San Francisco has been getting publicity lately for becoming the first major American city to ban non-biodegradable plastic bags – if only in large grocery stores and pharmacies. The Boston City Council is considering taking similar measures, as are leaders in other municipalities around the country. I find this intriguing . . . and also a bit worrisome.

As I’ve stated a few times in this column over the years, I try to use my own shopping bags whenever it’s convenient. I have a set of strong, amazingly expandable, cotton mesh Eco Bags that are perfect for hauling groceries and other large loads. Notice that I used the word “convenient” above, and not “possible.” There are still plenty of times when I don’t have a bag with me, and have to choose “paper or plastic,” and plenty more times when a using mesh bag would not make sense.

When I have to choose, it used to be that I would almost always go for the paper bags, since my town’s recycling handler prefers us to bag our paper waste before we place it in the bin. But occasionally, and increasing since my son was born last May, I’ve gone for the plastic ones. They’re a great way to diffuse the stench of a well-used diaper, or to contain the juices and scraps from a package of meat. These are important measures to take when you don’t want to attract raccoons to your garbage can — or when your trash pickup is still a week away.

Still, I could be more vigilant about limiting my use of disposable bags — especially when I consider the consequences. Did you know that the typical plastic shopping bag requires up to 1,000 years to decompose? Further they are made of polyethylene, a petroleum-based product; with gas prices hovering around $3.00 per gallon, we could all do our part to reduce our dependence on foreign oil. Each bag we keep out of the landfill – either by reusing an old one, or replacing it with something more earth-friendly – is a tiny contribution to the health of our planet.

These days, most grocery stores offer their own reusable tote bags. For a few dollars, you can purchase a nice canvas sack in which to carry home your groceries. If you bought one each month, you’d soon have enough bags to contain your entire grocery order. It’s a great idea – as long as you remember to bring the bags with you when you go to the store. (Hint: between shopping trips, keep them in your car.)

However, you don’t need a “special” bag for your groceries – any sufficiently strong tote bag will do. Check out the mesh bags at, or reuse the paper and plastic bags from your last shopping trip. Whole Foods Market will give you five cents off for each shopping bag you provide (and use) yourself.

I’m not naïve. I know that there are plenty of people who can’t be bothered to bring their own bags along every time they go shopping. There are worse sins, to be sure. But there are also alternatives. How about paying a small fee for the use of a plastic bag? Ikea, for example, essentially taxes you five cents if you accept a plastic bag from them. Perhaps stores could drop their prices ever-so-slightly if they didn’t have to shell out big bucks for free bags. Another alternative would be to create a strong, cheap DEGRADABLE plastic grocery bag. I for one would be psyched about that!

One excellent option is to skip the bag altogether. I’ve worked in a few different music stores over the years. It never made sense to me why anyone would need a bag to carry one small cassette or compact disc. So when I rang up a small order I would always ask my customers whether or not they wanted a bag. Some said no. Some said yes. Others paused to think it over, and generally declined the bag after all. Consider that next time you’re in a store for just one thing.

Even if we don’t stop using plastic bags altogether, we can still reduce our reliance on them. It takes some time to break a habit – but the rewards make it worthwhile.

By Kezia Bacon-Bernstein, correspondent
June 2007

Kezia Bacon-Bernstein’s articles appear courtesy of the North and South Rivers Watershed Association, a local non-profit organization devoted to the preservation, restoration, maintenance and conservation of the North and South Rivers and their watershed. For membership information and a copy of their latest newsletter, contact NSRWA at (781) 659-8168.