Goodbye, plastic — brace for hassles, and retrain the baggers

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What's missing in the supermarket debate over paper or plastic in Chicago is some real, honest, intelligent talk.

Unfortunately, ask folks to make public comments and they'll cringe for fear of being denounced by angry, politically correct environmentalists.

But protect their identities from the enviro-mobs and what happens?

"It's stupid and I don't care what others say," said a woman on North Michigan Avenue after I assured her I wouldn't use her name.

"Plastic is easier to handle. Plastic doesn't rip as easily," she said. "I wrote an angry letter to Ald. (Patrick) O'Connor about this: What about a mom with kids in the parking lot of a store, holding the child's hand? With plastic, you can do it. With two big heavy paper bags? No way."

"Yes, it is stupid," said a cashier named Jeannie, who by my lights is the fastest, most efficient and best cashier in all the land.

Of course, I can't use her name either, lest her company be denounced by the enviro-McCarthyites, which might compel her company to move its headquarters to Finland.

"You take plastic on the bus, OK, we all do," Jeannie said. "But paper? The bag rips and you've got your stuff all over the place. Besides, in my line of work, let me ask you: Do people really know how to bag groceries so you can take them on the bus?"

My point exactly.

Because in this stupid debate over paper and plastic — when everybody really likes plastic but feels pressured to say "paper" so they won't be shunned — someone has been ignored.

A little-noticed human being, clinging to the forgotten end of the food chain:

The bagger.

This plucky and noble worker toils with head down, grabbing groceries off the conveyor belt, stuffing random goods into those easy-to-carry plastic bags.

For a good bagger, plastic bags are no challenge. They're speedy to pack.

And for the customer, they're far easier to handle. You can carry more with less effort. This makes shopping more practical for the elderly, or parents with small children.

Those floppy, reusable bags are easy, too, and some consider them environmentally pure, though there have been cases of Chinese-made eco-bags that had alarming levels of lead. Sometimes what appears to be ecologically tidy turns out to be just another hazmat spill right next to your prosciutto.

But Chicago has things well in hand. The mayor in all his wisdom has decided to grab all the credit from aldermen for this ban on plastic. But something bothers me: Have you heard any politician mention the lost art of bagging?

"It's not easy to bag properly with paper," said Tanya Triche, vice president and general counsel of the Illinois Retail Merchants Association.

"And retailers will have to retrain their associates. I love plastic bags for their portability. I don't have a car myself, and when it's raining or snowing, paper gets wet. You could have a tough time getting home," she said.

Especially when you're carrying two badly packed paper bags and one splits, and your "personal items" fly all over the bus. You'll have to crawl down the aisle to get the navel orange that stopped rolling near the boot of a large, brooding man with blue prison tattoos on his face.

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