Long ago, when the local grocery store switched from the brown paper bags of my childhood to the flimsy and disturbingly non-biodegradable plastic bags, I decided that I would bring my own canvas bags to the store. I would set an example for the community, for my kids, for the universe! My friend Soil Scientist had successfully switched over to canvas bags years before that. She had a handful of canvas bags, each with her name written in marker, that she used when she bought groceries. Whenever she came to a potluck, she'd stop at the store and bring food in a canvas bag. I thought I could do the same. I'd be Super Eco-Mom.
It didn't work that way. I buy a whole lot of groceries, way more than my single friend ever did. I'd buy expensive canvas bags and then use them for other things — a canvas bag is so handy — and then I wouldn't have enough. They were never sitting nicely on the front seat of my car when I'd stop at the store. And they were all different sizes, which made them annoyingly impractical. I loved the concept of re-using bags, but I could never manage the practice successfully. In the end, I would get the plastic bags and just feel guilty about it. Too often that is the way awareness works with me: it adds to my guilt but has little impact on my life.
But then last year, the local grocery store began selling black re-usable bags, just the same size as the old brown paper bags, except sturdier and with handles. They were reasonably priced, just $.99. The first time I saw them, I bought a dozen. Of course, my family couldn't resist using the bags for other things, like carrying stuff to the beach, so the black bags disappeared from my car, but then the next time I went to the store, I just bought more. And whenever I forgot to carry the bags into the store, I would buy more of them. I can't imagine how many black bags I've bought in the last year, but it's probably like 60 or 70. For a while, it seemed like I would just keep buying more black bags every week for the rest of my life, which would defeat that whole smug saving-the-planet idea I had going. And while it's cheap to buy one black bag, it begins to add up when you are buying five more every time you enter the store.
But eventually, my house and community became saturated with black bags. They are everywhere, as ubiquitous as the old brown paper bags used to be. You can find them in my kids' bedrooms, filled with books or toys. You can find empty ones in my kitchen or laundry room. My mother has black bags in her house and in her car: so does my sister. When we go snowboarding on Sundays, I bring food in a black bag, and so does Neighbor Guy. Whoever is the last to leave makes sure to grab whatever black bags are lying on the table. You can find black bags in the front seat of my car, and another stash in the back. When I eat lunch at my daughter's off-campus apartment, I see black bags sitting on a chair. I've got black bags at my office at school, ready to be filled with student portfolios. When I go to a potluck, black bags are piled on the counter. No need for anyone to ever write their name on the black bags: they are everywhere and everyone's and communal property. They have become part of our lives. I haven't had to buy a black bag in months now.
The black bags seem to be working for everyone. The local grocery store saves money because they don't have to buy so many of those plastic bags. It's better for the environment, obviously. It's easier for the consumer because the bags are way sturdier than the flimsy plastic ones, which when carried by exuberant but well-meaning teenagers often sent glass jars of food flying onto the ground. It's a situation in which everyone wins.