Paper or plastic?
The first time the checkout girl asked me this question I thought she was asking me how I intended to pay my bill. So I answered, "What?"
"Paper or plastic," she repeated. Then she clarified. "Do you want your groceries packed in a paper bag or plastic?" I knew this was something that was supposed to be important. I said paper. I wanted paper because I had a specific use for paper grocery bags. I could stand up 16 of these bags in my 1970 Datsun 510.
When I got home, one of the bags fit neatly in the plastic trash can I stored under the kitchen sink. When it was full, I put the bag and its contents outside in the galvanized steel garbage can. Once a week I would carry the big galvanized steel garbage can to the curb for pick up. All my life I have been on garbage detail. That was my job as a 4-year-old at home and my first job when I went to college and marriage has offered me no respite.
Years later I abandoned paper for plastic. I had my reasons. I replaced the plastic trash can with a slick little gadget affixed to the sink's cabinet door. This gadget was designed to hold a plastic bag in the open position. A plastic grocery bag would fill up in about one day. I would place the bag with its contents in a big plastic garbage can complete with wheels. Each week I would wheel the garbage can out to the curb. It was good having wheels because now the solid waste was too heavy to carry.
These days we don't do paper or plastic. Mercy no. We have large canvas bags that we schlep to the grocery store with us and the baggers fill with our purchases. Now we buy 30-gallon garbage bags that we use to line a plastic trash container that sits under the sink behind the cabinet door.
I think that buying a special bag is supposed to be sounder ecologically than using the flimsy little bags that are generously dispensed by baggers at Publix. Twice a week I place one or two of these 30-gallon bags in my wheeled plastic garbage can and wheel it to the curb. We all know why this is done twice a week in Florida.
One thing clouds the picture. When I consider the amount of solid waste our home generates even using our garbage disposal, the amount of waste represented either in paper or plastic grocery bags is insignificant. The real source of solid waste is the packaging. The amount of packaging seems to grow exponentially. And I think how things used to be when I was a kid.
We bought flour in a 50-pound cloth sack. The flour was then poured into the kitchen flour bin that would hold about 100 pounds of flour. We then took the flour sack and cut it up to use as a kitchen towel or a pillow case. Then after years of use it became a dust rag or a rag rug. When the rug wore out it was picked up by the rag-picker and was recycled into cotton batting for upholstered furniture or processed into rag content paper.
Saltine crackers were bought in a steel tin. After the crackers were consumed, the tin was returned to the baker to be re-filled. Milk came in bottles. We would use the bottles to play games, like trying to drop clothes pins into a bottle from shoulder height. Then after our games (remember spin the bottle?) they went back on the front porch for the milkman. Fruit and vegetables were not packed in Styrofoam trays. They came naked as God intended. Soda pop, a rare treat, came in returnable bottles. The grocer weighed out sugar on old newspaper and then folded the paper into a neat little packet. The sugar went into the kitchen canister and the newspaper went to the outhouse. We made our own butter and cheese from our cows and goats. We baked our own bread. Eggs came from our ducks and chickens.
As we struggle over the ethical choice between paper or plastic or the even higher moral choice of bringing a canvas bag from home, it seems we are straining at gnats. The issue isn't how we bag our food packages. Toting our groceries home in a canvas bag is a symbolic gesture. The issue is packaged food. Can we begin to live so that we use neither paper nor plastic? Can we not worry about recycling packaging because we stop cycling in the first place?
C.D. Chamberlain lives in Spring Hill.