The Reusables

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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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Waste Not

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In Japan, you discover ways of economizing that are entirely different from ours. Tokyo is one of the largest cities in the world, but in this place, unlike Hong Kong, the people do not all live in apartments. Most of Tokyo is a sea of single-family houses — and different houses, each one individual. The Japanese manage this by cramming them together, with no yard to speak of. They will often have a place to shoehorn a car, and always right at the edge of the property. They don’t waste real estate on driveways, at least not where I was.

The streets, too, save space. Where I stayed in the suburb of Kichijoji, there were no shoulders and no parking on the street. The arterials had sidewalks separated from the road by a railing. The side streets had no sidewalks and no lawns — just streets and houses, crammed tight. But if the alternative is to have a cave in the sky with lots of open space below, the Tokyo way is certainly more comfortable for an individualist.

I had a question, though: If you have a party, where do the guests park their cars? I forgot to ask my host and never did figure it out. In Hong Kong, where people live in tiny apartments, if you want a big party, you rent a room at a hotel.

Across the street from the house where my family and I stayed was a city park where people picnicked and walked their dogs. It was big. In the midst of it my host pointed out a fenced-off area about the size of a family garden back in the States. There was no garden in this enclave; it was unkempt. But it was private. In Japan, my host explained, private owners can’t be compelled to sell, so the property sits there, in this case unused.

The Japanese are big on recycling. My host has several rooms full of stuff he’d like to get rid of, and there is no easy way to do it. “You can’t just take it to the dump,” he said. Sometimes he sneaks stuff into the dumpsters in the park across the street.

In this park, however, I saw no trash cans other than the dumpsters at the food concession. In my short time in Japan, I was constantly looking for a trash can. They were not to be had — yet the Japanese do not throw garbage on the ground. What do they do with it? Do they carry it with them? Did the people I passed on the street have a stash of crumpled-up wrappers in their purses and pockets?

The Japanese are also fastidious about their dogs. I thought we had reached the apex of fastidiousness in Seattle, where dog owners pick up their pets’ poops from the ground by reaching for it through a plastic bag. In the park in Japan, I saw a woman do one better. She was holding a plastic bag under her dog in anticipation.




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