“Do you prefer paper or plastic,” the grocery store cashier asks as she unloads my cart.
“Neither,” I answer, holding up a handful of cloth shopping bags. “I brought my own.”
The collection of bags speaks silently about where I’ve been, what I’ve seen and where I shop.
One of the bags is red and emblazoned with the World War II Museum logo, a 2009 souvenir from when I reported the opening of the Solomon Victory Theatre in New Orleans. Another is yellow and branded with the name of the electric co-operative that powers my abode in the Virginia Piedmont.
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A canvas bag in black and red is a constant reminder of years of covering the Coast’s annual “Go Red For Women” event. One of my favorites, a blue one, declares “Mississippi Gulf Coast National Heritage Area.” Yet another is a nifty compartmentalized bottle holder with the logo of a green grocer.
The cloth shopping bags are constant passengers in my car. I wish I could say I always take a few in with me when shopping, but sometimes I forget.
Like most Americans I have a stack of plastic sacks and a pile of plain brown or fancy paper give-away bags. In my weak defense, I do re-purpose them.
Akkk. By our shopping habits, we Americans are awash in throw-away shopping bags.
And there’s more....
We Americans are also awash in cardboard and other packaging materials.
I’m not big on online shopping because I prefer to give local businesses my money, but sometimes for harder-to-find items or in time crunches I join the Internet shopping throngs.
That happened recently when searching for a less harmful organic chemical to tackle weeds.
I found what I needed on a website with other interesting products, so my order was much larger than original intent.
Soon, the boxes began arriving on my front porch, always smaller boxes within bigger boxes, stuffed on the sides with air-filled plastic, packing peanuts and crumpled paper.
I ended up with Mount Packaging as I did my best to break down the boxes for recycling or re-purposing. It was hard work. “So much for convenient, time-saving Internet shopping,” I say to myself. “Do we realize what we are doing with all this ‘convenience’ shopping?”
I remembered visiting a friend in Switzerland in the 1980s and observing how more sensible Europeans are about shopping habits. Few stores, especially grocery markets, offer free bags.
In my innocence as a novice columnist, I suggested a bring-your-own-bag mantra would be a good idea for Americans to adopt. Whew! I wasn’t expecting the scathing mail and phone calls I got for suggesting such a thing. I hope that today we better understand the need to lessen landfill contents.
Although most regions have recycling possibilities, my observation is that few Americans nurture consistent recycling genes. Much goes into garbage cans that could be put into recycle bins.
’Round we go in history circle
Some of us are coming full circle from our great-grandparents, who brought their own baskets or cloth sacks when they went shopping. They also weren’t as consumer-oriented and products weren’t double-packaged. There just wasn’t as much stuff to buy.
Briefly, the use of bags for shopping and cardboard for shipping mirrors conspicuous consumption.
The invention of cardboard boxes is often credited to an English inventor in 1817. In the next century, Kellogg and Nabisco played big rolls in popularizing cardboard for packaging.
The first paperboard boxes were not corrugated, which adds strength through lightness. Corrugated cardboard was first patented in the mid-1850s to make hat liners for English gentleman high top hats.
An American industrialist in the early 1870s turned the corrugated hat liners into single-sided boxes for shipping. That was improved by another American industrialist who double-sided the boxes, leading the way for the popular pre-cut, folding boxes still popular.
At the same time, paper shopping bags blossomed.
A Pennsylvania teacher invented the paper bag in 1852 but through the next century that envelop-shaped bag was improved by others, adding pleated sides, stronger paper and, by the 1950s, branding with store names.
As for the ubiquitous plastic sack, it dates to 1960 and Celloplast, a Swedish firm in search of uses for cellulose film. Celloplast’s U.S. patent paved the way for that familiar T-shirt shaped plastic bag.
A mere 38 years ago — 1979 — the first U.S. cheaper-than-paper, plastic grocery bag was introduced. Since then the possibilities for shopping have increased mightily along with the number of plastic bags. Alarmed by overflowing landfills, hundreds of counties and municipalities are enacting fees or bans.
A local bag story
In an attempt to localize this Sunday missive, I searched old editions of this newspaper for something mentioning both cardboard boxes and paper bags. I was delighted to find one, although its relevance is questionable.
From May 1922 in Prohibition-era Gulfport comes this:
“The officer observed a cardboard box in the truck with an object in a paper sack in this box and upon examination the contents of the sack proved to be one quart of corn whiskey commonly known as ‘shinny’ or ‘white lightening.’”
The offending paper bag was bagged by the law and the man charged.
Kat Bergeron, a veteran feature writer specializing in Gulf Coast history and sense of place, is retired from the Sun Herald. She writes the Mississippi Coast Chronicles column as a freelance correspondent. Reach her at BergeronKat@gmail.com or at Southern Possum Tales, P.O. Box 33, Barboursville VA 22923.