Blaser: Plastic bag ban means a return to civility

Randy Blaser
Randy Blaser

It appears the plastic grocery bag is going the way of the aluminum can pull tab.

It is none too soon for me.

I’ve hated the plastic grocery bag since its inception so long ago, almost as much as I hated those long forgotten can tabs. I’m not talking about the current tabs that stay connected to the can. I’m talking about the pull top developed in the late 1960s that would be discarded as trash and left to cut the feet of anyone walking barefoot in a park or on a beach.

But more on that later. For now I’m glad the plastic bag is finally going away as the city of Chicago moves to ban them.

I knew they would be trouble from the first time I saw them while in line with my groceries. I grew up with paper bags. I liked paper bags. They seemed so practical and utilitarian. Packing a paper grocery bag properly and quickly was an art, an art lost at today’s so-called supermarket. Hard stuff like cans of vegetables and fruit cocktail were placed neatly on the bottom of the bag, soft and fragile things like bread and eggs were placed daintily on top.

My mom had a grocery cart that folded up neatly, and I got to pull it on the way to the grocery store. It opened to hold four full grocery bags, packed properly by the clerk, to bring those groceries home.

With the advent of plastic bags, you really didn’t need the cart. You could just grab the handles of as many bags you could heft, and lug the stuff home. Once grocery clerks realized there was no order to the thing, they could back that stuff any old way the wanted.

It really was the breakdown of civilization. As the great poet Yeats, wrote, “Things fall apart; the center cannot hold.”

Was he talking about an improperly packed plastic grocery bag that tears at a critical moment and empties into the street? Or is the torn plastic bag a symbol of the chaos enveloping the universe?

I’m going for chaos, because there was an order to the paper bag, just like there once was an order and ritual to opening a can of soda.

To do it properly, you needed a can opener, with a sharp point at one end to open cans and an opposite blunt end to open a bottle. Here’s how you did it: You position the opener at the top of the can, press down to puncture it and create a hole in the shape of a triangle, rotate the can 180 degrees and create a smaller triangle hole on the other end to allow you to pour the beverage from the can properly.

The importance of the can opener was recognized by all, as someone was always responsible for “putting it back” or remembering where it was, and by the special term of endearment it still has today — “church key.”

Then along came the pull tabs. The innovation was great because you no longer needed to bring the church key to the picnic.

But where to discard the tab once you pulled it off the can? Being Americans, we naturally just threw them on the ground. Think of millions of aluminum cigarette butts scattered across America’s parks and beaches.

Again, we thought this was the greatest invention. But it was just another door to chaos and cut feet.

Today the ring and the tab stay on the can, so that’s an improvement. Or is it? The can has doomed the far superior glass bottle for storing beverages.

But that’s a topic for another day.