Saturday, January 17, 2009

2 Things Challenge – Paper/Plastic

The challenge this week is Paper/Plastic. My past entries have been basically a photographic entry. This one has photos also, but since there are no real rules to this thing, I decided to write a mini essay on the topic to go along with them.

These are two of the bagpersons (can’t really call them bagboys anymore since they aren’t always boys) at our local Piggly Wiggly here in the small town of Columbiana, Alabama.

What’s the connection to Paper/Plastic? These are the only people I know who still say it that way, “Paper/plastic?”

In 1964 when I was 16 years old and working at the local Colonial grocery store in Macon, Georgia, there was never a question of paper or plastic. It was paper. I’m pretty sure plastic had been invented back then, but it was not nearly as prevalent as today and all grocery bags were definitely paper. Bagging the groceries in such a way that the customers, most of whom were women, could get the groceries from their cars to their kitchens without straining a muscle or ripping a bag and spilling all the contents in the trunk or over the sidewalk was something of an art form. We bagboys prided ourselves on doing a good job of it. We even carried the groceries to the cars for the customers. When I moved up to working in the produce department, it was still paper. For instance, potatoes came in fifty pound paper sacks and the produce workers would have to break them down into five pound and ten pound paper bags, individually weighed and stapled closed. You couldn't see the actual potatoes you were buying, you just had to trust that I hadn't put any rotten ones in there. Customers would pick out their other produce and we would weigh it, put it in a paper bag, staple it shut, and write the cost on the bag. The cashier usually had no idea what she (and they were all female back then) was ringing up, just what the cost was. I remember circling the price if the item was especially crushable, like tomatoes or bananas.

Later in my life, and I do believe it was perhaps a decade or more later, the little plastic bags began to show up in grocery stores where I lived in Birmingham, Alabama. I presume they began to appear in the rest of the country, maybe even the world, about the same time. This was the first time I ever heard the question, “Paper or plastic?” I developed a rather flip answer. I would say, “Paper, we can grow more trees but we can’t make any more dinosaurs.” Even though I was an engineer who really did have concerns about over population and over consumption of natural resources, especially energy producing ones like oil, I actually think my answer was more because I liked the paper bags better. When you loaded them into the trunk of the car they didn’t just collapse into a little puddle and let your groceries roll all over the place as you drove home. The paper bags would actually stand up and lean against each other. You might actually arrive home and not have to re-bag all your groceries to get them from the car to the kitchen.

As time marched on, the question migrated from, “Paper or plastic?” to, “Plastic okay?” I think this must have been because the plastic bags had become so much cheaper that even though they still gave the customer the choice, the expected choice had become plastic. I hung on to my desire for paper bags for a while, but eventually I gave in and just responded, “Whatever.” Now, they don’t even ask, except maybe out here in our small little town and our historical little Piggly Wiggly. They just start bagging your groceries in plastic bags and if you want paper ones, you have to catch the bagboy/girl and ask for paper before they get started. If you shop at Wal Mart, though, and I’m sure many other stores, there is not even a choice. Heck, there’s not even a bagboy at most grocery stores anymore, and if there is one, he’s jumping around trying to handle five or six cashiers simultaneously (Publix and Piggly Wiggly being the local exceptions). Even at Wal Mart where the cashier does the bagging, we still have to load them into the buggy ourselves to get them out to the car.

At Wal Mart and some other stores you do have the option of purchasing and re-using the little cloth bags. There are no paper bags, however. The cloth bags are probably a good idea, environmentally anyway, but when my wife and I do go to Wal Mart to buy groceries, it usually takes between twenty and forty of the little plastic bags to pack all the groceries. Who wants to haul twenty cloth bags into the store to carry your groceries out? They would probably stop you on the way in to put a little return label on each and every one of your twenty cloth bags to ensure that you had not just picked them up and not paid for them yet.

Enough of my ranting, but I think I’m about to change my answer back to, “Paper, we can grow more trees but we can’t make anymore dinosaurs.”
Do they even make the plastic ones from oil anymore?


Bev said...

I very much enjoyed reading this. I have never heard of this expression before. It must be a US custom.

I love your comment about dinosaurs LOL

chosha said...

Cool comparison and interesting history. I don't remember paper shopping bags too well, but I do remember when plastic wasn't automatic. My mum used to take a few string bags to the supermarket. Ironically now when I see those, they're made of plastic string!

Cameron said...

Meredith and I take 6 or 7 of the reusable cloth/canvas bags to do the grocery shopping. They hold about twice as much as the plastic bags, and they have a rubber "floor" in them so they stand up like the old paper bags when full. We've ripped one or two, but they still last a ton longer than plastic or paper bags. Granted, we also grocery shop weekly or so, so the load is smaller. Only thing I put in plastic nowadays is usually meat (so it doesn't drip in the reusable bags).

Dusty Lens said...

I never remember which was better. So we use the cardboard box and canvas bags now...when we remember to bring them.