, Newburyport, MA

July 3, 2013

A European response to the plastic bag debate

Stacy Tirman

---- — I remember when I was newly wed and shopping for the first times on my own. The bag boy would ask if I wanted paper or plastic. I would say “paper, please” and get a judgmental look from the clerk and the bag boy. You see, that was when everyone thought they were saving the trees by using plastic instead. The grocery sack debate has been going on for quite a while already.

I never liked the plastic because I had to carry at least twice as many bags and sometimes they broke. I have always been an environmentally conscious person and I even felt guilty using the paper. However, I would reuse them as garbage sacks, not because I was “recycling,” but because we were young and poor. No recycling programs were in place where I lived here in the U.S.

Later when recycling programs started, along came the new canvas grocery bags. They were heavy, thick, relatively inflexible, yet couldn’t stand on their own and didn’t hold very much despite their strength. Lots of environmental organizations started making or supplying these, so I had all different sizes with all different lengths of straps, which could make it a little difficult when carrying them to the car or apartment. Needless to say, I did not use these too much for grocery shopping.

Technology just gets better. Lately, they have come up with super-thin and transportable cotton or nylon bags that are great to throw in your purse for that spur-of-the-moment purchase. The nylon ones actually fold in on themselves and fit in your purse at the size of a small folding wallet without the weight. I like these for when I need to only purchase a little; if you are purchasing a lot of heavy items like laundry soap, then these don’t work so well.

After years of dealing with the shopping bag dilemma, I now think I have the best shopping bags ever! They are made from two recycled plastic drinking bottles. They are extremely lightweight and fold flat when not in use and stand up straight when I need to fill it (I have no bag boys anymore, I must do it myself). They hold as much as a paper bag and are even stronger for those days when the bottles of olive oil go on sale. They are convenient and all the same size.

You see, I buy them at my grocery store here in Europe. The bags can be purchased for the equivalent of $2 at the checkout stand if you have forgotten to bring yours that day. They hang right beside a stack of paper sacks that can also be purchased for 30 cents each, instead. You just put them up front on the conveyor belt with all of your groceries and the clerk rings those up first and you are ready to load (in Europe, you are packing your own; I am not sure about the US). The small, very thin plastic bags are only supplied in the fruit and vegetable area and the checkout clerk has a roll that she will use for certain items that she thinks might need extra security, such as containers of berries. You can also ask her to give you one for something you might think needs extra security, such as raw chicken. What I mean to say is, that while there is single-use plastic, it is just used very little.

Europe, like the U.S., is also always evolving on the environmental front. When I first moved here the reusable bags that I purchased were made of thick plastic or waffle weave plastic that was very strong, and stood on its own for loading, but it had a fault too. These things would not fold flat for storage, they loved to stay in their open, crinkly shape, and took up prime closet and trunk space. They have certainly improved since those days.

Almost everyone here carries their own sacks to the grocery — it is a habit. They expect to pay when they forget to bring theirs.

Boutique, specialty, clothing and bookstores supply bags free of charge. But as you get to more domestic and necessity shops such as building supply and household goods, etc., they may charge you a small fee for their sack if you do not supply your own. I always keep some in my trunk for impulsive shop stops. Pharmacies will ask if you want a sack or not, but it is free.

Europeans have been dealing with these issues far longer than Americans, and I think the systems they have implemented for the overuse of plastic bags works well. We only need to copy the road they’ve paved, et voilà, everyone will get used to it and wonder why they ever did it any other way.

Well done, students, for bringing this issue to light!


Stacy Tirman has lived in Switzerland for the past 12 years, but will be moving to Newburyport next year, where she has already bought a house.