Bag Lady

The importance—and satisfaction—of taking one small step for mankind

Green happens. Even in the least eco-conscious corners of California, it sneaks up on you, like tan lines or sports talk radio on the 405. One minute you’re someone who never even considers the environment. The next, you’re one of those people holding up the coffee line at Whole Foods because you left your reusable mug in your Prius.

No, really. I actually did that. If I start making my own hemp soap tomorrow, don’t be surprised.

How did it come to this? I didn’t used to be that person. I drove a Chevy Suburban. My children used so many disposable diapers, someone should have named a landfill after me.

But this place has a way of rearranging your habits. In my case, it began on an ordinary workday about five years ago. I was a newspaper reporter then, and my editors wanted a story on reusable shopping bags touted by high-end designers. Hey, it was a slow news week. It was also a fat era. Carrying milk in a sustainable $960 Hermès tote was allegedly stylish. Personally, I had only ever used paper or plastic, but what I learned piqued my interest. So one day I stepped into a checkout line in a Newport Beach market, shelled out $5, and came away with a brand-new reusable bag.

I only half-expected to use it. As noted, my ecowarrior street cred was pretty lean. I must have needed a project, because somehow I decided that, just for a week, I’d shop only with that satchel. No more sending plastic bags to flutter forever in landfills. No more killing trees just to hold my groceries. I was going to do this.

It was an adjustment for everyone, including the groceries. Store managers saw my tote and assumed I was shoplifting. Clerks reflexively reached for the plastic in checkout lines. Cramming everything into a single bag left a lot of bread mangled. Once, I bought a week’s worth of supplies and realized my tote was back in my glove compartment. It’s astounding what you can balance in your bare hands when you improvise.

I half-expected the experiment to end that week. This is Orange County, after all, where real men drive Hummers and markets yearn to breathe free. So what if plastic is petroleum-based? Toddlers here are pitied if they don’t show up for play dates in SUVs. But after that week, leaving a store with a single-use plastic bag made me feel as if I’d dumped a wastebasket onto the sidewalk. All I could think of were the studies on how, if you don’t recycle them—and most people don’t—plastic bags kill marine life and litter the landscape for eons. Also, my one sturdy tote held, like, four plastic bags’ worth of groceries.

So now I’m a flummoxed shadow of the global warmer I used to be. The other day I caught myself daydreaming about Teslas. My only comfort is that I’m not alone, not even in Orange County, because yesterday’s novelty is today’s convention.

Local restaurants now offer biodegradable takeout containers. School kids sell canteens to cut down on the use of plastic bottles. True, when California tried to ban single-use plastic bags last year, most of O.C.’s legislators caved to lobbyists. But since then, plastic bag ordinances have been enacted by local governments from San Jose to Los Angeles County, and my new best friends at Costa Mesa’s Earth Resource Foundation tell me the wave is heading this way.

Which is a good thing, and not just because so much of the market for California depends on the irreplaceable loveliness of its scenery. Still, consider yourself warned, Orange County: One small step can rearrange your whole self-image. Take it from the woman measuring her doghouse for solar panels—the new me.

Illustration by Brett Affrunti

This article originally appeared in the May 2011 issue.