Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Paper or plastic? A question that I found mildly irritating when clerks and baggers started asking it in maybe the mid-eighties. In those days, I was certain that of course I wanted paper; I wasn't about to fuel unnecessary petrochemical use with those increasinly ubiquitous plastic bags. But then plastic bags started being made out of HDPE #2 and #4 plastic, a material that can be recycled. So it got a little stickier at the checkout counter. Do I choose paper and make a small contribution toward lessening the pollution from petrochemical refining, or do I choose plastic and save a tree --or at least a twig? Of course the best answer is neither, and bring your own reusable bags. I always opted for paper, even when the plastic bags could be recycled, since we could always reuse the paper bags at the market stall anad give that tree a little more go-round.

Yep, in those days at the Ann Arbor Farmer's Market, paper was the bag of choice. The helpful market manager even kept a small stock of different sized paper bags in her office, since farmers were always running out. But then I started noticing a change in the crowd chroma as the shoppers moved past our stall. Instead of clutching armfuls of earth-toned large and small paper bags as they hurried to get the clumsy load to their car, they were sauntering by swinging conveniently handled, brightly colored plastic bags in greens and whites, with Thank you Thank you Thank you printed across the front. And one day as I stood rather dejectedly in front of a big beautiful pile of sparkling spinach on my table, I watched shopper after shopper go by with a bag of greens encased in a clear plastic bag -- water on the inside, dry shopper on the outside. I started to get it.

And our customers started asking for plastic bags. Even though we drain our salad mix overnight, the greens retain a fair amount of water. Shoppers would tell stories of getting home and finding their paper bag disintegrated and salad mix spilling all over their other purchases. Many shoppers brought their own plastic bags, often gently scolding us for being so obtuse, or worse, stubborn. By this time plastic was the container of choice on the market, it seemed. We looked down the line and saw that one of our fellow organic growers even had the little stand you see in grocery stores that holds the bags open for easier filling. We were definitely dragging our feet!

Finally some of the more forward thinking (or less idealistic) members of the Frog Holler Farm team said Enough! We searched online and found an outfit in California that makes recyclable plastic bags. We ordered a size for salad mix and a size for large heads of lettuce and greens. And it didn't take long to see, given that we sell so many watery items such as greens and lettuce, that the plastic bags were definitely improving our customers' shopping experience. We were slinging plastic bags all over the place, and starting to apologize if we offered paper!

So last week a customer walks up, orders salad mix, and says, "Wait, I brought a paper bag." A paper bag??? For salad mix?? To my questioniing look, she replied, "I find it keeps better when it goes in paper first. Seems like the paper soaks up the extra water." And you know what, she's right! And that's why the head Frog Holler farmer resisted plastic for so long. Excess water can be the agent to turn fresh salad greens into slimy compost. If customers don't drain their bags of salad when they get home, they are going to have a sorry mess in the bottom of the bag in a few days.

So there you have it -- the choice between well-drained salad in soggy paper bags, or too wet salad drowning in the impermeable plastic (while you and the rest of your items stay dry). Whichever you decide, just take the appropriate action when you get home and you'll be fine. And don't let this little story keep you from buying the salad mix this fall. At this time of year the greens are especially crisp, the flavors especially sprightly. So step up to the stall and just let me know: Paper or Plastic!


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