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Grocery bags, sacks and totes


Dave the Cook
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In addition to focusing on larcenous fringe benefits of grocery bags, maybe it's worth expanding a bit to discuss other aspects of this most basic container. A few things come to mind:

  • Several learned institutions (the University of Kentucky, the University of Florida, Penn State) identify the paper grocery bag as a significant vector in home cockroach infestation.
  • Plastic bags possess what I would call apparent abundance. They're lightweight, they come by the millions on a roll that's easily replaced; compare this with the drudgery of hauling a bale of heavy, dusty (need I add, cockroach-infested) paper bags, and maybe you'll see what I'm describing. This has led to astonishing profligacy with respect to their dispensation. This doesn't just come in the form of new rules for how bags get filled (poultry, leaky and presumably salmonella-laden, is now sequestered in its own filmy quarantine; gallon jugs of milk, detergent containers and eight-pound bags of dog food, all easily manipulated on their own, get bagged), it results in me somehow leaving the store with six items packed in nine bags.
  • The craft of packing has all but disappeared. I lament this not just as a former bag boy and someone who appreciates craft in an absolute way, but as a consumer. There's a reason to pack things so that weight is well-distributed, so like items go with like items, and so that bags can stand up on their own: it makes the rest of the grocery-shopping experience (getting the bags into the vehicle; arriving home without the contents being redistibuted across an expanse of cargo area; getting them into the kitchen and onto the counter without spillage; and being able to put things away in an orderly manner) not just easier, but nearly pleasurable, in the way that any well-executed plan can be. Grocery stores have let down their end, and I feel betrayed.

What are your grocery-bag issues? Paper or plastic, and why? String bags (how do you handle a week's worth of supplies)? Do you pack you own with pride (I'm secretly thrilled at the absence of a bagger when it's my turn to check out)? Are you running off to set roach traps before posting?

Dave Scantland
Executive director
dscantland@eGstaff.org
eG Ethics signatory

Eat more chicken skin.

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I have issues with baggers - big issues.

Unloading my cart at the checkout, I compulsively (oh alright, obsessively) place nonedibles (charcoal starter, detergent, etc.) in the front. Then canned goods behind them to set up a "buffer zone." Then refrigerated and frozen so that hopefully they will cozy up to one another and stay cool, then lightweight crushables in the back.

It doesn't work! :wacko: I always end up with at least one crushed bag of chips, or a pint of ice cream mysteriously melting in with the canned goods, or fabric softerner and deli meat sharing bag space. I too, and thrilled when I can swipe my card real quick and jump on the bagging before the bagger can get to me and do his damage.

I'm paranoid about paper bags. Not only do they harbor roaches in the house, but I suspect they are a primary means of the critters entering my living space as well. Grocery stores are going to have pests - even the cleanest. I just know they hitch a ride on the containers that deliver, then scramble around evading the roach hotels until they can find their way into the stack of paper bags.

I guess I should start carrying my own reusable bags, but I buy in bulk whenever possible - and haven't figured out how to do it. How does one estimate the number of bags to bring with them to the store? I'm not much of a grocery list maker, and I sort of cruise the sale items when meal planning. Then there is that great deal on toilet paper or whatever that I can't resist the temptation to stock up on!

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[*]The craft of packing has all but disappeared. I lament this not just as a former bag boy and someone who appreciates craft in an absolute way, but as a consumer. There's a reason to pack things so that weight is well-distributed, so like items go with like items, and so that bags can stand up on their own: it makes the rest of the grocery-shopping experience (getting the bags into the vehicle; arriving home without the contents being redistibuted across an expanse of cargo area; getting them into the kitchen and onto the counter without spillage; and being able to put things away in an orderly manner) not just easier, but nearly pleasurable, in the way that any well-executed plan can be. Grocery stores have let down their end, and I feel betrayed.

What are your grocery-bag issues? Paper or plastic, and why? String bags (how do you handle a week's worth of supplies)? Do you pack you own with pride (I'm secretly thrilled at the absence of a bagger when it's my turn to check out)? Are you running off to set roach traps before posting?

One place that truly practices the 'Art of Packing' is the NYC Trader Joe's. No matter which cashier I am assigned, the items are compactly and sensibly arranged -- and they even out the weights of the bags, which is so helpful for us pedestrians! Currently, they are offering raffle tickets to those clients who bring their all their own bags (or buy the reasonably priced reusable TJ's bags).

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My apartment building's guidelines for tenants actually prohibit paper grocery bags, based on the infestation issue. We do sometimes use them for transport, but always take them to the outside trash right away.

The other main drawback to paper bags (that they rip is a drawback, but not a unique one because plastic bags rip too) is that they're difficult to carry. You can pretty easily grab two or more plastic bags with one hand, up to your ability to bear the weight. Paper bags, the most you can really do is two bags with your entire body, assuming you're just making quick trips from a car to a kitchen without the need to open doors, etc. Needless to say, when it comest to New York City apartment living, that doesn't work out very well.

The best bagging arrangement from a usability perspective is plastic over paper. This gives the structure of a paper bag, and the handles of a plastic bag. Plus, the redundancy makes the chance of tearing statistically insignificant. This only works in supermarkets that use good plastic bags, though. Here in the city, Fairway on 74th and Broadway has the good plastic bags and the default packing method is plastic over paper. But the Fairway in Harlem uses thinner plastic bags and defaults to the million-bags approach -- probably because the Harlem Fairway is more of a car destination.

It's also worth touching on the paper v. plastic environmental issue. Just about everybody I know who's an environmentalist type is militant about choosing paper over plastic. But there seems to be good evidence that plastic is the better environmental choice. It has been nearly 20 years, I think, since ILEA put out its report on this, and the summary still seems to be the best piece on the subject:

gallery_1_295_94106.jpg

You can see a more detailed analysis here.

Needless to say, the worst possible environmental choice is to use both paper and plastic, as I do.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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[*]The craft of packing has all but disappeared. I lament this not just as a former bag boy and someone who appreciates craft in an absolute way, but as a consumer. There's a reason to pack things so that weight is well-distributed, so like items go with like items, and so that bags can stand up on their own: it makes the rest of the grocery-shopping experience (getting the bags into the vehicle; arriving home without the contents being redistibuted across an expanse of cargo area; getting them into the kitchen and onto the counter without spillage; and being able to put things away in an orderly manner) not just easier, but nearly pleasurable, in the way that any well-executed plan can be. Grocery stores have let down their end, and I feel betrayed.

What are your grocery-bag issues? Paper or plastic, and why? String bags (how do you handle a week's worth of supplies)? Do you pack you own with pride (I'm secretly thrilled at the absence of a bagger when it's my turn to check out)? Are you running off to set roach traps before posting?

One place that truly practices the 'Art of Packing' is the NYC Trader Joe's. No matter which cashier I am assigned, the items are compactly and sensibly arranged -- and they even out the weights of the bags, which is so helpful for us pedestrians! Currently, they are offering raffle tickets to those clients who bring their all their own bags (or buy the reasonably priced reusable TJ's bags).

Here's what I've noticed about grocery bagging where I live out in the suburbs:

Most grocery checkers carelessly put only a few items in each bag and double most all bags. Possible reasons? Both plastic and paper bags are weak and break, especially plastic bags that often have holes in their bottoms by the time they are carried from the cart into the car and from my garage into the kitchen - a total of less than 30 feet. Plastic bag handles cut into one's hands when being carried. Customers don't want to carry heavy bags for above reasons.

I agree that most all TJs checkers are superb grocery packers. My only complaint is that they sometimes want to use too many bags. Perhaps because in the area where where I live over half of the customers at any given time are elderly and need for their bagged groceries to be extra light in weight?

Although grocery baggers at other stores may know how to distribute groceries evenly by weight, at times they'll thoughtlessly pack something squishable in with something non-squishable every time. My all time favorite was tinned tomatoes and ripe peaches. I often use the self checking registers so I can bag my own groceries for this very reason.

I re-use both paper and plastic bags in limited amounts. So, use re-usable cloth, woven or cold-keeper bags for most purchases. I have 3 large cloth promotional product tote bags that my husband has gotten at trade shows and two cold-keeper bags that I use. Even so, I often end up with too many of those darned plastic bags.

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Here in Atlantic Co. NJ both the Acme and ShopRite stores have containers near the entrance for recycling plastic bags. I use the paper bags for paper recycling.

I've also got into the habit of telling the checkout clerks that I don't need a bag. At the WaWa they'll automatically put a 99¢ bag of potato chips in a plastic bag even though it's the only item being bought. At the CVS next door a bottle of aspirin rates its own plastic bag, at the local market down the street they use both paper and plastic together, and if you pick up a DVD at Blockbuster another plastic bag is added to your collection.

The non-recyclable plastic bags I use for trash or yard cleanup.

"A fool", he said, "would have swallowed it". Samuel Johnson

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I too am irritated by the way my local baggers bag groceries. As I shop, I fill my cart in segments based on edible, cold, boxed, etc and lay it all out on the conveyor belt the same way. Why? Because it's easier to put away when I get home. Sometimes, I'm in a rush and don't have time to put it all away and it's great to know all the cold stuff is in one bag and be able to focus on that one bag.

Those plastic bags are the worst. They're sloppy for packing and they slosh around in the back of the car. When I get home, I often have groceries spilled and strawberries tumbling.

I recently did a little shopping research on reusable bags. So many cute ones but not so cheap. When you may need 7 bags at once you don't want to buy them at $30 a pop. I was so please when I saw the $1 bags at TJ's . I now have quite a collection of them. I keep 4 or 5 in the car and a bunch more in the house. Very useful, well shaped, and they seem to be pretty durable for an item priced at a buck.

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Our Honda Odyssey has plastic bag clips in the cargo area. These would be very useful if we lived in the suburbs.

One of the more unusual bag-related experiences for me is shopping at Costco, where they don't have bags. It's always interesting to see how much you can accomplish with no bags at all.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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Plastic bag handles cut into one's hands when being carried.

OXO makes the greatest bag handles for plastic bags. You can't tell from the photo and they're kind of hard to describe, but these are flexible rubber tubes with a slit along the top side. You can slide the handles of multiple plastic bags into them, thereby cushioning your hands and keeping the bags together. (You can also use them for the paper "shopping" bags that have the twisted handles that dig into your hands). These handles are lifesavers for anyone who has to tote groceries; I can't believe they aren't for sale at every urban grocery store in the country.

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I have recently purchased a couple of reusable totes from my local QFC. They only cost about a buck and a quarter, and they're very sturdy. All of the area grocery stores have been carrying them recently. I think it's a great solution.

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OXO makes the greatest bag handles for plastic bags. . . . These handles are lifesavers for anyone who has to tote groceries; I can't believe they aren't for sale at every urban grocery store in the country.

The Oxo bag handles are such a great invention. I had never seen one until JAZ introduced me to them, and now I'm astounded at how difficult they are to find. They really should just be industry standard.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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I, too, love the TJ's buck bags. Unlike many of the totes I own, they have a bottom that is expandable.

Oh, and don't ever bag my groceries for me, unless you are one of my kids, and the rules have been drilled into them. I, too, pack very organized, and if I know that a bag o stuff is going to the basement for the extra storage space, it's in one bag. Stuff for the cabin or the deep freeze is in another bag. A big school fundraiser here is to hand a bucket and have a sports team bag your groceries. I always tell them that I will bag them for myself, but here's a couple of bucks -- could you please put it in the donation box?

Dave, I'd never thought about the roaches and paper bags because bugs aren't a problem up here, but I'm becoming far more conservative in my use of resources, and now that our recycle bins have covers, I don't need the bags for recycling, and I've made the commitment not to use trash bags. Simply dump the trash into the bin and a quick sponge out after I empty the trash (I compost a ton of stuff), and I figure I'm not only reusing and recycling, but simply not using! (I'm the person who maintains that Hefty has the greatest scam going -- convincing people that they need to purchase something for the express purpose of throwing it away).

Oh, and none of my kids will shop with me because I bring in clean, dry bags to the grocery for the produce that needs a bag.

Susan Fahning aka "snowangel"
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Tj's uses too many bags? Holy crap everytime I go there they stuff everything EVERYTHING into one bag. Its like a jigsaw puzzle, trying to get all of my stuff out when I get home.

Also, I'm a huge fan of Stop N Shop's new shopping buddy. This thing rings stuff up for you while you are shopping and after you scan your items you can throw them into bags. They even sell reusable shopping bags now, but if it were me I would just reuse paper bags from home or maybe even reuse a few plastic ones. I love the shopping buddy and I'm surprised that shaws/starmarket hasn't picked up on it yet

oh and what are paper bugs? I have a ton of moths flying around my apartment...do they like to eat paper?

and how do they bag in other countries? I know that in korea you have to pay for your shopping bags and super market chains. I think the bags are a penny or a nickel.

BEARS, BEETS, BATTLESTAR GALACTICA
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I have never heard of the paper bag issue with cockroaches and I always ask for paper bags at Whole Foods, which I re use when I go there again and also for toting many other things around.

The oxo bag clips are nice and WS supplies a similar clip when shopping at their stores. I keep them and reuse them also.

My old Subaru had the bag handles which was nice for holding plastic bags in place so things didn't roll around, but the X3 doesn't. And I always watch the baggers at checkout and redistribute myself before leaving the store if they are bagging improperly.

Edited by Marlene (log)

Marlene

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Mostly, I want people to be as happy eating my food as I am cooking it.

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I had never, until Dave told me about the cockroach/paper bag phenom a couple of years ago, given it a thought. As a veteran of horrid cockroach-infested college digs it gave me furiously to think, but in thirty years of paper bags I've never seen roach one.

Whole Foods paper shopping bags are the top of the line for comfort and practicality -- I can put out my paper recyclables in them -- but I hit Whole Paycheck maybe four times a year. My daily groceries are toted home in the plastic variety, and because I'm a sububanite the "handles" make dragging them from the car to the kitchen easier than the handle-free earnest brown paper bag. I hate them, but do all I can to reuse them for disgusting stuff: kitty litter, doggie poop when Willa was still with us. Actually, I use them for lunch bags too.

I'm temporarily living in what must be the most PC city in North America -- Ottawa-- and I've noticed the checkers always ask: "Do you need a bag?" It's amazing how much I can stuff in my tote. I've also noticed how many shoppers do come with string bags and cloth totes at the ready for their groceries. I think of this as a city thing: people who stop at a grocery store on the way home in a city are more likely to have blocks to walk and lighter loads then SUV driving sububan folks who shop fewer times a week.

I agree that Trader Joe's baggers are the greatest in the universe. How hard would it be for other chains to infiltrate the TJ Bagging Course and teach their folks how it's done?

Margaret McArthur

"Take it easy, but take it."

Studs Terkel

1912-2008

A sensational tennis blog from freakyfrites

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Ditto on the opinion about TJ's baggers. They rock ! And also ditto on the opinons about "normal" grocery store baggers. They most certainly do NOT rock.

I usually get the plastic......and use them for my kitchen garbage can liners. Its only me, and I dump it each night so that the fur children don't get ideas, so that size is about perfect for a day's worth of refuse. Unless I'm doing a big entertaining meal, and then I have a stash of larger plastic bags from places like Target, K-Mart, Lowe's, etc. that I save for that purpose.

I reuse the TJs paper bags, they live in the back of my car.....*most* times I even remember to take them in with me ! :wacko: They have the raffle thing as an incentive in SoCal as well.

And shamefully, I must admit, that after many many years of agreeing that I would NEVER pay money for trash bags..........I finally broke down and bought Hefty/Glad bags for my recycling. My city doesn't require you separate stuff, it all goes in the same bin, and having a 15-or so gallon container just makes life easier. I rationalize it by thinking the Hefty/Glad bags are themselves, recyclable. If they're not, please don't burst my little bubble !

--Roberta--

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I'm temporarily living in what must be the most PC city in North America -- Ottawa-- and I've noticed the checkers always ask: "Do you need a bag?" It's amazing how much I can stuff in my tote. I've also noticed how many shoppers do come with string bags and cloth totes at the ready for their groceries.  I think of this as a city thing: people who stop at a grocery store on the way home in a city are more likely to have blocks to walk and lighter loads then SUV driving sububan folks who shop fewer times a week.

I've been to Vancouver Island, staying in small towns as well as Victoria and noticed that stores pack groceries more efficiently using as few bags as possible. And some stores charge for extra plastic bags. I thought this shopping bag thriftiness was because Vancouver is an Island and as everything must be brought on or off island so businesses want count every penny.

But maggiethecat in Ottawa got me to pondering if this thrifty and conscientious bag use is done all over Canada?

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My car was broken into and my entire collection of cloth tote bags was stolen. That was ALL that was stolen! 20 years of collecting, gone in a moment. I would rather the thief had taken the stereo, it would have been far easier to replace. Now I am left with 2 totes, an immense black luggage fabric Tupperware tote, large enough to hold a car trunk worth of goods, and a slightly smaller Ikea tote, which I can say for a fact holds 18 boxes of Pepperidge Farm cookies, a frozen Pepperidge Farm cake and 3 boxes of tea alongside. (We're having a tasting- or should I say a critique of taste?). So, I have looked on ebaY, and there is a plethora of canvas totes up, with good prices, and of plain design, so they can be decorated to your taste. Hey, I'm a cheap date, ebaY is my go to shop. Perhaps, though, we eGulleteers can use this thread as an opportunity to support our beloved society, by purchasing THESE ! The eGullet-ote! I can't afford these lovely bags, but I know that many of us can, and they are beautiful!

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Give your opinion: I've seen two kinds of re-usable shopping bags at Trader Joe's. The $1 one looks like a plastic woven fiber-y material. The $2 one is nice-looking canvas. I was afraid the cheaper one wouldn't last. Who has experience to share? Are they durable? Is the more expensive one the way to go?

~ Lori in PA

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I won't repeat the complaints about bagging here, but suffice it to say that I've a reputation for staring smileless into adolescent faces and declaring, "Do. Not. Touch. My. Stuff."

As for bags: We recently got three of these titanic Ikea sacks that are made of some recycled blue plastic somethingorother, and the trio can hold an entire overflowing cart of goods in them. Being the lazy-man's load champion (a pathetic title, I know), I appreciate them deeply.

Chris Amirault

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Sir Luscious got gator belts and patty melts

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I live in a land without baggers, so I have no one to blame for squashed bread and strawberries but myself. :biggrin:

Grocery stores here charge you for paper and strong plastic bags; most people bring their own. And people hoard plastic bags of all kinds. For groceries, I use a plastic bag from Ikea (though not the ubiquitous blue kind) which is indestructible. I hauled home the makings for two batches of limoncello in it, today.

Death before the grocery-tote-on-wheels! :raz:

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Give your opinion: I've seen two kinds of re-usable shopping bags at Trader Joe's. The $1 one looks like a plastic woven fiber-y material. The $2 one is nice-looking canvas. I was afraid the cheaper one wouldn't last. Who has experience to share? Are they durable? Is the more expensive one the way to go?

Both types are good; the woven plastic ones are better for damp items (or damp weather). . .

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I really appreciate this dialogue since my store right now is debating what to do about bags. We use plastic only, but we're so sick of seeing Wal-Mart bags hanging off every cactus and cholla plant. Fortunately (or unfortunately for sales) we don't see our bright orange bags out in the fields yet - probably because our clientele is a bit more careful.

All that said, we know its not a reality to have all of our customers buy cloth bags.

We've also heard of the new corn plastics coming around that biodegrade (in more humid climates, not ours) in 3 months - we're already serving our coffee out of the corn cups. This will be a bonus once they strengthen them a bit more.

Our ultimate goals (as consumers) is to give the bags a good life. Not a single bag goes unreused in our house - every single one will end up with dog doo at some point...some bags attract roaches - some doo :)

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I use canvas totes like these:

blank canvas totes

I bought some at Michael's crafts, reasonably priced.

However, last year I was looking for something in Big Lots and came across stacks of large canvas totes 2 for a dollar, so I bought a stack. I still have a bunch. I have a van, center seat removed, so I have a large cargo area that contains an open tub, a foldable cargo organizer and a cooler that plugs in to the power sockets in the van.

I painted "FRIDGE", "FREEZER", "PRODUCE" "HOT-STUFF" on some of the bags, using fabric paint/dye I bought at Michael's.

TJs is no problem, they know to keep like things together. At other markets, I separate things on the belt and tell the checker and/or bagger to keep them separate. Sometimes I bag my own.

The bags with the cold stuff go straight into cooler - its deep enough to hold full bags.

Heavy stuff goes into the cargo carrier, that has dividers - stuff doesn't roll around. Everything else goes into the tub, heavy stuff on the bottom. If I have to transport delicate things such as pies, etc., I have a shallow tub that will fit into and hang on the top edge of the big tub.

I also have a couple of the collapsable shiny silver hot/cold zipped containers that are always in the van for keeping hot stuff hot. They are just the right size to hold one of the tote bags filled 3/4 or less.

Every swap meet I have visited always has a vendor selling blank tote bags, cheap! That is the place to look if you can't find another source.

TJs prices aren't bad but in some stores they are way overpriced.

"There are, it has been said, two types of people in the world. There are those who say: this glass is half full. And then there are those who say: this glass is half empty. The world belongs, however, to those who can look at the glass and say: What's up with this glass? Excuse me? Excuse me? This is my glass? I don't think so. My glass was full! And it was a bigger glass!" Terry Pratchett

 

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I can't think of a local grocery store that even offers paper bags. Not one.

One of the larger chains charges you for every plastic bag you use (you have to guess how many you'll need and tell the cashier before paying for your groceries - then he/she hands them to you from his/her secret stash.) Of course, you pack your own bags here. My father won't buy the bags but usually has waxed cardboard boxes in his car and will put his groceries into his cart without bagging, then will transfer the groceries to the boxes at the car.

In our store we use plastic bags 99% of the time. But we do have smaller paper bags for small items. I find that my customers aren't shy about telling me how they want their things packed. Double bags, only two chickens in a bag, not too heavy!!, etc. Only 2 of my customers bring their own reusable bags.

I recently bought a few bright-orange cloth(?) Home Depot bags. They're great - huge and they have a clasp at the top that helps keep things from rolling out as I drive home.

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