RICHMOND -- They line bathroom wastebaskets, neatly confining yucky stuff like used dental floss, germy tissues and empty toothpaste tubes. They take our no-longer-needed things to Good Will. They make it possible to carry five or six bags of groceries from the car at one time. They confine the juices if the meat package or quart of milk leaks and are the clean-hands approach to scooping the poop on a dog walk.
In a different context, they can be used as a market survey. A close relative in Gatlinburg, Tenn., scans them as tourists swarm the main street, hoping the bright yellow bags from his store are among those going back to Timbuktu with the visitors.
Apparently, if the greenest of the gnomes is to be believed, they also wreck our environment. They choke right whales, clog the craw of greedy gulls, get into drainage systems, get caught in trees and turn into roadside litter. Plastic bags, a blessing and a bane.
As a retired veteran of roadside cleanup in this town for a number of years, I would nominate beer containers and fast food coffee cups for first and second places on the litter chart. But the real counters say that plastic bags are in second place.
Containers are admittedly a tough issue, but banning plastic bags is one of those things where "unanticipated consequences" need to be studied carefully. The advocates want everyone to bring in their reusable bags -- and the latest science has discovered those may harbor a formidable army of germs after they're used for a while. So the careful customer has to wash them (water used) and/or replace them on a frequency that few probably do (and pay for new ones).
The advocates also suggest that compostable bags be used instead. Brian Houghton, vice president of the Massachusetts Food Association, which represents supermarkets and food stores, recently pointed out that biodegradable bags have their own problems, since their disposal requires an industrial process.
As for paper bags, they apparently travel farther before they are discarded. And they are biodegradable. They are perfect for holding the newspapers that are recycled here every other week, and we'd like supermarkets to stop making them thinner and thereby more fragile.
On the economic side, plastic bags take up a fraction of the space that paper bags need, and they're cheaper for stores, Houghton said. Consumers find them more convenient and, since the stores pay less for them, shoppers should get an invisible savings on their purchases.
Still, all the big stores are pushing reusable bags, something that is taking hold now in a way that totally failed a decade or so ago. And supermarkets will pack in paper if you ask, always suggesting that cold things and the meats go in plastic, an idea more than acceptable to anyone whose paper bag, soaked by moisture on the way home, gives way and spills all in the driveway.
Brookline just became the second place in Massachusetts to ban plastic bags in retail stores that have more than 2,500 square feet. It's quite likely the Massachusetts Legislature will soon be considering a bill banning bags on some basis statewide.
Perhaps we should do just that, if we can't persuade people to stow them away for future use instead of trashing them and if they are, indeed, doing more harm than good. But dog-walkers and those who are unwilling to make six trips from car to kitchen instead of two may disagree.
Everyone could adjust to life without plastic bags. But the solution might produce its own set of problems. Perhaps, instead, we could adjust to life with plastic bags that are used conservatively. We could multi-task them. And when we buy one item, we could say, "No, thanks. I don't need a bag."
Ruth Bass is a free-lance writer and novelist. Her website is www.ruthbass.com.