McCallum: String Bags

Apr 29, 2019

So I’ve been thinking a lot about France again – and not only because of the devastating Notre-Dame fire. News that the Vermont Senate had just given preliminary approval to a bill that would ban single-use plastic bags instantly carried me back to my earliest visit to France in the sixties, and the first time I saw people carrying purchases in string bags.

Without vast tracts of forest to cut and turn into paper products as we do in America, Europeans opted for reusable bags. It was an idea that struck me as quaint. And because I was eager to embrace all things European, I bought one of the white cotton mesh bags and stashed it in my purse between trips to the market. I felt immediately French.

Today, it’s no longer debatable that plastic bags are a global environmental menace. An average American tosses ten bags a week into the trash, and their use in practically every nation paints a frightening picture. A recent New York Times article reported that 23 billion bags are used in New York state annually. That’s enough to “stretch to the moon and back thirteen times” if tied together – a thought that I find perfectly staggering.

It is true that when we chose plastic bags as the preferred way to carry our purchases, we discovered additional ways to use them in our daily lives. Urban dog walkers use them on clean up detail, and our trash cans and kitty litter boxes are lined with them.

But I’d still like us to join California, New York and dozens of other American cities, including towns like Brattleboro, Norwich and Montpelier. We'd be getting at least one form of plastic out of the waste stream. And I’m hopeful that we Vermonters can get over the legal, economic and social hurdles that a ban will present.

I look back fondly on my time in Paris, swinging along an early morning street that smelled of strong coffee, with a fresh baguette, apples and cheese in my reusable string bag. After years of use, that particular French souvenir finally fell apart. But I’ve got others. And I use them.