The great cycle

Published 9:15 pm Tuesday, January 18, 2011

It’s funny how things cycle back around after appearing to fade into obscurity. Remember those bell-bottom jeans with the peace-sign patches that you were embarrassed about by 1980? They’re your granddaughter’s favorites today. Remember the silly hairstyles those four boys from London brought to America along with their wildly popular music in the 1960s? Another teen heartthrob 50 years later is making millions of dollars crooning to 13-year-old girls while wearing his hair in a similar ‘do.

Even at the grocery store, things have gone back to the future in recent years. There was a time when — except, perhaps, in Franklin, Va. — walking out of a supermarket with a paper bag in one’s arms was interpreted by some folks as an angry and violent gesture against the Earth. The general notion was that someone who would pick “paper” over “plastic” when given the choice by a cashier probably also would club baby seals to death.

Today, plastic bags are the Styrofoam cups of the ‘80s, and those establishments that haven’t figured a way to get rid of them face the possibility of paying heavy taxes for their use or watching as they are banned outright by legislators tired of seeing the bags littering the highways, fields, bushes, streams and trees of their districts.

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In such an environment, paper bags have become somewhat acceptable again, though it would be overstating things to say there’s a resurgence in their popularity. Instead, BYOB — Bring Your Own Bags — is once again taking hold as the preferred solution to the problem of how to haul one’s purchases home. Whether they are the mesh bags that put one in mind of the old days or the brightly colored advertising vehicles now sold at nearly every checkout stand in America, reusable shopping bags are almost as ubiquitous today as the triple-arrowed recycling logo.

And a pox on anyone inconsiderate enough to push a plastic-bag-laden cart through the supermarket parking lot today. Given the social pressures that exist in 2011, those folks might as well get caught wearing real fur.

Social pressures have changed the way we shop through the years, just as surely as they’ve changed the way we dress. Using disposable plastic bags may, indeed, be the ecological equivalent of dumping one’s used motor oil into the river, but experience shows that society has policed the motor oil problem by carefully regulating its disposal — not by banning it.

Similarly, if strict littering laws are strictly enforced, much of the problem with stray plastic bags could be solved, and government would not have to meddle in the question of whether a business should be allowed to give away one kind of bag or another. Social pressures eventually will determine that business decision, anyway, just as they eventually chose against mutton-chop sideburns and plaid pants.