Ratledge ’11: Plastic or plastic?

Opinions Editor
Thursday, February 4, 2010

Last Friday afternoon found me at the Brown Bookstore, searching for that elusive species of textbook which has a “love me, I’m marginally less expensive” used sticker without six thousand markers’ worth of unnecessary highlighting. The bookstore’s Web site had lured me in with the promise that the price of one of my books was lower there than on any of my usual online haunts. This might have been true if they’d had any used copies. Instead, they had only new ones, with prices in the triple digits.

At some point after I stopped hyperventilating over the cost of my statistics textbook, which comes to a mere 28 cents per page, I went to pay. I cried a little inside as I handed over my debit card, but once it was over, I discovered something even more perplexing than textbook markup: I was required to take a plastic bag.

When the girl working the cash register pulled out a bag for me, I picked my textbook up off the counter before she could grab it. “Oh, I don’t need a bag,” I told her. “I only have one book, and my bag’s right over there in the bag check.”

She took the textbook back from me. “No. We have to give you one.”

“What?” I glanced down at the book in her hands. “But I don’t need a bag.”

“Well, we have to give you one. It’s the rule.” She smiled politely, as though I were a small child incapable of understanding the rule. She did not even look over my shoulder to see how much I was holding up the line.

“Why?” I persisted.

“It’s the rule.” She handed me my lone book, wrapped up in a giant plastic Brown Bookstore bag. “Have a nice day.”

And just like that, I became the accidental owner of too much polyethylene.

The girl at the cash register next to me had it even worse: She’d brought her Brown Bookstore cloth bag, the kind with the green recycling symbols that they gave out a few semesters ago to all the students who paid more than 300 dollars for textbooks. Yet she too had to take her new books home in a plastic bag. She, like I, seemed bewildered by the requirement to take a plastic bag when we had planned ahead for the very purpose of not taking one.

I had, mistakenly it seems, been under the impression that the cloth bag gimmick of yester-semester had a dual purpose: to advertise the Brown Bookstore, and to encourage the use of reusable bags in an effort to save the environment. Apparently the latter is only true of purchases made outside of the bookstore. When we shop for textbooks, we must take a plastic bag, no matter how unnecessary it is.

I’m sure I don’t need to remind Brown students of the negative impact that plastic bags can have on the environment. From manufacture, where they consume natural gas resources, to landfill, where they’ll lie for millennia without breaking down, plastic bags are a ubiquitous, if sometimes necessary, evil of the modern world. Reusable cloth bags — such as the ones the bookstore passed out — make a great alternative. The Brown Bookstore must agree, or they’d never have bothered giving them out in the first place. I’m sure they don’t want us to think that the green recycling symbol on their bags is a lie.

I understand the reason why we’re pushed — nay, required — to take plastic bags: Inside mine were paper insert advertisements for acne cream and magazine subscriptions. These advertisers choose our bookstore because they hope we’ll break out of our textbook haze and think, “Hey, why study statistics when I could get 12 issues of Vogue for only 15 bucks?” But if I’m just going to throw away — er, recycle — those ads anyway, it’s frivolous to hand them to me in a glossy Brown Bookstore bag. And my choice hardly cuts down on the thousands of other captive students who want plastic bags, and will still get the ads.

Brown is full of groups working to reduce, sometimes forcibly, our campus’s environmental impact, from eliminating plastic water bottles to replacing regular light bulbs with fluorescents. The University itself is now a signatory to the Sustainable Campus Charter. Yet when I undertake my individual responsibility to be an environmentally conscious, ethical consumer, I can’t. I still have to take that plastic bag. Even if I don’t want it. Even if I don’t need it.

Aren’t you glad Brown is green?

Alyssa Ratledge ’11 thinks an equally pressing environmental issue is the amount of cold air that seeps in through her Grad Center window.