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Single Use Bags: It’s Not You, It’s Us

Sustainability Management student Claudia Canal encourages readers to commit to reusable bags in an op-ed written in Claudia Dreifus' "Writing About Global Science for the International Media" course.  

Every time someone asks the grocery cashier for a bag, I can’t help but cringe. “Need a bag?” “Just one, please!” JUST. ONE. Those words make my ears ring – I simply can’t take it. Forgetting to bring reusable bags to the grocery store is by far not the most environmentally-impactful oversight of our daily lives. However, we have to admit that it is one of the simple swaps we’ve been hearing about for years.

European countries have long been charging for bags at supermarkets and other retail locations, as well as actively campaigning against them. Yet, many consumers consistently continue to request them. After these grocery store encounters, I find myself feeling hopeless. Every time I hear a customer utter those words, I can’t stop myself from thinking… if we haven’t been able to do this, after all this time, how are we supposed to tackle the larger sustainability challenges we are exposed to? And the long list of issues flashes before my eyes at high speed. How can we expect people to favor public transport instead of their cars? To strive to understand the nuances of waste management? How can we expect corporations and governments to curb greenhouse gas emissions? To reach carbon neutrality within the next 10 to 20 years? Stop coral bleaching? Ecosystem collapse?  

Then, I find myself thinking about the mechanisms used to disincentivize the use of single use bags. Those deterrents are failing to signal to the consumer that the problem is the action of purchasing them repeatedly and not the fact that single use bags exist. Some supermarkets even redesigned their bags to make them sturdier so as to justify their cost to customers! It is clear to me that the issue at hand is human nature: we fail to acknowledge inconvenient truths and hold ourselves accountable.  

We label sustainable living as being too complicated, inconvenient or overpriced. But using a reusable bag is an easy habit to make our own. I believe this swap to be the quintessential sustainability tip. Unlike others, it doesn’t entail any sacrifices in terms of time, investment, research, long-term commitment or extra effort. It consists of the swap for a product that offers the exact same functionality – if not, better. But there is a caveat: it requires a level of consistency – and that’s where we fail to deliver.  

It’s true we are all busy in life. We take on a lot and get through many days almost mindlessly running around from one errand to another as if we were on autopilot. Which means, no time to plan to bring those darn reusable bags. But all it takes is making a habit out of it. Perhaps taking one with you wherever you go, or leaving one in your car or place of work.  

I like to regularly reflect upon my behavior as a consumer as well as the purchase decisions I make in order to see where there might be room for improvement. I believe this to be the key for individuals to transition into a more sustainable lifestyle.

In the case of organizations and government bodies who want to operate more sustainably, the process is in essence the same. The only way to make progress and attempt to solve the current sustainability challenges we face is to start from an honest analysis of the status quo.  

We must necessarily couple that analysis with a strong will to improve, as roadblocks will appear and progress will most definitely not be linear. The same goes for picking up the renewable bag habit: we may not always remember them the first few times, but we have to continue to try. 

This piece was not written to pass judgement on anyone; after all, sustainability is a constant work in progress. We are all striving to learn, make better choices and challenges abound. I hope it serves to make whoever finds themselves on autopilot for too long, to stop. Think. Plan. Maybe grab some reusable bags from home just in case. Who knows where the day might take you? You might just end up at a grocery store…

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of any other person or entity.