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Eco-Challenge: Is Going Bagless Possible?

Of all the worthy eco-habits -- driving less, buying less, recycling more -- stemming the tide of disposable bags has always seemed to me a no-brainer. Americans use billions of paper bags (from millions of trees) every year. Worldwide, people use about a million plastic bags every minute, with devastating consequences to oil resources, landfills, and wildlife. We are utterly, destructively awash in bags.

For years, I've aspired to change my ways. Disturbed by my personal collection of disposable bags -- paper mountains of Whole Foods bags, tornadoes of plastic bags from drugstore visits and takeout dinners -- I've collected canvas bags with the intention of using them for shopping. At one point, I counted 14.

It should have been easy. Yet inevitably, when I'd arrive at the checkout counter, they were nowhere to be found. In my mind's eye, I'd see a canvas bag balled up in my trunk, another hanging from my coat rack. "Um paper, I guess," I'd mumble to the cashier. Am I just lazy? a sheep? a flake? I'd wonder, carrying two more paper-handled offenders to add to my collection (and my guilt).

It felt as if I were chasing the habit. There it was, around every corner -- just out of reach. I'm not an eco-failure in all ways. I'm militant about turning off light switches and conscious of my water use, and I wear sweaters in the winter instead of cranking up the heat. For these habits, though, I received thousands of verbal cues before age 18. In the absence of outside reminders and authority figures, are we destined to follow the path of least resistance? That doesn't bode well for the planet.

One Saturday morning last fall, my superego must have heard the call. It wasn't quite a disembodied voice, but it was close: That's it! said my brain. No more bags. I mean, none. If you leave your canvas bag in the car, go get it. If you leave it at home, buy only what you can carry in your hands. No excuses, no exceptions.

And just like that, I snapped to. The inner mandate gave me momentum, and I immediately cleared three reusable bags and placed them conspicuously in my front seat, hanging from the headrest. After shopping the next day, I practically floated to my car, an ecologically sound bag of food hanging from each shoulder.

I followed my conscience's edict to the letter, somewhat manically, for several weeks. As with cooking or traveling, preparation was critical. Keeping a stash of canvas bags in my car -- and remembering to replenish them -- was crucial. As a backup, I kept a few plastic bags at the bottom of my purse. "I'm cured!" I thought.

Not that it went entirely smoothly. Occasionally, with a quick-on-the-draw bagger, I'd end up awkwardly removing my purchase and handing the bag back -- then wincing as she tossed it into the trash. And in the flurry of a typical workday, I'd nearly always forget to bring a bag along to the local deli at lunchtime. So I'd leave clutching various containers of hummus and tabouli, with perhaps a folded piece of pita bread hanging from a coat pocket. "You sure you don't want a bag?" one of the owners would ask in a thick, Armenian accent, looking at me like I was a little crazy. "Oh, no!" I'd say. "I'm fine!" -- which I was, except for the time chicken soup went splashing all over the sidewalk.

Then, after a few months, I began slipping behind the habit and chasing it again. It started on a holiday shopping venture in Boston. The city's inherent chaos was compounded for me by a wisdom-tooth infection, and I arrived home with not one or two but nine separate bags -- paper, plastic, the works. I stared at them the next day, horrified; it was like a bender.

All-or-nothing mentalities are seductive, but often self-defeating. Not to mention silly. When I come home and realize I've left the lights on -- which of course I do every now and then -- I don't resign myself to being an electricity profligate. I let it go and move on. Perhaps a recalibration -- less superego, more compassion and ease -- would help my bag plight.

While grocery shopping with my girlfriend one night, I had that familiar queasy feeling as I approached the checkout counter: Forgot the bags again. But rather than flog myself, I mentally assessed the contents of my car and calculated the length of the line. Leaving Liz with the cart, I sprinted to the parking lot, fished a canvas bag from my trunk, and returned just in time. Victory. To catch the habit, maybe I'll have to run every now and then.

Plastic-Bag Progress
According to the Worldwatch Institute, Americans use more than 100 billion plastic bags each year, and 99 percent go straight to landfills. To combat these statistics, Whole Foods has pledged to eliminate plastic bags from stores by Earth Day, April 22. The natural-foods chain will still offer free recycled-paper bags, while encouraging consumers to shop with reusable bags.

American cities are starting to take action, too. San Francisco's City Council, for instance, voted in 2007 to ban plastic bags at grocery chains and pharmacies. For more information or to get involved, go to reusablebags.com.

Text by Tania Hannan

Can you give up bags, too? What eco-challenges are you aspiring to complete? Tell us in the Comments section below.

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