You probably wouldn’t recognize the word discipline in the photograph of Juneau resident Ken Ryals picking up a bag filled with groceries at Super Bear. But it’s there in the caption that explains Ryals has been using the same cloth shopping bag for 30 years. And it’s discipline we’ll need to end a culture that encourages us to produce mountains of waste.
The photo of Ryals accompanied the Empire article “Debate rages: paper, plastic or cloth?” that was published four months ago. It was a prelude to the ongoing “bag tax” controversy that has generated more letters to the editor than any local issue since the Snettisham power lines were toppled by an avalanche in 2008.
There are similar themes in these two stories. Recall the community reaction to the electricity crisis three years ago. After being told our power bills were going to soar five times overnight, we were forced to consider our wasteful habits alongside an unrealistic expectation that we’re entitled to having cheap power conveniently transmitted to our homes.
At first glance, the bag tax initiative also appears to be about waste. If we look further, though, we’ll recognize the role of discipline here is to overcome laziness induced by the expectation that the storeowners should provide low-cost shopping bags for our convenient use.
The evolution of shopping bags is really a story of how convenience superseded necessity as the mother of invention. From the original square bottom paper bag designed by Margaret E. Knight in 1871, to the first bag with handles patented by Walter H. Deubner in 1912, the inventors’ objective was to make it easier for shoppers to carry home the merchandise they bought.
The “Deubner Shopping Bag” was made from paper reinforced with a cord that also served as a handle. It could carry 75 pounds. The bags weren’t free though. Each one cost five cents. A hundred years ago that wasn’t pocket change as it is today. But he sold millions of his patented bags, partly because they were strong enough to be used more than once.
Deubner not only made money selling the bags. Groceries sales increased because the bags allowed his customers to purchase more each time they visited his small store. Retail revenue is also proportional to how much a customer could deliver to the checkout counter, which explains the evolution from the wire shopping baskets to the carts on wheels we still use today.
If we had to carry the merchandise in our arms, we’d certainly be more conscientious about the stuff we purchase. And stores would be smaller because we’d lack the wandering power to shop for more than what we truly need. Ultimately, this reveals that the issue isn’t the type of bags we use, but how consumerism has become a thoughtless practice that multiplies the amount of waste we generate.
Consider the disposable paper and plastics we use once and discard. Whole aisles are dedicated to bundles of paper napkins and towels and an assortment of plastic bags for storing food and lining trash cans. To make matters worse, their packaging adds to the piles we put in those cans.
Walk down the frozen meal aisles. Everything there is multi-wrapped, too. And whether it’s a cheap Banquet dinner or a faux gourmet meal made by Stouffer’s, their primary selling point is that they’ll save us the effort of cooking and cleaning up afterwards. Prepackaged box dinners and canned soups aren’t much different. None of this is marketed for quality as much as for their appeal to our lazy instincts.
The list goes on and on. Disposable shopping bags are just a symptom of a larger problem. They result in substantially less waste than all the other packaging we readily discard. We seem to believe we’re entitled to consume whatever we chose without consideration for how our waste stream impacts the world beyond our shores.
The wasteful nature of our consumer society is neither environmentally nor psychologically healthy. It’s going to take a lot of collective discipline for us to change. We can start by giving up one small convenience and learning to bring our own bags whenever we’re out shopping.
• Moniak is a Juneau resident.