990: Plastic Bags

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Plastic Bags
The high I feel when I actually remember to bring my reusable bags to the store--and take them inside rather than leaving them in the parked car--can last for days.
Title text: The high I feel when I actually remember to bring my reusable bags to the store--and take them inside rather than leaving them in the parked car--can last for days.


This is another comic with one of Randall's fun facts.

In the United States, at the time this comic was written, most grocery stores used to provide plastic bags free; as well as a "bagger," whose only job is to bag the groceries — although sometimes this function is performed by the cashier. An exception to this rule might be "extreme discount" stores, such as Aldi. Customers are rarely, if ever, expected to bag their own groceries, even if they bring a reusable bag. It follows that sometimes a bagger might become a bit overzealous and use too many bags for too few products. This comic is mocking this tendency to go overboard, which is incredibly wasteful. The last frame takes this practice to its absurd and frustrating end, showing a reusable bag that has been double bagged with plastic bags. Exactly why bags are provided is probably a topic best left to academic discussion, but suffice to say that it is the state of the industry in the U.S. Perhaps grocery chains are concerned that if they did not provide free plastic bags, customers would defect, instead, to a competitor. Most shoppers view plastic bags and bagging by the store as givens.

Relatively recently, some U.S. jurisdictions have begun to join more and more governments world-wide to either ban plastic bags, charge customers for them, or generate taxes on each sold bag. Using Washington, DC (Randall's home turf) example, as of 2010 customers are charged a $0.05 tax (again, by the local government and NOT by the grocery store) for each plastic bag, and receive an equivalent rebate for each reusable bag. While today it is accepted as a fact of life, the tax angered many at its adoption, even spurring some to claim that they would do their shopping in the next state over (in this case, Virginia), driving 5 or 10 miles to save 5 or 10 cents (this would address the theme of wasting money to save a trivial amount, addressed by Randall in 951: Working). The tax has since become accepted as a fact of life, and has been quite successful at its initial goal of reducing the amount of bags discarded in area rivers and streams.

The title text refers to the idea that while many attempt to make the environmentally-conscious decision to bag their groceries with reusable bags, thereby keeping plastic bags out of landfills, sometimes they forget to bring their bags with them from the car, or even leave the bags at home altogether. Randall is commenting on the sense of euphoria he derives from a relatively simple task: remembering to bring the reusable bags to the grocery store and taking them into the store, rather than the good feeling from helping clean up the environment.


Fun Fact: Stores have a competition to see who can spread your items across the most plastic shopping bags.
[5 items placed in a single bag; heaviest item placed at the bottom.]
Bag Packer: Here you go!
Shopper: Thanks!
[Same items; heaviest item now placed in separate bag.]
Bag Packer: Here you go!
Shopper: Oh, that's easier to carry.
[Heavy item is now double bagged.]
Bag Packer: Here you go!
Shopper: Double-bagging the big stuff makes sense...
[The other 4 items are now split into 2 separate bags.]
Bag Packer: Here you go!
Shopper: That's a bit wasteful...
[The 2 separate bags are now double bagged.]
Bag Packer: Here you go!
Shopper: You just put five items in six bags.
[Every item is now in its own, double-bagged bag.]
Bag Packer: Here you go!
Shopper: OK! I give up! I'll buy a reusable bag!
[Reusable bag is double-bagged.]
Bag Packer: Here you go!
Shopper: Augh!

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This time the lesson I learned came mostly from alt-text. The high we can experience from helping the world can last for days indeed, way better and healthier then drugs, want to try it? - e-inspired 15:45, 27 February 2013 (UTC)

You make it sound like it's an either/or choice. 08:02, 26 April 2013 (UTC)

As a former service cashier/bag filler I can confirm that there is a counterpoint, customers with reusable bags who will absolutely refuse to use any plastic bags whatsoever, no matter how ridiculously overful their bags become, and no matter how much of a bad idea it might be ("Yes, sure, lets put your hot chicken in with the ice cream, along with the crusty laundry powder box on top of the soft fruit! I can't see how this could possibly go wrong!").Pennpenn (talk) 04:11, 14 February 2014 (UTC)

Use two reusable bags :D Beanie (talk) 12:05, 12 May 2021 (UTC)
Bring more than you will need :|) 23:11, 28 July 2022 (UTC)

The comic, and to even greater degree its explanation, is really confusing for a non-American like myself. Some "stupid" questions about shopping groceries in the U.S.:

  • Don't customers bag their own groceries?
  • Are plastic bags for free (for the customer)?
  • In that case, what is the incentive for the practice in the comic?
  • Do you get a rebate if you bring your own bag(s) instead?
  • If so, why don't simply charge for the bags provided by the store?

To put this in perspective: In Sweden, and I think most of the EU, plastic bags are the single most profitable commodity in a store. They sell for around 25 cents and are bought by the store for maybe 5 cents so the margin would be around 400%. The customer gets no help packing them (all cash desks have two compartments so you pack while the next customer's items fill the other compartment). Thus, the salesman wants to sell bags and often asks "Do you need a bag?" (but is polite enough not to try to sell more bags than necessary). The customer, on the other hand, wants to fill the bags maximally, and often brings his own bags.

Could someone with global insights on packing customs improve the explanation, to make it work internationally? Mumiemonstret (talk) 15:48, 13 June 2014 (UTC)

Two incentives working here. The first is that the cashier (or bagger, or in some places the customer) is bagging items in the order they're scanned, and often has neither space nor time for setting things aside and coming back to them. Combine that with things that shouldn't be bagged together, and you get people changing bags when the type of product coming down the line changes, even if there's plenty of room left. The other is that the bags are flimsy, so people tend to err on the side of caution when judging how much weight they can hold. (Would I rather take an extra bag, or risk having to chase cans around the parking lot when the bottom falls out? Or, as a cashier, do I want to risk getting yelled at by the customer who had that happen?) 05:10, 6 September 2015 (UTC)
In most stores in the US, the cashier bags your goods. A handful of grocery stores have the customers bag their own items. Bags are free for the customer. Some stores will give a small refund if you bring in reusable bags. It's not really a "practice" in the sense of a formalized policy to use as many bags as possible. But some cashiers do seem to have a tendency to use excess bags. I think it's because it's often easier to get another bag than to rearrange items to fit more into the bag, plus the desire to avoid overloading them. So, it's more laziness than a formal practice CVictoria (talk) 18:09, 19 July 2014 (UTC)

I addressed the complaint about the 5 cent bags and explained the title text. Is it good now? 05:36, 12 August 2014 (UTC)

I've done my best to completely overhaul the explanation, which a particular eye towards explaining our "peculiar institution" of providing plastic bags (and baggers) in the U.S. If something doesn't seem to make sense or merits additional explanation, please let me know. Orazor (talk) 11:00, 12 August 2014 (UTC)

In some places in Argentina (it varies from state to state) the disposable plastic bags where banned completely, they sell (relatively cheap, like 3 pesos or so) a reusable plastic bag, wich is also oxi-bio-degradable so if it exposed to sun+water+air will degrade with time. But normally you try to use your own bags, or sometimes, carton boxes from the store itself. 18:30, 13 December 2016 (UTC)

Continuation: 5 double-bags, placed into a big double-bag. 10:14, 24 January 2018 (UTC)