The Reusables


My state, California, recently enacted a Bag Law. Intended to reduce the mighty environmental danger of plastic bags, it forbids drug stores and groceries from giving them out for free; they have to charge at least ten cents. This nanny-state microaggression was approved at last November’s general election, by the same voters who gave Hillary Clinton a majority in this state.

I have only anecdotal and speculative evidence about the effects of this law. I assume that workers who make plastic bags have been hurt, and that retailers have not been hurt, because they get to keep the ten cents. A slim majority of voters waked up in time to keep the money from going to some phony environmental fund.

Is saving a dime worth all that effort? Would it be worth ten cents to keep other customers from hating you?

As for the customers, a remarkable number of them are doing what the law wants them to do — bringing their own “reusable” bags.

Of course, some of them did that before the law was passed. These were environmental zanies, and their post-election conduct was predictable. They look smug, make self-congratulatory observations to the clerk, bother their kids with information about the purpose of “daddy’s bag,” etc. Such people were always few, and their numbers have not increased.

But there has been a substantial increase in the number of people who seem sane in other respects but are now showing up with reusables. Nowadays, I rarely hit the checkout line without being preceded by someone who spends five minutes, in close collaboration with the clerk, packing and repacking his week’s supply of groceries in a container made to hold an avocado, a piece of kale, and three back issues of Prevention magazine. Is saving a dime worth all that effort? Would it be worth ten cents to keep other customers from hating you? Would it be worth a dime to spare yourself the scientifically documented risk of disease entailed by the reuse of bags in public and the difficulty of washing them? By the way, wouldn’t it be worth ten cents, just to save yourself the trouble of washing a stupid shopping bag? Not to mention all the precious energy consumed in the process.

No rational defense of reusables is possible.

Now, on to me. I may not like the Bag Law — in fact, I detest it — but when I’m paying $50.00 for groceries, an increase of ten cents (twenty for double bagging) is insignificant. Compared to the hassle of dragging reusables around, it’s microscopic. I don’t mind carrying a wine bottle out in my own bare hands; in fact, It makes me feel all manly and edgy and lumpen. But I mind even less spending ten cents for a bag that will hold the wine, the frozen dinners, the two avocadoes, the tortilla soup, and that weird cheese from New Zealand, without any need for forethought or planning — a bag that will then be available the next day, to line the garbage can.

Of course, this is not a principled stand, but neither is it a principled stand to torture yourself with reusables — if you’re a normal person, that is. So why do normal persons do it?

The answer, according to a conservative-libertarian friend who also detests the law but who reluctantly admits to using reusable bags instead of paying the damned ten cents, is the following:

"I hate to waste money."

I’m puzzled by his reasoning. So you’d be wasting ten cents on a plastic bag, but you’re not wasting more than that on a reusable?

This is not a principled stand, but neither is it a principled stand to torture yourself with reusables — if you’re a normal person, that is.


Thinking about what he said, I discovered numerous parallel puzzlements. For example:

I never spend a minute balancing my checkbook, but I’ll spend an hour calling to protest a three-dollar overcharge on my credit card.

I’ve caught myself putting up with terrible service in store A, simply because I don’t want to waste five extra minutes to travel to store B.

We all know people who are grossly inconvenienced — even threatened in their lives or livelihood — by the machinations of X political party, but who will never, never vote for Y political party, because some proponent of Y once made some offensive remark, or because their Ma and Pa always voted for X.

These are all instances of being penny wise and pound foolish, and some serious research needs to be done on them. It might explain a lot about life on earth.

But my friend pointed out something else. He lives in what, according to South Park, is the citadel of “Smug” — the San Francisco Bay area. There, he says, he has observed the three types of bagholder whom I have observed, here in Southern California: the people (e.g., me) who just go ahead and pay the ten cents for a plastic bag, the people who reluctantly but willingly tote a reusable (that’s him), and the people who gleefully advertise their allegiance to reusables.

But he says that he frequently encounters a fourth type, which is worse, even, than the third: people for whom reusables became a fact of nature as soon as the Bag Law was passed, people who see them not as a hardship or a puzzlement or a moral victory but as an expression of the way things ever were and ever ought to be. For them, there is no problem — because they are the problem.

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Jo Ann

I agree with you on every count: the sanitation issue when they pack my ground beef in the same bag with my strawberries, the relative price of a 10-cent bag compared to a $50 grocery bill, and especially the loss of those handy dandy lightweight plastic bags we used to use as trash-can liners, wet-bathing-suit holders, used diaper wrappers, and poop-picker-uppers. It’s so self-righteously ironic to purchase a 10-cent reusable bag to hold the box of plastic garbage bag liners I now have to purchase as well. Surely someone in the private sector can design a cheap, lightweight, water-tight bag that decomposes after one year.

Richard Parker

"Would it be worth a dime to spare yourself the scientifically documented risk of disease entailed by the reuse of bags in public..."

I believe you but can you provide a citation or reference for this comment?

Stephen Cox

Thanks, Richard. Try this for a summary.

Andy Hanlen

Stephen, I am pretty much on the same page as you on this subject, and refused to purchase the reusable bags, preferring to collect the ten cent paper bags offered at my local Von's. That is, until my wife returned from a trip going through her late mother's things up north, and delivered a half dozen reusable bags her mother had proudly, pre-Bag Law, acquired and used. I am now a bag toting reuser, except when I need some of the paper bags, in which case I leave the reusables in the car.

I can't decide if I have succumbed, surrendered, or just sold out.

Fred Mora


I'd like to add another datum to the reasons you have to rightly despise this bag law. I am old enough to remember how, in my home country, people used to go to buy groceries from small stores, especially the butcher, and carry the groceries in a canvas bag. Most of the stores wrapped the food in paper. The wrappers leaked, and the canvas bags were not designed to be washed thoroughly -- it would actually have ruined most of them, as they were reinforced with cardboard inserts.

Doctors and health institute decried this practice. Dirty canvas bags -- yes, even those that had a washable liner -- were just Petri dishes pouring lethal bacteria straight into our kitchens, sending the most fragile to the hospital, if not to an early death.

Supermarkets started putting mom-and-pop stores out of business in the ’70s, and the same health professional applauded. The plastic bag was hygienic, it should definitely not be reused, and it would cut the incidence of deadly food poisoning. Indeed, death by food poisoning quickly became rare enough to be newsworthy.

If these doctors and biologists are right, the resurgence of the canvas bag should trigger an increase in food poisoning and hospitalizations. Considering how much hospital waste is generated by any ER visit, particularly from "leaking" patients, this should yield a sharp increase in waste going to landfills or incinerators.

I am not convinced that the decrease in plastic bags will be enough to compensate for the extra tonnage of biohazard refuse generated by all these avoidable illnesses. Even without considering the resulting spike in human suffering, this bag law is a very bad idea.

Scott Robinson

Dear Stephen,

You have a good point about the profit and loss analysis of bringing your own bags versus paying a dime for each new one. The real problem people like me have with each plastic bag costing 10 cents is that they used to be free, no questions asked. Now they're nickel and diming me for what is just trash or a bag to take my lunch to work in. As for now, I take bags when I remember but would pay for fresh ones now. I wonder if the stores have to pay some tax to California for each bag they sell like sales tax. Maybe we will soon have to vote on propositions to increase bag fees and separate ones to increase sales tax.

Own Bag It or Buy It,

Luther Jett

Here in the Free State of Maryland, a bag tax has been in place for a number of years. Ours is only five cents per bag. Sometimes I remember to bring my own bag; often I don't for the same reasons of convenience outlined by Mr. Cox.

Outside of every nearly every supermarket stands a large bin for depositing used plastic bags so that they can be recycled. The bins are always full to overflowing.

I wonder how much carbon is consumed by the recycling plant to which the used bags will ultimately be consigned. But I also wonder how much carbon is consumed by the factories which manufacture the reusables.


Stephen, have you gone around the bend? Who would wash a plastic shopping bag to reuse it? Do you have some expectation that the bag the cashier pulls off the roll is operating-room sterile? That you could eat off of its surface? Is that both hoity and toity? It certainly is precious.

We have a pack-your-own food warehouse in Connecticut — a state where no similar "bag law" exists — but a store which will provide a durable and expected-to-be-reused-multiple-times plastic bag with your groceries at 10¢ per, and has been offering the same high-quality bag for years at the same price. They do that for several reasons: chiefly because they hold costs down on everything (in fact, they even manage to hold down their costs on trash disposal because some people ask that the cartons used to ship goods to the store be offered to consumers in lieu of bags), but also because the bags provide store advertising - and because they're obviously a money maker. Good on them! I've got some of their bags that I've had and reused for years - years! They're that good.

And I never wash them. (One of them had some Bloody Mary mix spill from a broken bottle about three years ago; the thing looks like it was used to clean a murder scene. I'm especially proud of using that one, as-is.)

But if it came to the point that Connecticut enacted such a silly law as the one you declaim, then I'd just buy my grocery bags by the boxed roll: from "Glad" or "Hefty" or whoever offers the best deal for the highest quality, best-designed bags (preferably in the size that I want - and which will also fit the trash can). But for now (since I don't always shop at the warehouse store) I just continue to ask for "paper in plastic", and that way I don't even have to buy the trash can in the first place.

But really … washing plastic bags? I think it's past time that you moved from that place, my friend. (Aside from all of this, I declaim the stupid law with you.)

Stephen Cox

Thanks for your comment, Chris! There's a misunderstanding here: I don't wash any bags; I just don't repeatedly pack food in a ten-cent plastic bag, and I don't buy non-plastic reusables that I would need to wash if I wanted to carry food in them.

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