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Question #92190 posted on 05/12/2019 midnight

Dear 100 Hour Board,

I work at a grocery store in a city where we only use paper bags, never plastic, at the checkout lanes. (Each paper bag is 5 cents.) Today there was a hilariously rude customer who was very convinced that me asking the checker if we should put the groceries in additional bags was a "plot" to get customers to spend more money. (Obviously as a regular store employee, my best interest is just making sure that the bags are not unreasonably heavy or do not tear apart from too many groceries--I already double-bag 90% of the orders I process.) I found it hilarious to explain this to him while he went on and on about the conspiracy to make people pay more at the grocery store.

I got to thinking about it, and wondered why it is that paper bags are, so often, 5 cents each or something in many cities across the US, while plastic bags tend to be free of charge. Surely it would make more sense to charge for plastic bags, which arguably have a larger negative environmental impact than paper bags. Why is this so? Why do we (stores) frequently pass this charge on to the customers?

-your friendly neighborhood grocery store bagger


Dear Mr. Rogers' Grocer,

They charge to discourage people from using paper (or plastic) and to encourage reusable bags. If you're also having to pay just for the things to carry your groceries in every time, it's supposed to make you want to just buy the reusable ones and stop polluting the environment. Sometimes, they also can use the 'bag tax' for government funding. But really, at the end of the day it's green legislation. 

It seems to me that the decision to charge for paper instead of plastic was made by the store you work for, but I don't believe that's universal. In all the stores I've been in in Canada they didn't even offer paper bags, and charged for plastic. Some charge for both. There are also some (AWESOME) "Zero-Waste" stores where you just bring whatever you want to carry your groceries in, and they keep their goods in glass jars and such. 

I think for a long time people were much more focused on 'save the trees' and not the 'microplastics are killing the entire ocean and getting in our bodies too' camp. That's definitely changing more, and I think they will honestly probably start charging for paper AND plastic, or just stop offering one or the other. I don't really think we can make a quantitative judgment on whether deforestation is worse than plastic production because they're both REALLY bad for the environment (I could very well be wrong.)

More information about plastic and paper bag legislation, see here, here, and here.



posted on 05/13/2019 1:12 p.m.
Planet Money from NPR recently had a podcast about this very issue: https://www.npr.org/2019/05/08/721542495/the-problem-with-banning-plastic-bags

They say paper bags are actually worse for the environment than plastic. Cotton (including organic) bags are much worse than paper or plastic and the best option would be reusable plastic or synthetic (polyester) bags.