"Paper or Plastic?"
by Ruby Bayan
The first time I set foot on American soil, the cashier at the supermarket stumped me with my very first all-American brainteaser… "Paper or plastic?"
I stared at her for a moment and pondered deeply, processing the question as quickly as I could, trying my darnest not to betray that I had absolutely no idea what she was talking about. I thought to myself, "Paper or plastic what?"
She asked the question a second time, more urgently this time, as if our futures depended on it. I froze, holding up the line for another eternity. I looked around, and the bagger stood there, another pair of eyes staring at me, waiting intently for my answer. What were they talking about? Paper or plastic what?
Were they asking me if I was going to pay with paper money or plastic money? I recalled having read somewhere that Americans don't carry cash anymore, and they now pay with plastic -- credit cards. But the cashier was already accepting the dollar bills I pulled out, so it must be something else.
The bagger at the end of the counter, gaze still fixed on me like he's never seen an Asian before, clutched on a rack of plastic bags as if convincing me to say "plastic." That was when it struck me.
Oh! Okay, they were asking me if I wanted my groceries packed in a paper bag or a plastic bag! But, understanding that I had a choice to make, I was boggled even more.
What to choose -- a paper bag that could only have been manufactured by chopping down one of the most valuable natural resources, or a plastic bag that will remain in a landfill in its non-biodegradable form for the next 200 years? Either way I'd be doing harm to the environment.
I never thought of it before -- I was never given the choice before. In Philippine supermarkets, plastic bags were the default.
"Paper or plastic?" The bagger was the one prompting me now -- the cashier had started ringing in the groceries of the lady behind me, and my stuff was bogging down the flow. I had to make a choice -- quickly.
I finally uttered something, "Paper. No. Plastic. No, wait. Paper." So, the bagger, obviously not happy with my indecision and the delay I was causing, went ahead and put the cold and wet stuff in plastic bags and the rest in paper bags, and dumped all of them in a cart, and hastily shoved me off.
Since then, each time I am asked this ecology-sensitive question, I try not to aggravate the supermarket crew. I waste no time and quickly respond in my most Americanized Filipino accent, "Cold and wet stuff in plastic, the rest in paper." Then I drive home believing I've been fair to the American environment.
Of course, it's now my environment, too, so I then make sure that the paper and plastic eventually end up in the recycle bins.
[First published in BastaPinoy News]