Indulging Eugene’s Bag Ban

I favored Eugene’s bag ban before I opposed it. Now that grocers have begun charging a nickel for each paper bag, I’m again in favor, but for different reasons.

When the city legislation was first proposed, I was sympathetic to those who favored it. Plastic bags clog systems that remain invisible to us. Marine life, landfill capacity, and recycling machinery all suffer from plastic bags. Paper bags are better; reusable bags are better yet.

Charging customers for the bags they use did not seem onerous, measured by time, trouble or treasure. So I lined up in favor, along with most of my liberal friends.

But then I pondered the issue and drifted from that camp of conventional wisdom. I became a skeptic, not because I questioned the arguments. I worried how pietism and pride can bend logic for its own purposes.

We focus on the bags so intently, we overlook what we were putting into them. My unease about the bag charge follows my concerns about organic vegetables, fair trade coffee and hybrid vehicles. Each may be an improvement over its generic counterpart, but they may at the same time contribute to the larger problem.

If we want real sustainability, we must dig beneath the cultural landscape and root out our uncontrolled consumerism. We’re being buried by our own purchases, no matter how “enlightened” each one may be.

Our brains have barely progressed past the hunters and gatherers in our lineage. We still want to return home as victors, lauded for our prowess by family and peers. The grocery receipt in my wallet tabulates how much I saved on Bonus Buys. Buying better and more has become our society’s surest path to empowerment.

Capitalism knows how quickly this satisfaction evaporates. Manufacturers devised planned obsolescence to turn citizens into consumers. Marketers refined the concept with “new and improved.” Why wear it out if customers can be convinced to throw it out?

So anything that makes people feel good about their purchasing power must be measured against the purchases themselves. If people are buying worthless junk but feeling good that they toted it home in a reusable bag, I count that a net loss.

Even worse, we can trick ourselves into believing we have “done our part” for the environment with our smart shopping. We cannot consume our way to ecological equity. “Buy green” campaigns are second about “green” and first about “buy”.

That was my position until the bag ban went into effect. I’ve been watching people adapt. I’m now hopeful in new ways.

C.S. Lewis noted 60 years ago that choices made by the wealthy are shaped less by greed and more by pride. By 1950’s standards, most of us are at least a little bit wealthy. I think we might leverage that pride to curb some wasteful consumption habits.

Has a hungry commuter skipped a quick errand because she didn’t plan to stop and can’t bear the nickel admission that the food in her pantry won’t suffice? Has a shopper limited his purchases to better fit the reusable bag he arrived with? Will impulse purchases become just a tiny bit less impulsive?

I hope so, times three.

It’s not the half-dime that might slow us down. It’s the “principle of the thing.” Bully for principle, in this case.

Consumers want to consume well, but now some planning is required. Some might want to learn their lessons better by increasing the stakes. Savvy grocers can help these super-shoppers retrain their brains.

Grocers already offer scannable cards to add a donation to FOOD for Lane County at the check-out lane. They could do the same in support of environmental groups.

Since clerks now have to ask the unprepared whether they’d like to be charged for a bag, they can ask instead how much they’d like to be charged. Assess yourself at least a quarter for each bag you require and the full amount (including the grocer’s mandated nickel) will be donated to the environmental organization of the month.

We won’t make the world better while pushing a shopping cart, but we might make ourselves better. It’s worth a try.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs.