Saturday, January 29, 2011

"One word for you, my boy--"

It's been a long time since The Graduate and if Benjamin Braddock had listened to the sage gentleman at poolside, he'd be a wealthy man today.

Am I the only one who remembers the thrill of having Baggies replace waxed paper? The smell of baloney no longer wafted from my brown-bag lunch and nevermore did I suffer the humiliation of finding that my sandwich had escaped the confines of its wrapping and was in discrete and inedible pieces within the bag. Baggies were clean, modern and required no arcane origami skills--what was there not to love?

Almost half a century later, there's plenty not to love about plastic bags, no matter what size they come in. And I live in a country that is choking in them--

When I first came to Thailand, I went out one morning, asked a vendor at a coffee cart for a cup of hot, black coffee, and was handed a small plastic bag, held tightly shut by a rubber band, and a straw issuing from the rubber band closure. It was filled with hot, black coffee. I was terrified.

But the bag held and I eventually emptied it and threw the receptacle away. It was the first of hundreds of thousands of small sandwich bags that came my way and went into the garbage--as Karen Coates says in the post that is linked above, a meal from a Thai market can easily involve a dozen plastic bags. If it's a group dinner, there might be a hundred.

Just buying a simple meal of grilled chicken and sticky rice involves a bag for the chicken, a bag for the rice, and a bag for the spicy sauce that is the artform that transforms this food. Braised pork leg is even worse--a styrofoam box for the pork, greens and rice, a plastic bag for the broth, a plastic bag for the seasoning sauce, and still another if you add the raw chili and garlic cloves that are eaten with this meal. This is the reason why I rarely bring food home--if I eat it on a plate, no bags are involved.

Penang and Hong Kong, both islands with limited space, are launching a war against plastic. In Hong Kong, if you don't bring your own bag to a store, you pay for a plastic one. In Penang, this is the case for part of the week and there was a strong rumor that it would be an everyday occurrence after the first of the year. Supermarkets sell fabric bags and some of them made it back to Bangkok with me.

I use them when I go to 7/11 or a supermarket or a bookstore. When I go to the markets that I love, I still use it but it's a vessel for plastic bags--one for the oranges, one for the bananas. Fruit vendors weigh the fruit in a plastic bag before figuring the price and even if I dumped the fruit in my cloth bag, the plastic would still be discarded--I don't have a solution for that yet.

Things are changing here--supermarkets have signs that ask customers to bring their own bag. Plastic cups with dome-shaped lids have almost supplanted the bag and rubber band combo. I'm not sure that's an improvement, but Thailand still has "gleaners". People rummage through garbage looking for items that can be sold to recyclers, and factories are turning out items made from recycled plastic. It's an imperfect solution but it's a step away from a plastic-clogged world.


Dr. Will said...

Yes, but...lest we forget, from "American Beauty"

janet brown said...

One bag in the breeze is poetry--fifty of them in a canal is an obituary.

Kim said...

I remember once floating down a river in Borneo and coming round a bend ... to a pool that contained probably 10,000 plastic bags. It was one of the most depressing things I'd ever seen. I also remember how much I enjoyed carrying my small tin "lunch box" around in Vietnam, to hold the soup or noodles I would buy from vendors ... who could not understand why I did not want a plastic bag!! Funny how so many things that used to be convenient and innovative are now the very enemies we're fighting against. Love this post, Janet.

Janet Brown said...

Thanks, Kim-convenient and innovative and eventually a bane--so much like Facebook!