First They Came for Our Plastics Bags…

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First they came for our plastic bags, and I did not speak out – because I am but a small voice and could do nothing.

I offer this allusion because Martin Niemöller’s poem remains as profound today as it was when the Lutheran pastor penned his post-war confession in 1946. It’s language of persecution, oppression, and injustice, along with the attendant feelings of shame, regret, and the aura of culpability, ring true today in the Empire State as they once did in the totalitarian morass that immediately succeeded the Weimar Republic.

More on that in a moment. First, a bit of (more) recent history.

By the time Mr. Maguire whispered the word “plastics” into Benjamin Braddock’s attentive, albeit naïve, ear in the 1967 hit movie The Graduate, it had already been two years since Gustaf Thulin Sten came up with the idea that has made shoppers’ lives easier for decades.

In 1965, the Swedish company Sten worked for, Celloplast, formally received a U.S. patent for what we today call the “T-shirt plastic bag.” Studies showed plastic bags cost significantly less than their paper counterpart.

Still, it required nearly another two decades for the true genius of that invention to work its way into everyday American life. First introduced nationwide by grocery store chains Kroger and Safeway in 1982, by 1985 75% of the supermarkets in our nation gave shoppers the choice between paper and plastic.

But – in 1985 – the choice of consumers was still paper. Only one in four shoppers picked plastic over paper.

Habits are hard to break.

Sure, grocery stores had a monetary incentive to convince shoppers to pick plastic over paper. What they needed, however, was to discover a way to share that incentive with their customers. (And it wasn’t saving trees by not using paper, lest people would not have hesitated to immediately use plastic when first offered it.)

There were obvious shopper benefits associated with plastic bags. Most easy to explain, these new bags offered convenience. They were lighter than paper bags. They didn’t break when they got wet. And they had handles. With handles shoppers could carry more groceries using plastic bags compared to paper bags.

In addition, plastic offered safety measures paper could not. Being organic, porous, and dark, paper bags were more vulnerability to nasty critters – big and small – than paper.

How many of you are old enough to remember the juice that leaked from the butcher bags? You cringed when the rest of your groceries got contaminated with this liquid meat byproduct. You wondered if that other food was now spoiled and had to be thrown out.

Plastic bags solved that problem.

But I don’t think either of these benefits convinced shoppers. Why? Because paper bags had another important use storekeepers initially didn’t see.

When you got home and unloaded your groceries, what did you do with the paper bag? You placed in in your garbage can to collect your trash. This way, you merely had to lift the bag out when full and throw it away in your trash collector’s bin. This left your kitchen can relatively clean.

That is, it was clean except for that watery waste that inevitably leaked through the bag. Hopefully, the bag didn’t break when you lifted it out!

Come to think of it, there was a garbage bag commercial that featured this exact scenario. It showed a video of someone lifting a paper bag out only to have its bottom burst and spill its entire garbage contents all over a nice clean floor. Then it showed what happened when you replaced that paper with plastic. No breaking! No spilling! And you can carry twice as much as before!

It didn’t take long for grocery stores to catch on. Soon, they were selling kitchen garbage containers with protruding hooks that allowed you to easily attach those new plastic bags. At first, consumers balked.

Then they realized something. Those handles! Not only did they make it easy to attach the bag to the garbage can, they made it easier to remove the bag and – most important – they made it extremely easy and convenient to tie the bag closed.

Think about the significance of that tying. With paper bags, the top was never really sealed. Garbage would spill out. Even if it spilled out into the trash collector’s bin, that only meant it would spill out onto your street when the garbage man went to dump the bin into the truck.

It was the perfect storm of convenience, low cost, and cleanliness. In no time, plastic bags were used by 80% of the shoppers.

People convinced themselves to pick plastic. They still had the option to use paper (if they were old-fashioned) or their own bag (if they were particular for some reason), but at no point did they not have an option to costlessly choose for themselves.

Until now.

The great monopoly party of Albany, controlled by a single political caucus mostly from New York City, has thus forth decreed that, beginning March 1, 2020, the citizens of New York State will no longer have the freedom to choose their preferred grocery bags.

Instead, they will demand shoppers do greater harm to the environment (and not merely by killing more trees, but by filling up landfills faster (paper bags 6-10 times heavier than plastic) and increasing global warming (a 2005 Scottish study shows paper bags have a larger carbon footprint). All with a greater out of pocket cost to the shopper.

First they came for our plastic bags, and I did nothing.*

I didn’t but maybe a big company like Wegman’s could have. A plastic bag costs 2 cents. A paper bag costs 7-12 cents (if you can buy them because supplies are now low). That means Wegman’s is losing between 2 and 7 cents for every nickel paper bag it sells.

How much in penalties would it cost them if they were to practice civil disobedience. Unlike smaller grocery chains, they can afford the legal costs to fight the political power of the Albany-New York City axis. The penalty of non-compliance might be less than the money they are paying to subsidize the paper bags.

First they came for our plastic bags, and Wegman’s – who could have – did nothing.

What will they come for next?

And who next will do nothing?

*Actually, I did something. I, like many others I’ve spoken to, have been saving our plastic bags for nearly a year now. We are using them to bag our groceries (thus dispelling the myth they are “single-use”). Are you one of these people?

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