Monday, September 26, 2016

The Plastic Bag Incident (Or, Why There Is Hope for Bicycles Yet)



The other day I had occasion to stop by a large supermarket in Co. Derry, where I had not been in some time. In the soft fluorescent glow, I wandered its abundantly stocked aisles and grabbed a couple of things that I needed, then headed for the till. The cashier rang me up, placing the items I bought in a pile at the corner of the register.

“Could I please have a bag as well?” I said, handing her the money.

She gave me a look so nuanced in its shades of contempt, suspicion and disappointment, it would have given a Soviet-era Univermag cashier a run for their money.

“Is it a plastic bag you want?”

“Yes please."

“They cost extra, you know,” she said, in a tone that hinted she doubted I had the money.

“That’s all right.”

And as she tossed the flimsy receptacle in my direction, my heart swelled with joy.

“I’m sorry,” I said, beaming at her stupidly, as I scrambled to pack my purchase, “I usually bring my own bag.”

And that, dear readers, I do. But it is hardly the point.

The point is how astonishingly different the behaviour I encountered on this occasion was from the way things stood when I first arrived in Northern Ireland 3 years earlier. Near to where I lived at the time, this particular supermarker was one I used to visit regularly. By default, the cashiers would cheerfully place a heap of plastic bags onto the register. And any protests of “No thanks, I have a bag” would be met with genuine confusion - with pitying looks that said: (1) Well, that’s a bit weird to carry your own bag! and (2) Surely you still want these wee plastic bags as inner bags? you know, to keep your nice bag from getting dirty?

I have written about encountering the same attitude in the US some years earlier. But the bag-pushing cashiers in Northern Ireland were both friendlier and more insistent, making it a true challenge to emerge from the supermarket plastic bag-free.

When I pointed this out to some local friends at the time - as part of a general conversation about plastics - they said something to the effect of “Good luck trying to get people here to stop using plastic bags and drinking out of plastic bottles! It’s part of the culture."

Part of the culture, eh? Well, then it is all the more remarkable to now see the attitude reversing. The most interesting part, is that the cashier wasn’t just following the new store protocol. She was actually judging me on a personal level, having internalised the "asking for plastic bag = bad; bringing reusable bag = good" narrative.

But enough about bags. Because what I'm really trying to say is: Attitudes change. Cultural practices change. Societal norms are not eternally fixed, but in a constant state of flux.

Which is why it amazes me how often the faux logic of impossible-to-change local ways is used to argue that cycling culture can never take off here (insert your city/ town/ rural region of choice).

In theory, cycling can take off anywhere if circumstances align just right. Now what determines that alignment is another topic - a topic I think is exciting, and far from a lost cause, no matter how unlikely the region in question might seem.



47 comments:

  1. While your own bag probably wouldn't be as weird in Switzerland, nor would a bicycle, having a metal water bottle sure was when I was there last! I got so many comments from it, especially using it inside in place of dirtying a glass.

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    1. I have only recently managed to find ss water bottles locally and am looking forward to trying this.

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  2. Cycling will never take off in my city of Baguio, Philippines, mainly because of traffic. Traffic aside, this is a mountainous area. Cycling here is only for the sportive types.

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  3. Wow! I can't see that happening here in the US...

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    1. Depends on what part, I am sure. In Massachusetts things were certainly changing when I was last there.

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    2. Relatively good chance plastic grocery bags will no longer be available in the entire State of California (about 10% of the US) come November 8 (election day).

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    3. Can't get them in the Bay Area, except for biodegradable produce bags. And paper bags are 10 cents.

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    4. Plastic bags have been *illegal* in Portland for many years.

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  4. No more plastic bags at the market in the Republic of Seattle and you pay extra for paper, which I am fine with but its amazing to me how many folks whinge at the thought of an extra nickel....

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  5. Thanks for this.

    It's easy to get discouraged and believe things are just the way they are and are never going to improve. So when someone points out examples of unexpected progress in some area that you've assumed was hopeless it helps. Then you keep your eyes peeled for something else and find a few more you hadn't noticed. Eventually you remember all the positive changes throughout history and think maybe it IS going to keep getting better after all.

    Spin

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  6. Thank you for your part in making bicycles attractive and useful for a broader range of people, both through design and discussion. At the local level there are many opportunities to be part of the cultural change toward more bicycle use. I volunteer at a bike co-op that assists people with getting their bike roadworthy or keeping it that way. My time and labor or rewarded by greater bike use in my community.

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  7. "She gave me a look so nuanced in its shades of contempt, suspicion and disappointment, it would have given a Soviet-era Univermag cashier a run for their money."


    Thank you for this morning treat, V.!

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  8. And what changed the plastic bag culture of N. Ireland? Money! At least, I'm assuming you have a charge similar to the ones in the other parts of the UK. The 5p charge in England now has cashiers asking if you want a bag and while many still take one, not everyone does. The 10p charge in Wales has been, no surprise, more effective. And as for the Soviet Union, plastic bags there were both expensive – 75 kopeks I remember in 1989 – and tougher, made for multiple uses, like the ones in (cargo bikes or not!) Vienna, which in addition you have to ask for specifically (as you did the Soviet ones).

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    1. Not so sure it was money that changed the NI plastic bag attitude. The 5p/10p charge (depending on type of bag) was already in place 3 years ago and no one seemed to think twice about it. At some point though the cashiers stopped offering the bags by default, acting instead as if the assumption was the customer *didn't* want them, rather than the other way around. It's interesting how having to ask for something already seems to make people think twice.

      You remember how much Soviet plastic bags cost in 1989! Awesome : )

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  9. This is all very well, but what I previously regarded as an unending supply of useful carriers shoved under the kitchen sink has dwindled to the last torn scraps in next to no time. What am I supposed to do now?

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  10. While out riding the other day, it occurred to me that I'm dodging less shattered glass in the road these days. I doubt that it's because people have suddenly gotten the message that litter is awful. More likely it's that plastic bottles have replaced many of the single-use glass bottles that are casually tossed out of car windows. Yes, those squashed soda bottles are an eyesore, and they're choking the waterways, but at least they're not puncturing bike tires. At the grocery store, I constantly have to remind the clerk that I don't need a bag when I pick up a few things. And I've learned that a half gallon of milk fits snugly and securely in a jersey pocket.

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    1. Not in most women's jersey pockets unfortunately. Although a bottle of olive oil is a perfect fit.

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    2. This reminds me of a story I read of a tour to the northernmost point of mainland Europe – I'm afraid I've forgotten the name but it's a cape in Norway. As Norway was/is one of the most expensive countries in Europe, or even the world, and this cyclist was from Poland, then (around 2002) among the cheapest in Europe, and in addition he was unemployed, money was pretty tight for him. He financed himself by collecting soft drink cans which Norwegians toss out of their car windows as they drive along, and claiming the deposits on them. So clearly money isn't always a trigger to behaviour change, in contradiction of what I said earlier. Or maybe when you're a rich enough society, it isn't. Maybe they should just have made the deposits higher!

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    3. Your Irish pockets would need to be about 20% bigger to hold a 1/2 gallon than your US pockets

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  11. Things are changing here Slowly, there was at some point a statewide push to eliminate plastic bags, that was just starting to go well, people bringing their own bags or buy reusable bags at the store, when my fellow citizens voted a Moron into the State governors office. He saw fit to strike down all the plastic bag laws, so now we've gone back to plastic, BUT there has been some fundamental changes. The stores that used to punish you with a surcharge for plastic bags, now instead give you a nice discount for bringing your own bags! It's hardly enough to matter, but it's a nice reinforcement for doing the right thing and the clerks no longer look at you sideways for bringing you own bags. In Texas - Mas

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  12. I've been waiting for decades for the cycling culture to change/emerge but so far only frustrating spurts followed by declines. Just last week I discovered the one bike rack on my local street was removed to make way for a redeveloped street which allows for more auto congestion…We're going backwards here! I can remember the bike boom of the '70's and how racks were everywhere, cycling lanes added, bike shops selling bikes by the dozens each day and from that moment I envisioned a future of better design, cleaner and healthier living, but alas, it hasn't happened…yet.

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    1. I think a rise in Cycling (and other alternate forms of transportation) will not emerge on it's own, it will have to correspond with a decline in the Auto only culture, Which is happening! (if ever so slowly) Sometimes I think a bicycles main attraction (Just being fun) is it's main problem. Until people start looking at it primarily as a transformational tool (That is also fun) instead of a recreational vehicle. Then it's always going to be a fight! What many people who drive cars don't stop to consider is that for every bike there is one less car on the road! More bikes=less traffic, because there's less cars!
      I think even if the general public has not caught on, city and transportation planners have figured out we can't continue to support the exponential growth of a car based culture! The trend around here in certain poplar entertainment area's is to pull out the Diagonal street parking, expand the sidewalks to encourage pedestrians and limit car traffic to one lane each way! Businesses along those routes are BOOMING! - masmojo

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    2. Nothing emerges on it's own. Indeed, it's a process but in our marketplace economy things have to totally collapse before a smarter and more sustainable alternative emerges.

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    3. I meant Transportational tool not transformational tool. Darn spell checker! LOL

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  13. Quite often you see people doing a balancing act carrying too many items out of shops just to avoid the cashiers wrath by asking for a bag. And what about those polystyrene burger boxes still a regular sight dumped at the side of the road.

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  14. I'm sitting at my usual table enjoying morning coffee and as I look out the window it's impossible to see the street because of the number of large SUV's parked and blocking the views. I would have thought that our cars would get smaller and more economical but they're actually behemoths which require large spaces to park. The only bicycle outside is mine….Sigh. Two buildings down the street is a grocery store that double bags everything in plastic…Sigh. There are trash bins every thirty meters, filled with plastic junk which was just purchased from any one of the numerous stores and restaurants along the street. We're so wasteful and short-sighted….At least were I live…Sigh.

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  15. If I carried a bag like you show in your photo I'd leave a trail of groceries behind from my daily grocery trip. Plastic bags and bikes don't work well ;)

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    1. It can work IF there is enough seatpost so that the bag clears the rear wheel & fender, and if the contents are not too heavy. Risky though!

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    2. That's a lot of ifs ;) Another is the bag itself, so many easily rip. They're like bike tubes, they just don't make them like they used to!

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  16. I switched to re-usable bags entirely almost 10 years ago. Back then, the cashier and/or bagger would given a strange look - not unlike the one so eloquently described above - if I dared to mention my own bags. Nowadays, it's quite common to see such bags in the checkout line, but every now and then I have to run to the end of the line, and/or politely insist on my own bags, before my items get tossed into a plastic sack. It seems like the social protocol for reusable bags still being hashed out. It's no longer as simple as "paper or plastic", when I was a supermarket bagger, many years ago.

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  17. Nothing really changed, you were judged and convicted by your peers, either way.

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    1. That will never change, unless the structure of the human mind changes fundamentally.

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  18. I have a thin nylon bag stuffed it into a gap in the holder of my wire basket, that tucks into its own pocket and is decorated with a flower about the size of my palm — pink w a yellow centre. When open, it bears the name of a Canadian winery; in fact, it came free w a bottle of shiraz, and yes, it is every bit as attractive as you would think. It must be different where you are, but I find the bags they charge you 5¢ for at the till are so thin, you can’t trust them to get fruit and veg home if they’re hanging from the handlebars. Pink flower bag to the rescue.

    Here, too, we’ve seen a change in perspective you mention. A few years ago, my closest supermarket had a large bank of coin-operated lockers by the front entrance, for bags and knapsacks. I never used it, so don’t know if you paid for the privilege, or if the coin was returned. Regardless, there’s been a gradual change. What I found oddest, is that they started selling reusable bags and grocery baskets quite a while before they encouraged bringing said bags and baskets back to the store w you.

    But I realize your point wasn’t the bags.
    I hear a fair bit of “I can’t cycle/ commute because…,” but I see more and more bikes on the street all the time. Maybe, it’s even progress that people feel they should defend why they don’t cycle? Practices change, as you say. They’ve changed enough that this summer, our rather staid city council even coughed up for a few bike lanes in the downtown core. And the world did not end. People did not stay away in droves; businesses weren’t forced to close. I’m not sure what alignment of stars would be needed to do more, but baby steps, and that’s a start.

    Best,
    Lil Bruin

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  19. I am interested about the saddle above the plastic-bag.
    Can you tell me about it;

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    1. And I'm interested in how well a full bag tied behind your saddle works as an impromptu saddlebag. I often stop at a store on a bike without luggage, and am reduced to carrying plastic bags home with my left hand while I brake with my right (fixed gear, so no shifting and a single, right-side brake lever). But this looks much easier (and safer).

      All such bags get reused at least once before they hit the trash.

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    2. Thomas - the saddle belongs to a Monochrome bike. And Argentinian bicycle that has made a stopover chez moi on its way back from Eurobike.

      Bertin - I have done this only a few times. And in my experience it works if there is lots of seatpost showing (so that the bag does not rub the rear wheel), and if the contents are not too heavy. Over longer distances I prefer it to the misbalance and slip-offedness of carrying the bag on the handlebars, especially on a bicycle with a twitchy front end.

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  20. Good to raise this issue given given human's suicidal pollution of the planet. As you say it is possible for every one of us to make the change, take our own bags, shop where we can buy food that's not wrapped in plastic, cycle or take public transport, stop eating food with added sugar, reduce consumption to the need level...

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  21. Back in 2006, we stayed in Cork for vacation. Even at that time, the Tesco didn't give out bags unless you asked for and paid extra for them. Back home in the Midwest, I live in a spread-out, auto dependent area. The few cycling regulars seen in the small local town are doing the usual two, three, or four bags hung from the handlebars trick.

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  22. Plastic bags are not the problem... human attitudes towards littering is the main problem...

    Not sure about NI, but else where, trash has to be bagged before being dumped... so for me, these plastic grocery bags are just large enough for to dump a day's worth of trash. Otherwise, I would have to buy those big, black, PLASTIC trash bags for my trash and dump them when not even half full (isn't that a waste?).

    Reuseable bags - I read somewhere that the amount of resources to make them would require a few hundred times worth of usage to be comparable against these plastic grocery bags when re-used as trash bags.

    Yeah, I know, this is a cycling blog... I love cycling, but just thought I would share how I live with these plastic bags...

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  23. Interesting idea - we've also moved from smoking in public places, including restaurants, being commonplace, to virtually no public smoking. It would have seemed unthinkable 30-odd years ago when my classmates even smoked on the school coach to and from school.

    Another example is the seatbelt - they made them compulsary in the UK around the mid 1980s (IIRC), and people were very resistant at the time.

    The problem with utility cycling in the UK seems to be that many people think of it as being only for children, oddballs, or people who cannot afford a car. They therefore look at it as a backward step to prefer a cycle over a car. Of course, this is partly down to rise of the affordable car in the 1950s - 1960s when people began to swap their ubiquitous use of bikes for cars and motorcycles. The other factor is the poor provision of infrastructure of course, which is probably the main thing holding back mass utility cycle use.

    Over the years I have heard lots of promises of cycle friendly roads being built in to new housing developments, but it usually always gets left out when the houses are built.



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  24. Still with the bags (sorry) there's a report in today's Grauniad, and doubtless elsewhere, that says:
    "More than nine in 10 people now often or always carry their own bags, up from seven in 10 before the 5p charge came into effect, and the public became much more supportive after it started. The number of plastic bags taken from supermarkets and big retailers in England has fallen by 85%."
    I'm frankly amazed that 7 in 10 people were carrying their own shopping bags before the charge came in. I note though they don't say how long before.
    https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/sep/29/shoppers-in-england-now-more-likely-to-use-their-own-bags-plastic

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  25. Have a look at how they do transport in Ethiopia. Who needs bags?
    https://youtu.be/teTWab1Oxr0

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  26. It's all wonderful until the next bout of cooties plague comes along, carried on those reusable tote bags people drop on the floor where their pet sloths or ocelots or what have you just sat and cleaned their bottoms. Then we'll remember that Douglas Adams warned us the Golgafrinchans were wiped out by a telephone-borne plague after deciding they no longer needed professional telephone sanitizers.

    Wait, no, we won't remember. We'll all be dead from reusable bag-borne cooties.

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  27. Here in Chicago, disposable plastic bags were more-or-less banned this year. The decrease in litter is dramatic! Out in the suburbs, they still force them on you...

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  28. I don't see that using plastic bags is such a horror...as long as you recycle them, (which we do.)

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