Noe Valley Voice October 2008

Florence's Family Album: Bring Your Own Bag

Reminiscences by Florence Holub

Editor's Note: The Voice first published this essay, by 21st Street resident Florence Holub, almost two decades ago in September 1990. Though the illustrations are a bit dated, the cause Florence championed is as timely as ever. In fact, her column has had a lasting effect: At Florence's urging, Bell Market adopted a policy that it continues to this day. The 24th Street store will give you a nickel credit if you use your own bag when buying groceries. Interestingly, the Safeway at Mission and 30th streets, which Florence praised in 1990 for its 5-cent policy, now rebates only a penny. (The Safeway in Diamond Heights is slightly more generous: it gives back 3 cents.) Maybe Safeway needs a nudge from a new generation of bag ladies.

Not too long ago, Safeway Stores began encouraging customers to reuse their own shopping bags, by offering 5 cents for each bag the store did not have to supply. Many of us responded, but soon found that the fragility of the bags did not allow for much reuse. In spite of the few cents gained, there were definite losses.

For instance, one day after shopping, when I stepped from the car onto the sidewalk, the plastic bag split open and several of my oranges went skipping merrily down the steep hill, bouncing, leaping, or rolling under parked cars. I watched their progress as they crossed Church Street and then Chattanooga, and traveled on past Dolores over the crest of the hill and out of sight.

I remember another day when a loaded paper bag tore open in front of our house, scattering the contents. I ran every which way, gathering the runaways while some workmen across the street laughed heartily and pointed to items hiding in the bushes. A bell pepper intended for the dinner casserole bounced down the middle of the street headed for 21st and Church just as a young man on a bicycle was crossing the intersection. As the pepper struck his rear wheel, the lad looked around in alarm as if searching for the source of the jolt, but seeing nothing, continued on down toward Liberty Street. By the time I got there, he was nowhere in sight and the spokes of his bike had neatly sliced the vegetable into--voila!--bell pepper julienne.

As every shopper knows, both plastic and paper are apt to tear at inconvenient times, and although paper is biodegradable, wood pulp is required, even for that which is recycled, thus adding to the depletion of our forests. Most plastic is not biodegradable and can't be recycled other than by the consumer.

I once saw a television documentary that still haunts me. It showed how the waste we throw away so thoughtlessly piles up in landfills and oceans. In the film, the Sargasso Sea (so named for the quantity of green seaweed that once floated there) was completely covered by undulating plastic bags. That is when I decided against plastic in favor of cloth.

A year ago, I searched through my sewing remnants and found some short lengths of canvas, from which I made four durable (and washable) bags. You'd think four would be enough, but on some shopping days even more bags were needed. So I went through my closet and discovered a three-piece brown denim suit that will never go around me again. From the suit, I managed to muster three additional shopping bags, and for the past year all seven bags have served me well.

Other clothes, like blue jeans, make good heavy-duty bags, and old polyester slacks can easily be turned into carryalls that expand to fit the contents. My mother and her generation in the 1920s (I'm 71) used cloth shopping bags made of recycled or remnant fabrics--and so can we. If sewing isn't your bag, however, you can buy attractive fabric and string bags in many Noe Valley shops. Xela Imports, in particular, has some lovely hand-woven bags.

I recently spoke to the manager at the 30th and Mission Safeway, who assured me that Safeway's 5-cent credit policy was still in effect. You may have to remind the clerks, however, because they sometimes forget. To make sure that I don't forget to bring my own grocery bags, I always write on the bottom of my shopping list, in bold print, "BRING BAGS!"

I also approached Bell Market's manager and asked if his store would be willing to follow Safeway's lead. He was very sympathetic to the idea, but said he would have to consult the store's board members at their next meeting. Since our talk, Bell has started to stock canvas bags with the store's logo imprinted on them--and they are selling like hotcakes. [See editor's note, above, about current Bell and Safeway policies.]

The Noe Valley Community Store, at 29th and Sanchez [which disappeared in the mid-'90s], keeps a barrel-full of used plastic and paper bags by its checkout counter, and the Real Food Company on 24th [shuttered in 2003] also has a 5-cent rebate policy.

Wouldn't it be great if all of the merchants would adopt an anti-waste policy? It would be profitable for the stores, by cutting down on their overhead, and it would be a kindness to our earth, because it would reduce the amount of garbage we dump upon her daily, as well as lessen the pollution that accompanies the manufacture of disposable products. It would also save the lives of trees.

Lastly, it would benefit the customer. I estimate that by bringing my cloth bags to market twice a week for one year, I am $28.80 wealthier!