11:44 AM

Personally, I love the bags from IKEA because I can put them over my shoulder - they have longer handles. BUT, the most important thing is that we need to use reusable bags - it doesn't matter where they come from.

Posted by: Anonymous | April 22, 2008 11:48 AM

...self-service cash registers are the best. No conversation, you do it at your pace and not the store's slow pace, and you get to bag your own stuff the way you want it (I tell Giant's "helpers" to not help; "I'll bag it". I use half as many bags as the Giant people do for the same amount of stuff. The machine also doesn't require union wages or benefits. So when is Giant going to give me a 50 cent rebate for using the machine? Maybe I already am getting it since it gets me out of the infernal place that much quicker.

Posted by: Just one thing to say... | April 22, 2008 11:53 AM

There are lots of things to talk to cashiers about. How about the following conversation starters:
"Why am I always behind the old guy who can't work a debit card machine? Isn't that twelve year old technology by now?"
"I appreciate your equal opportunity hiring, but somebody should tell your new hire that a load of bread is no match for a twenty pound bag of rice."
or maybe
"Do you have any Chinese products like toothpaste or pet food? I'm trying to make something look like an accident."

Posted by: Tristan Yates | April 22, 2008 11:57 AM

Cashiers at Harris Teeter ask "Did you find everything you wanted?" when you approach the register and "Can I help you to your car?" or some variation when you leave. Neither exactly cry out for a lengthy response, but both are more conversational than "Paper or plastic?"

Posted by: TheGreenMiles | April 22, 2008 12:09 PM

Re: plastic bags and dog poop -- Has society gone just a tad overboard on this dog poop thing? I can remember when you simply pulled fido to the curb and let it go at that. I know, I know, it all runs down the storm drains and into the bay. So who is cleaning up after the cats, the strays, the deer, the bears, the racoons etc. And where does anyone thing the poop ends up after being collected and dumped at the landfill? If we were 1/10th as concerned with real environmental results as we are with meaningless feel good gestures, we wouldn't have most of these problems.

Posted by: Woodbridge VA | April 22, 2008 12:17 PM

Nevermind bags, the best thing about European grocery stores is having to pay for a cart. In France, I had to use a Euro coin (or maybe smaller, I forget) to detach a cart from a chained line. You get a coin back when you return the cart to the chain. No more abandoned carts in the parking lot, no dinged cars, no paying some poor kid to collect hundreds of carts.

Posted by: annapolis | April 22, 2008 12:25 PM


Maybe grabbing apoop pole for your teacup yorkie was easy for you. I have two active collies and have expandable leashes in each hand. Understand hoss.

And bubba I do take responsibility for my real dogs! I clean up after them on our 45minute to 1hr walks. So green boy carrying poop bags is easier.

Think before your run your mouth huh!

And stop telling me how to run my life I dont tell you how to run yours. Now isnt time for your tofu and other vegggie treats vegan!

Posted by: Anonymous | April 22, 2008 1:09 PM

Anonymous - I'm sorry to see that you are so resistant to trying alternative waste disposal methods. Resistance to change is a big reason why our environment is in such dire strates right now. Many alternative products are readily available that are less damaging than their conventional counterparts, but American's resist using them. I can only assume that the reasons for this are either laziness, ignorance of the options, or a willful desire to damage our environment.
Considering your diction, I assume that the last two are your biggest problem.

As we've strayed quite a bit off topic here, this will be my last post in this thread.

Your re-useable bag toting, wind power using, sub-compact driving, meat eating debater.

Posted by: CB | April 22, 2008 1:33 PM

"I can only assume that the reasons for this are either laziness, ignorance of the options, or a willful desire to damage our environment."

Actually, convenience and price are the two largest motivators for the American public. When you stop trying to convince people to live "green" and start arguing for "cost efficient" you'll have much more success. Most green practices are also less wasteful when Total Cost of Ownership is compared. When the environmental movement stops trying to proselytize for the church of Gaia, and starts appealing to the bottom line, it will have much more success.

Posted by: Leesburger | April 22, 2008 2:37 PM

Why use bags at all? I picked up a couple of the BJ's bins and use them for all my grocery shopping. Put the goods back into cart after checkout and load them into the bins in the car. Things like cat litter and cat/dog food bags don't go in the bins because of their size, but they didn't go into the bags either.

I only have to make two trips to get most everything into the house.

They can be a little heavy sometimes but it's no big deal. Stop being such wussies about everything and just do the job.

Posted by: SoMD | April 22, 2008 3:00 PM

I switched to the reusable Giant bags for MY convenience. It's so much easier to carry two large cloth bags than 8 plastic bags.

I do occasionally get plastic for litter box scooping, but I only use about 4 a month. The primary litter box has it's own lidded trash can next to it. The backup box, that doesn't get as much "traffic", is in another room and I scoop it once a week.

To the posters arguing with the anonymous dog walker, stop waisting your time. Every blog needs a self righteous trouble maker. They argue for the sake of arguing.

Posted by: Arlington Gay | April 22, 2008 3:06 PM

We should just let the damned dogs poo on the friggin curb, in the grassy part and just leave it. It'll decompose soon enough. Jeesh, it's just poo. All other animals poo outside already anyway and we don't run to clean up after them do we?

Posted by: 9.5" | April 23, 2008 12:33 PM

Dog poo isn't even the entire issue with plastic bags. I use the bags as trashcan liners. If I don't have these plastic bags from the store to use, I'd end up having to buy Hefty plastic bags or something. Is it really better for the environment that I buy a plastic bag that will only be used to hold refuse, or if I use a plastic grocery bag that has many uses?

Posted by: rhadams | April 23, 2008 10:27 PM

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