“Do you need a bag?”
There is a tone of warning in the question. In fact, if you listen closely, you will hear that the stress is on “need” and not “bag”. That is how the cashier signals that the question is intended as a warning, and not an offer. The look on the cashier’s face is at times anxious, as though he or she is keen for you to win at a quiz game. At other times, the eyes are narrowed in defiance, daring you to give the wrong answer.
I glance at the contents of my shopping basket, aligned on the conveyor belt. Avocadoes in a plastic box, apples in a plastic bag, cheese in a plastic wrapper, shampoo in a plastic bottle, yoghurt in a plastic tub, and the Saturday Guardian neatly sealed in cellophane to stop all the extra bits from falling out.
In the nanosecond which follows, I search the till person’s face. No, she is not teasing me or being ironic. I stifle the impulse to shout Look at all this unnecessary plastic packaging! How dare you guilt-trip me about one plastic bag?! Instead, I force my lips into a tight smile over my snarl and give my answer.
Now, as most of you will know, your answer to this seemingly innocuous question determines the cashier’s reaction, as follows:
Script 1: “No, thanks. I’ve got my own bag.”
The cashier rewards you with an approving smile. A smile that says you’re an upstanding pillar of the community. You’re one of us. The kind of person who buys only charity Christmas cards, eats alfalfa, uses organic loo roll, and feels deeply guilty about the Yeti size carbon footprint of your people carrier.
Script 2: “Yes, please.”
The cashier pulls out a plastic bag from under the till, avoiding eye contact. You’re a public enemy. You’re politically incorrect. You’re probably a smoker. You’re destroying the Earth. And climate change is all your fault, too.
I suddenly feel like Hester Prynne. The plastic bag I carry out, branded with the supermarket logo, is my scarlet letter. Thus, I proceed home, and vow to make amends with a pilgrimage to the recycling bin.
I unpack my shopping, and study the packaging. I need my reading glasses to decipher the recycling instructions. Recycled. Recycled. Widely Recycled. Check with Local Recycling. I stare at the cheese wrapper. Not Currently Recycled. I resolve not to buy cheese again. I examine the contents of my fridge, and discover several other items with the same label, and other items with no guidelines at all. I consider the impact of my new resolution on my future diet. Downhearted, I slice an avocado and drop the knife in horror. The handle is plastic. How will I dispose of it when the time comes? In need of distraction from the escalating panic, I switch on the television. It is made with plastic, so are the remote controls. I will listen to some music, instead. Ah! The CD box is plastic. The CD itself is made of plastic. The room spins before me. My plants are in plastic pots. My laptop is plastic. The alarm clock, the telephone, shower curtain, toothbrush, toilet seat, the window frames, and even the lenses of my glasses… Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaargh! The Furies are upon me, brandishing their whips. Crushed by guilt, I collapse on the synthetic fibre carpet.
* * *
I am much better, these days. There is the occasional relapse but I have mostly recovered. I have resumed my weekly shop at the supermarket. I choose my foods carefully before adding them to my basket. Once I am ready, I walk over to the till and place them neatly on the conveyor belt. I look at the cashier straight in the eye, with the confidence of a clear conscience. He or she looks up at me and asks, “Do you need a bag?” (stressing “need”).
I smile broadly and, taking care to stress the last word, reply, “No – actually – I need two.”