So, if you've ever been grocery shopping with me, you've probably heard me gripe about inefficient baggers. It's a pet peeve of mine. You know what I'm talking about — the checkout person who uses a separate bag for every. single. item. you've got, or who double bags your milk, even though it's already got a handle on it and really doesn't need a bag to begin with. I like to consider myself at least interested in the welfare of the environment, and while I know plastic bags aren't the worst sin in the world, I like using as few of them as possible. Plus, I hate having them lying around my house. Lately, I've finally started remembering to take my reusable cloth shopping bags with me, and I love them dearly. I've got a large one, a medium-sized one, and two small ones, and those four bags are big enough for just about any shopping trip.
Anyway. I just got back from Wal-Mart, where I did my weekly grocery shopping. Since I'm only shopping for myself this week (the boyfriend is home with his parents for break), I just took the one large one, figuring it would be plenty big.
I ended up buying a little more than I expected, because the frozen dinners I take to work for lunch were on sale, but I still didn't think it would be too much for my bag. Apparently the checkout girl did not agree, because she put some things in my bag, and then proceeded to use three more of the plastic bags (into one of which she put only a small bag of chopped walnuts).
When I got to the front door, I stopped and stacked the frozen dinners more neatly in the reusable bag, and lo and behold, there was suddenly plenty of room for everything I'd bought, minus the 1/2 gallon of milk, which I had planned to carry anyway. Then I walked over and dropped the three extra bags in the bag recycling bins.
I feel like this is becoming more and more common. Granted, I don't have any evidence to back this up, but just in my own experience, I don't remember my mother coming home with zillions of plastic bags every time we went to the grocery. In fact, we usually asked for paper bags.* Of course, most stores don't even have those anymore. But anyway, assuming the overuse of plastic bags is indeed becoming more common, I think these recycling bins are the problem.
Now, don't get me wrong, I think it's great that we can recycle these bags instead of just throwing them away (since most curbside services won't accept them), but the problem is that a lot of people don't. They forget to take them back to the store, or they just don't bother. But the people working in the stores think that it doesn't matter how many of them they use, because they can be recycled.
The three R's are "reduce, reuse, & recycle," in that order. The very first step should be to reduce the amount of materials we use in the first place. If there's less of the stuff lying around taking up space, then there's less to worry about recycling, or being leftover and going to a landfill. Next is "reuse," which a lot of people do with plastic bags, at least to some extent — you can use them to line small wastebaskets, and you can carry stuff around in them. But ultimately, they are flimsy and cheap, and you can only use them for so many things before they get holes in them or get really gross and you can't use them anymore. "Recycle" is the final step, the last resort: if you can't use it for anything else, recycle it and turn it into something new (in the case of most plastic bags, that will be composite lumber). Recycling is definitely an important step, but people must make the effort to do it, and it must be complementary to the other steps; it cannot replace them wholesale.
Ideally, I think every store should just be like Aldi's — make you pay (a little bit, but something) for every bag you get. It's not enough to be cost prohibitive if you need a bag, but it's enough to make you think, "Oh, hey, I don't need a separate bag for every single item I've got."
Also, they should implement Aldi's cart system — it's just a quarter, but somehow you never ever see carts sitting around in their parking lots. But that's a rant for another day.
*Paper bags have their own environmental problems, of course, but I like them better because they are bigger, sturdier, and eligible for curbside recycling. Also, if all else fails, at least they are biodegradable.