On being ... stalked by the thought police

By Ingrid Sapona

Apparently Torontonians use about 460 million plastic bags a year. I think you’ll agree-- that’s a shockingly big number. Of course, anything in the mere hundreds of millions might seem passé by comparison to the hundreds of billions (or as my father used to always take time to point out: “that’s billions with a B”) that we’ve gotten used to hearing about vis-à-vis corporate bailouts. But even so, 460,000,000 is a hell of a lot of bags.

The number of plastic bags we use was in the news earlier in the week because the City decided to meet with major supermarkets to figure out a way to “encourage” shoppers to use fewer such bags. The initial proposal was that grocers would give shoppers 10¢ for every bag of their own that they use. When I heard this, I thought it’s a good idea. Indeed, my favourite grocery chain has been doing something similar for years now (but instead of cash you get extra points in their loyalty program when you bring your own bag).

A few days later I heard on the radio that the plastic bag proposal had changed. Apparently, instead of us being paid for every bag we bring, under the latest plan stores will charged 5¢ for every bag they provide. (It wasn’t until much later that I heard retailers don’t have to remit this nickel fee to the City or agree to put the revenue toward any recycling programs or anything. That doesn’t seem fair, but what can you do?) Though it’s a much sweeter deal for the retailers than for shoppers, I’m ok with the idea because I think the ultimate goal is worthwhile and because I do think it’ll have at least some impact. (After all, I know I try extra hard to remember to bring my reusable bags just for those few loyalty program points my favourite grocer gives.)

Anyway, later that day, as I was walking past a grocery store I remembered a few items I needed. I was on my way back from a client meeting so I didn’t have a bag with me. Though I knew I had a cloth bag in the trunk, I was parked at a meter a few blocks away and I thought it would take too long to go get it. So, I ran into the store empty handed.

As I was checking out I noticed a crew from one of the local t.v. stations heading into the store. I realized immediately they were there to get shoppers’ reactions to the plastic bag proposal. After the clerk handed me my change, I quickly swept the bag into my oversize purse and headed for the door, dodging the reporter. Just as I was breathing a sigh of relief I was accosted by another reporter and camera crew who had set up outside the store. Praying they wouldn’t see the bag in my purse, I smiled and said I was in a hurry (which was true, the meter was running) and I didn’t stop.

As I headed to the car I was overcome with a strange combination of fear and guilt. Fear that I might have been caught on film whisking my plastic shopping bag out of sight into my purse, and guilt that I was just the sort of person for whom the “bag tax” was meant: people who’re socially conscious when it’s convenient (like when they happen to remember to bring their bags), but not so virtuous at other times. For shame, I thought…

For the rest of the day, I couldn’t get my mind off the self-consciousness and guilt I felt when I saw the news crew. It’s no exaggeration to say that I found myself on a roller-coater ride, one minute soothing myself with affirmations that I’m pretty good about bringing my own bags and that I’m pretty conscientious about recycling, then engaging in self-flagellation for being a wasteful, selfish, garbage-creating consumer. My crisis of conscience simmered well beyond the time the proposal was a hot topic in the news.

Then, yesterday, a headline in the newspaper caught my eye: “Guilt trips on the road and in the lavatory”. The headline was on a column I’d never noticed before -- one called Ethically Speaking. Apparently readers write in for guidance regarding their moral dilemmas. I read on with interest.

One woman asked whether it’s wrong to drive in a high occupancy vehicle (HOV) lane reserved for cars with two or more occupants when the other person with her is her infant. She said she feels guilty doing so because she believes HOV lanes are for carpooling and, obviously, she and her daughter are not carpooling. The columnist’s response was simple: so long as there are two people in the car she can use the lane. Though I agree with the conclusion, I felt the columnist was a bit dismissive of the writer’s concern for the greater good. Though he agreed with her that the law was to encourage carpooling, the columnist’s rationale was based strictly on the fact that it would be too difficult to enforce a law that turned on characteristics of the occupants, like age or size.

The second letter was from a woman who prefers her church’s handicapped washroom because it’s cleaner and more private, but feels guilty about using it. Absolving her of her guilt, the columnist rationalized that unlike handicapped parking spaces, handicapped washrooms are not reserved for the disabled -- they’re merely designed to be suitable for handicapped. Subtle but good point, I thought.

I don’t mind admitting that I was quite relieved when I read the column -- and not simply because my conclusions aligned with the columnist’s. The main reason for my relief is the fact that, clearly, I’m not the only one who sometimes feels stalked by her own, internal thought police!

© 2008 Ingrid Sapona


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