We’ve all been asked the question, “paper or plastic?”. Plastic was the environmentally-friendly answer when I was a kid because it wasn’t a dead tree. Now, because it’s biodegradable, the answer is paper. Or to not take a bag at all. Or to bring a reusable bag. This is all great for the environment, but what about the clerk?

As a bookseller, I don’t have to bother with the paper or plastic question (I can only imagine what grocers must face each day), but I must instead inquire whether my customers would like a bag “or not.” In the good ol’ days, everyone expected a bag. You rang up the merch, stuck it in a bag, done! A couple months ago I read an article that suggested retailers ask “do you need a bag” instead of “would you like a bag.” Notice the subtle difference? How many people need a bag?

The problem here (I use the word problem lightly) is the classic “we can’t be everything for everybody.” Most folks respond to the bag question decisively, others waffle, but some… some… look at you like you’re the devil. I can’t imagine baggers of the past dealing with this issue. Either you’re the devil because you dared to imply that they wouldn’t want a bag — of course they want a bag! They’re buying something aren’t they? They’re giving you money! — or you’re the devil for suggesting that they take a bag when it’s so obviously a blatant waste of our precious resources.

Lately, I’ve found myself justifying the question. Like “would you like a bag? Since, you see, it’s raining out?” As though I would never dream of offering them a bag if it was sunny. Or if they’re already carrying a large shopping bag, I edit the question to be “would you like a bag, or do you just want to add these to the one you have?” like I’m the bag police. Or, and this one’s terrible, I try to guess whether the customer is the bag-rejecting type based on what they’re wearing or what book they’re buying. I’ve got a pretty good average though.

But is all this angst really necessary? I can’t help but feel that the reusable bag craze is just another fad that has been well capitalized on. Raise your hand if you’ve bought one or three but never remember to bring it to the store with you! I can think of two really good things that have come from this, though, that will hopefully be long-lasting:

1. Some people have now trained themselves to not take a bag when they buy something that they can just as easily carry, and that is a habit that can’t fall prey to our ability to forget or misplace small items like rolled up bags.

2. Many grocers and big box stores have plastic bag returns for recycling/reuse, so now answering “plastic” at checkout and then bringing your bags back in to return the next time is almost as good as bringing your own, and you’re not out any money for trendy bags.

So… To bag or not to bag, that is the question. Which do you choose?