To Canvas Bag or Not to Canvas Bag

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Washingtonians are no strangers to canvas bags. Plenty of lobbyists tote eco-chic "Save the Turtles" or "Barack the Vote" sacks on the Metro. But remembering to pack that extra one for the grocery run after work is a whole 'nother story.

Annapolis, our Chesapeake Bay-side neighbors to the east, have spearheaded a plastic bag ban, following the lead of cities such as San Francisco, which enacted a ban in March, and Oakland in June. A similar switch in D.C. might take some time. "It's a huge lifestyle change, and a bunch of people just won't remember to bring their own," said Whole Foods Mid-Atlantic marketing director Sarah Kenney. Our minds still think in terms of paper-or-plastic, she said on the phone yesterday, and that's OK.

But the Mid-Atlantic region is trying to change that, beginning this fall with air fresheners that say "Remember Your Reusable Bags." Like a Post-it note, this reminder—the first will be grape-scented—should rouse that last-minute mental synapse in the car. Sniff sniff. Oh yeah. Snag the bloody bag! And maybe—just maybe—by the time the freshener's scent runs out, the snagging part will come naturally. It's Whole Foods's take on operant conditioning, and like rats, we need that environmental trigger.

plain canvas bagAs far as reusable bag couture in our city goes, we shouldn't expect that limited-edition "I am Not a Plastic Bag" bag by designer what's-her-face. No hype for that in this town. The idea of limiting the bags takes away from the bigger picture—making them less fashion-statementy and more everyday. Instead, D.C.–metro area shoppers, and the rest of the Whole Foods Mid-Atlantic region, sport cute, quirky sacks that spotlight items like honey, coffee, lemons, pickles, and the clementine. The newest is an insulated banana split version that says, "Make like a banana and split." These were so popular when they hit shelves two years ago that the region sold more than 700,000 and inspired the rest of the country to create their own.

It's hard to say whether Annapolis will inspire a regional domino effect with the plastic bag ban eventually hitting the D.C. area. Maybe our city council doesn't have a plastic-hater as hateful as Ward 7 Alderman Sam Shropshire, who began his Annapolis revolution by asking his Whole Foods to stop ordering plastic bags. It listened. Sure he gets our respect, but cutting plastic altogether to use twice as much paper isn't the answer, either. Plenty of emissions are used to transport and create paper bags—and the paper isn't always biodegradable. By January, Mid-Atlantic Whole Foods stores will use only 100 percent recycled-fiber paper bags, "about as green as you can get," Kenney said. Will that be in addition to a plastic option? For now, yes, but "we'll see," Kenney said.

The fewer plastic baggies swimming around the Anacostia and Potomac rivers, the better. And whatever makes grape-flavored air fresheners more accessible is always a really good thing.

About the author: Erin Zimmer, Serious Eats's Washington, D.C., correspondent, is a just-graduated Georgetown gal following her nose about town as Washingtonian magazine's Dining intern and Best Bites blogger. She got her start as the Hoya campus paper's food columnist, and since entering "real person-hood" has ached for her dining hall's omelet station.

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