Missing the Point

August 12, 2011

Yesterday afternoon, finding my cupboards rather bare, I made a quick trip to the grocery store.

Once there, I plucked a few staples from the shelves and made my way to the checkout lanes, where I informed the cashier of my intention to use a bag I’d brought from home. He smiled, nodded, and asked for said bag so he could pack it while I swiped my credit card. Once I’d navigated through the keypad payment I glanced up to see him wrapping my frozen broccoli in… a plastic bag.

“Oh, you don’t have to do that — it can just go in with everything else, there’s room.”

“Oh okay, Miss. I just noticed it was frozen and didn’t want it to get everything else wet.”

“Yeah, I appreciate that, but I live just across the street — I’ll be okay without it and I’d rather not use the plastic.”

He smiled some more, said something along the lines of “sure thing,” took the broccoli out of the bag, and… threw the bag in the garbage.

Now. I respect the logic of his thought process, and really, thoroughly appreciate that he did consider what would be most convenient for me in a comprehensive way. A soggy bag of flour is a sad thing indeed, and had I lived more than 100 yards from the store I may have taken him up on the offer. He tried to get into my head and act in my best interests, and this empathy-in-action is something I believe many more people in the world should work to master.

But… he did it wrong.

The reusable-bag movement is largely an environmental one. With Americans alone using close to 100 billion of these non-biodegradable, single-use satchels a year, those who put forth the effort to carry their own bags tend to do so in an attempt to mitigate their own part in this excessive waste of resources and contribution to pollution. Yes, these bags tend to be more comfortable to carry and are less prone to bursting open on the way home under the stress of a heavy load. These are secondary benefits though, only to be considered once the primary benefit — in this case, avoiding the use of a single-use plastic bag — is achieved. In other words, my priority is to avoid pushing yet another piece of plastic into the environment — not perfectly dry groceries.

My smiling cashier chose to focus on a minuscule detail at the cost of the big picture. In the end, it would have been better for me to take the bag, as at least I would have recycled it.

The exchange served as a prime reminder that even the most well-intentioned, thoroughly thought-out, and nuanced actions are for naught if they’re at odds with the grander picture they’re contributing to. The idea is old — don’t mistake the forest for the trees — but in a world that perpetually inundates its inhabitants with details (particularly of the virtual sort), the sentiment is truer than ever.

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