My favorite re-usable bags are Chico Bags, I've probably raved about them here before because they're so lightweight and fold up into teeny-tiny stuff sacks just like little sleeping bags that dolls might use. They hold even heavy stuff and unlike canvas bags I don't forget them because of the nifty carabiner clips they come with that let me clip them onto everything in sight. I wish I'd seen their new Valentine's bags before today, aren't they cute??
So today I'm at a store across town and I tell the checker I don't need a bag because I brought my own, but she had already started putting things in a bag, so she takes the two items out and then throws that bag in the garbage. Like two self-contained rolls of masking tape are going to contaminate the bag. Sometimes I wonder if there's a little "Piss off the environmentalist" board game that they secretly play where you get points for something like that. Maybe the lady who almost ran me over in the crosswalk today with her 80-ton SUV talking (now illegally) on her phone was playing too. Or maybe it's just that they don't really think anything of just taking a perfectly good plastic bag and throwing it away for no reason whatsoever.
But while the checker was wasting the bag, it occurred to me how much the culture of where we live plays into our actions. Strangely, although I was just across town from where I live, the culture of this side of town is very different from the culture on that side of town. They could really be two separate cities (which is evident every time we have elections here and the votes are split 50/50 conservative/progressive.) In my side of town, where I shop for groceries the checker just sits there expecting you to pull out your cloth bags and start putting the food in them. If you don't do that in a reasonable amount of time, they say "Oh, do you need a bag?" and pull one out for you. On the other side of town, the goods are whipped into a plastic bag so fast you can't even get the words out to tell them you don't need it before they're ripping it off of the little rack and handing it to you. Sometimes if you're really lucky, they'll put one item per bag and even double-bag the heavy things so that by the time you get home you realize you've consumed not one or two but seven or eight bags. I guess no one blinks an eye at this over there.
Where the culture expects you to bring your own bags, you actually feel kind of bad when you don't have one. No one actually makes you feel bad, but it's clear that you're not following expectations when you don't have them. You feel keenly that you're out of the ordinary if they have to pull a bag from the small stack under the counter. Where the culture expects that you'll just consume endless bags, you might not think twice about what that really means to the world.
I know bags are a relatively small issue in the grand scheme of things (compared to say global climate change or peak oil) but they're just one indicator of how the culture around you can influence everyone's actions. If locker rooms or showers are provided at work, the message is clear that arriving by bicycle or on foot is not only acceptable but encouraged. If people scowl at you when you carry your helmet into the building or poke fun at your two-wheeled transport, it can change the way you feel about it. The only way a culture changes is by individual action, so while our actions might feel like drops in a bucket, eventually that bucket fills up and tips things in another direction entirely. Our actions are more than the sum of their individual parts, they're creating a culture in which everyone feels more comfortable acting that way as well.
By the way, if you love frogs, you can get this cool custom Chico bag by becoming a member of Save the Frogs.