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.)
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