October 2003 #1

The Plastic Shopping Bag

I was listening to the local talk back radio while they had a conversation on the use or non-use of plastic bags in shops and how there was a 10c  levy on them. There were the obligatory 'how dare they charge me' and the 'save the whales' callers. But one caller caught my attention and made me stop and think about my own experience. This caller related how the supermarkets are not geared up for anything else other than plastic bags.

Having worked during my teenage years as a packer in the local supermarket in my hometown I began to think about this notion of customer service and the ubiquitous plastic bag.

When I worked in the supermarket, the customer would take the items out of their trolley and slide them down the polished wooded bench where the 'checkout chick' (and they always were then) would check them off. The packer would, with a skilful flourish, crack open the large brown paper bag and begin the task of carefully packing in the goods.

All the while a subtle three way conversation was going on. The check out girl and the customer would be chatting about whatever, while us young blokes doing the packing would be worrying about Mrs. Jones and how she doesn't like the Fish Fingers in the same bag as the soap - and boy would she let you know it if you did put them in together. The process was very labour intensive and part of the packer's job was to carry the groceries to the car if asked. Sometimes, the customers would even give you their car keys and tell you they would pick them up later after they had their hair done.

There was a camaraderie around the check out. No flash touch screens, no real rush. Although I'll qualify that with the fact that every year the supermarket had the 'checkout games' in which teams of checkout chicks and their packers would do battle to see who could pack the fastest. But not only did you have to pack the fastest, you had to observe the 'Mrs. Jones protocols'. This meant no soap and fish fingers in the same bag. Soft items on top, fruit and meat separate and the tub of ice cream so it wouldn't leak.

Nowadays it's all about 'through put' and 'price consistency' and 'efficiency' and 'customer service'. The check outs are designed as ergonomic control rooms where the customer places the goods on the conveyor belt at one end and back into their trolley, complete with plastic wrappers, at the other. There's not a lot of need to chat and even less time to do so. The whole idea is to keep the flow of cash running into the till and the humble plastic shopping bag is the retailer's greatest ally in this task.

So when my partner and I started using calico bags, assembled on her sewing machine and double stitched all the way round, we began to change not only some of our own habits but also, hopefully the habits of some of those around us. I didn't realise until I heard the caller today but we have joined the legion who are attempting to break the cycle of rushing.

Because the calico bag doesn't work in the fast paced, high volume, high through put, large capacity shopping mall check out we are part of a group who are subtly taking back the social spaces of the check out. My first inkling that something was changing was when, one evening, the lady behind us, watching the pile of goods grow at the end of the conveyor belt as I methodically packed in the tins, bottles and packets, began to look at her watch every two seconds. Shifting from foot to foot, she was growing more and more impatient. From the depths of my mind her actions recalled in me a response I'll call the Mr. Phillips syndrome. You know him. He's the one who always rushes. He never says hello and he counts his change before leaving the check out. While the Mr. Phillips of my check out days was probably long gone, my reaction to this behaviour was predictable. I slowed down a little and upped my engagement with the young man operating the till.

Now, I'll admit that probably wasn't the nicest thing to do, but it did give me a small moment of glee to realise that in the busy world of keeping the dollar circulating I could actually influence the profit margins of a large multinational and at the same time, give this obviously weary lady a moment of respite from her endless rushing about.

The plastic bag represents the rush and clutter of our society. It has reshaped the social spaces of our shopping centre exits and taken away from us some of the skills of engaging. As a packer I can recall the summer holiday makers, strangers who I'd never seen before and for whom I would invent fantastic stories, the regulars who always had something to say and the Mrs. Jones' and Mr. Phillips' of my town. All these people passed through the store and through the little part of it I occupied and, for the most part, we engaged. Sure, we weren't allowed to dilly dally, but there was the opportunity to chat. 'Customer satisfaction' was not reduced to how many options there were, but to how good the conversation, which was part of the service, was.

The caller on the radio this morning reminded me of all those times when I've heard the term 'customer service' and how it has become the catch cry for training us in certain practices designed to either make us spend more, or to reduce costs. Its not 'customer service' its training us in the service of wealth capture. However, its not only our financial wealth, its the wealth of  social interactions that exist within our communities that are slowly choked out of those spaces in which we have the greatest opportunity to find out about others.

The caller prompted me to think about the plastic bags that choke our water ways, kill our marine life, clog up our drains and blow over our gardens as a metaphor for the way so many of our daily habits have been trained by the capitalist imperative. The desire to 'create wealth' (whatever that means) and accumulate tokens of our success drive many of us overlook the simple things. Being a recent convert to the calico bag, perhaps my perspective is a little blurred. However, a much longer engagement with social issues make me think that the plastic bag is a good metaphor for the way our society is shaped.

It comes to us (until recently) free of charge. It speeds up the time we do boring tasks (no need to converse with the pimply teenager at the check out) It makes it easier to get around (no arms full of loose items). It can be multi tasked (bin liner, doggy doo scoop, garden peg marker) and, when its finished with, thrown away, forgotten or made someone else's problem. The plastic bag chokes our social interactions, kills our ability to slow down, clogs up our cupboards with empties, and blows over the gardens we so lovingly tend.

While there is a place for them - and I would rather see biodegradable plastic bags than the heavy brown paper ones I used to pack - plastic bags represent a rally call to those of us who want to take back our social spaces and engage with our communities. And I haven't mentioned how the plastic bag has also become a status item, those large ones with the 'brand' name of the shop on them. Always oversize, made of heavy duty plastic with reinforced handles, these plastic bags do more than just destroy the environment, they take away for our society, not add to it, because they remind us of the economic divisions that exist between us. The 'haves' shop 'here' while the have nots shop 'there'.

While I'm not calling for some 60's / 70's style nostalgia trip or a return to the good old bad old days, I'm asking for a short moment of reflection on what the plastic bag has done not only for us, but also to us. It's made life easier to some extent, but what did it take away in the process?