War On Cars: The Bicycle and The Reusable Shopping Bag

My son spent his last two years of high school and first two years of college working part-time at our local Super Target.  What better way to earn a few bucks and learn about the real world?

One Sunday morning, my daughter and I were preparing for our usual weekly shopping trip.  We had our list, our coupons, and our reusable shopping bags.  My son took one look at the bags and exclaimed “C’mon Dad, you’re not going to be one of those people, are you?”

“Those people?”

“They come through my line with those (expletive deleted) bags and seriously slow me down.  My (efficiency) score drops every time I get one of those people.”

“Correct me if I’m wrong, but doesn’t Target encourage people to buy the (expletive deleted) bags right at your checkout?  Don’t they offer a cash discount for using them?”

“Yeah, Target does, and those people get really pissed if I don’t credit them their five cents a bag.  Relax, people, it’s a (expletive deleted) nickel.”

“It’s not about the (expletive deleted) nickel.  It’s about being recognized for doing their part.”

“Yeah, Dad, I get that.  Those people make sure that I get that.”

I could go on all day with our back and forth, but I think you can see where I’m going with this.  From my son’s perspective, he was being asked to change his perfectly efficient routine to accommodate an individual who was trying to make a difference in his or her small way.

Even though Target encouraged it, he still had to answer for taking three times longer whenever he encountered one of those people.  In a further bit of irony or perhaps hypocrisy, the checker who sped shoppers along by dropping one item per plastic bag was viewed more favorably by management than the one who assisted the eco-friendly consumer.

Well, so much for the value of the real life lessons I was hoping he’d learn…

Bicycles are the transportation equivalent of reusable shopping bags.  Cyclists are those people.

While very few would deny the harm plastic bags contribute to our environment, we still tend to raise an eyebrow at the people who bring their own bags to the store.  Why is that?

That’s not a rhetorical question.  If you aren’t one to give those people a smile, a thumbs up, or a high five, take a moment to ask yourself what really bothers you about their behavior.

I’m not going to speculate as to why you might feel one way or another.  I’m going to steer the discussion back to cycling while you contemplate your feelings.

There was an article this past weekend at Salon.com entitled “Are urban cyclists just elite snobs?”   It goes a long way in outlining the resentment toward city cyclists while offering a perspective on how that sentiment might be rationalized.

Rather than rehash each of the article’s points, I encourage everyone to give it a read.  Take the time to peruse the comments, too.  I’m thankful that my Chicago Now commenters are much more thoughtful and civil than those at Salon…

Are urban cyclists elitist for being the pioneers of an eco-friendly transportation movement?  When will environmental conscientiousness become mainstream?

Getting back to the plastic bags, there will come a time when we’ll each be asked to pay for this environmentally harmful convenience.  Some places in the US have issued an outright ban.  Forward thinking retailers like Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, and others have gone back to reusable paper bags.  There is talk of adding a surcharge for the convenience of plastic over paper, letting the consumer vote with his or her wallet.

Like every problem, the first step is admitting that we have a problem.  We’ve finally done that with plastic bags, but we’re very hesitant, if not downright opposed to, saying that about cars.

Right now, we’re in the voluntary action phase.  We can choose to bring along reusable bags whenever we deem it practical.  We can take home the plastic should we opt for the convenience, fail to make the effort with the reusables, or just choose to stockpile the most affordable trash can liners and dog poop scooping system yet devised.

When there is a true cost associated with the environmental impact of continuing to use plastic bags – such as a tax or surcharge – we’ll be coerced into making our choices more thoughtfully and carefully.

When the plastic is gone, we’ll all have no choice but to return to paper.

Feel free to share your thoughts on whether or not cyclists (or reusable bag users) are elitists.  Also, feel free to “like” Easy As Riding A Bike’s new Facebook page (click box under my bio).

Thanks again to all the commenters who created excellent discussions on my last two posts – War On Cars? Don’t Sweat Emissions or Congestion and War on Cars and the Cycling Ego .  A future post will get to the bottom of the sworn claim by motorists that there has not been a single cyclist in the recent history of Chicago bicycling that has ever stopped at a single stop sign or red light…



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  • I get your point, but I've never had any trouble bringing reusable bags to stores. Well, grocery stories. Jewel, Whole Foods, neighborhood markets all seem used to them by now. I've never brought such bags to Target though.

  • Thanks for being my first commenter on this post!

    Despite my son's complaints from the other side of the register, he and his sister are very environmentally aware. Their generation - the Millennials - will be the ones who help us all see the light about the long-term consequences of this toxic, daily convenience item. By the time plastic bags are taxed or banned, maybe the whole "elitist" tag placed on people who make sound choices that benefit the environment (versus perpetuates the damage) will be removed. Maybe caring will become the new normal.

    Next up, respect for bicycles?

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    Wow, a lot of times i help bag when we bring those in, I'm glad, I'll make sure to help bag my own stuff next time.

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