Get our free newsletter
Carol Partington works at the Twin Springs Fruit Farm stand at Dupont Circle’s FreshFarm Market, and the spot where she stands is a great vantage point to observe the evolving habits of local yuppies toward a pressing matter: bags.
Though global warming is a matter of scientific consensus and landfills everywhere are bursting at their smelly seams, there are some people who aren’t giving up on their plastic bags. “Oh yeah, they’ll bag anything. I’ve seen people bag bags of cookies that are already packed up.…Case in point,” says Partington, gesturing toward a woman headed to the scale with four huge squash in a plastic bag. After paying, the shopper attempts to cram the unwieldy sack into a flat, canvas messenger bag, the type meant to carry textbooks or a laptop.
Soon enough, Squash Lady will learn that the proper procedure in this case would have been to stuff the thick-skinned butternuts au naturel into her bag. She and her anti-environmental MO, though, are on the way out, because the ambient packaging ideology of area farmers’ markets is gaining converts with each sunny Sunday: If you get it in a plastic bag, you don’t get it.
The ostracism that grips plastic bags runs from coast to coast. San Francisco last year pioneered a ban on the sacks, consigning them to eternal scorn among the green types who populate farmers’ markets and other progressive gathering places.
But proper baggage requires forethought and preparation, and it’s easy to get caught at the tomato stand without your Whole Foods polyethylene terephthalate grocery bag or ripstop-nylon produce sack. What results is a genuine moral dilemma: Do you suffer the shame of plastic or do you stuff that dirty cabbage into my purse?
Anna Benfield, who has been working at area farmers’ markets for nearly a decade, sometimes gets annoyed at all the bag phobia, which she says has picked up in the past couple of years and become something that’s “cool and hip; it’s all the rage.”
“It used to be all, bags, bags, bags, bags, bags,” says Benfield, who now works at Tree and Leaf farm. “Everyone would get a plastic bag with every single purchase. Then all of a sudden it was all, ‘No, no, I brought my own! I’m so green!’ I feel like they’re just doing it because their neighbors are doing it.”
Benfield herself has been eschewing plastic for years; her irritation is that of someone suffering the new ubiquity of a favorite indie band. “I’ve kinda gotten over my resentment of, ‘Oh, get over yourself,’” she says. “It seems like it’s sticking.”
A woman in line at the Tree and Leaf stand at Dupont Circle is juggling an armful of carrots, tomatoes, potatoes and squash. I ask her if she’s carrying her veggies in order to save some plastic. “No, I forgot my bag,” she says. She admits she’s going to get a plastic bag for her purchases—just one, though. When I tell her I am doing an article on market bags, she sheepishly says, while struggling to hold onto her load, “I’m probably not the best example.”
A silent sense of judgment floats like mandolin music in the air of the local farmers’ markets. I admit that, at times, I’ve succumbed to the feeling.
I stop one morning at the Blue Ridge Dairy stand at Dupont Circle for a pint container of fresh mozzarella. I’m not offered a bag and, glancing at the canvas around me and feeling ashamed of the lust in my heart, I am too embarrassed to ask for one.
I briefly consider packing the sloshy container into my purse. What’s really in there that could get damaged? My phone, my iPod? Well, yeah. I hobble off, awkwardly carrying my notebook, my tape recorder, a pen, and a small bucket of salty water with a lump of cheese bouncing around in it.
Keswick Creamery offers a decent middle ground between wanton waste and a cramped wrist: biodegradable bags made from corn. Melanie Dietrich Cochran, who co-owns Keswick, says she uses compostable bags and containers for everything except the yogurt. (Warm yogurt can warp containers.)
The bags are something that is factored into the cost of transportation, and they work out to “pennies per market,” Dietrich Cochran says from her Dupont Circle stand. The cheese and pudding containers cost about 5 cents apiece, “and that,” she says matter-of-factly, “I pass straight on to the customer.”
Unfortunately, eco-friendly bags are cost-prohibitive for most farmers. She’s tried to sell the neighboring Spring Valley Farm stand on the bags, but Spring Valley owner Eli Cook says they’d add up to about $300 more per market than the plastic he currently offers.
Dietrich Cochran says she has been meaning to use the biodegradable containers as a marketing tool but hasn’t done so yet. Considering how plastic-obsessed people at the market are, she is sitting on a corn mine.
For Julie Bolton, owner of Groff’s Content Farm, “the nature of the product”—hers is meat and poultry—sometimes makes a prophylactic necessary. She bags up all sales unless a customer requests otherwise but does manage to save a few trees in the process. “If I were really diligent, I would bring newspaper and wrap the meat in that,” she says from her truck at the Silver Spring FreshFarm Market. “But I don’t get a newspaper.”
Others have taken strides to at least reduce the number of bags per customer. “Thanks for bringing your own bag,” reads a sign at the Dupont Circle’s Next Step Produce stand. And Spiral Path Farm at the Silver Spring market offers plastic bowls so that customers can pile up their veggies and then consolidate them into one bag after they’ve been weighed. “A lot of people would bag broccoli separate from eggplant and use six different bags,” says Jarrah Perez, pack house manager at Spiral Path. “It’s such a waste. Some people are oblivious to the fact that plastic is going to be in a landfill forever.”
Even the greenest of produce-stand sentries, however, don’t begrudge their customers a protective layer for more delicate items, such as berries and pears—in part because vendors are particularly particular about their fruit. And it seems that the thinner the skins, the thinner the skins. Emily Zaas of Black Rock Orchards can be witnessed every Sunday at her stand at Dupont Circle, flitting from table to table, furiously offering up samples and precise storage instructions.
“No, the white peaches are not ripe—they need a day on the counter.…A day or two on the counter—a day or two at most—and then I want them in the fridge, even if you don’t want to, they go in the fridge. Here, eat this plum…”
Zaas has such a personal investment in her product that she encourages people to take a plastic bag so that the fruit doesn’t roll off of the scale as it’s being weighed. I even once heard her announce a “Bag Appreciation Day.”
When I catch up with Zaas at the Penn Quarter FreshFarm Market and ask her about what might be seen as her controversial request, she eyes me suspiciously. “That’s a tricky question,” she says, “because you don’t want to come off as being pro-plastic.”
She explains to me that all of her apples are the same price—$2.49 a pound on this Thursday—so that people can mix and match within one bag. Also, she says, customers are free to bring used bags from home or to return their plastic bags to her, though the D.C. government announced just weeks ago that it is now accepting plastic bags in its curbside recycling program.
On one Sunday at the Dupont Circle market, a customer wrinkles her nose when Zaas asks her to bag her fruit before it’s weighed.
“We take such care getting the fruit here; it pains us to see it [fall on the ground],” says Zaas.
“Can I hand the bag back to you after you’ve weighed it?”
“You can do whatever you want with it.…Well, wait until you have a bunch of them and they are annoying you, then bring them all to me.”
The customer walks off with the undesired wisp of plastic. It makes sense that people who don’t want a bag would be more comfortable not taking one in the first place. In my small survey of shoppers, none can say that they ever remember to bring plastic sacks back for a second use or to donate to a vendor.
“I don’t usually remember” to bring back plastic, says Elizabeth Savrine of Silver Spring, who is hauling a reusable bag she got from Strosnider’s hardware store. “Can’t you not recycle those, either? That sucks.”
One way to skirt the bag issue entirely could be for the fruit vendors to go strictly organic. Such tree fruit is rare because there are not organic fungicides, and many of the fungus-resistant heritage varieties have skin like a catcher’s mitt.
The sign at Country Pleasures Farm, which grows organic tree fruit, announces “3,000 Years of Pears.” And I can believe it, as the apples look pretty biblical: tough and gnarled and full of holes. Not so great for comfortable eating, but plenty useful for a pavement faceplant or a bout of intra-bag wrestling with a knobby gourd.
But whether your bag declares that it used to be a plastic bottle or that the Hard Rock Café wants you to save the planet, one problem is unavoidable: Gravity will pull one thing on top of another. The solution? A wide mouth and flat bottom.
Elizabeth Denlinger carries a flower-print canvas basket with a collapsible aluminum frame, a Christmas gift from her mother that was purchased “for the market,” she says. “It collapses to half its size. I think it can bear more weight without losing its shape.”
She shows me the bag’s sturdy construction and rubber feet. “I can sit my berries in it along the bottom,” she says.
I look around and notice a couple more in the crowd. A version at reusablebags.com, the Reisenthal Market Basket, costs about 40 bucks, “makes it a cinch to say no to the plastic bags usually handed out,” and is “an updated version of the classic wicker basket.”
The dreaded wicker basket.
A packed market will not deter folks intent on carrying their purchases this way. At any given moment, you can spot several people waddling uncomfortably through the crowd and taking up undue space with a cumbersome basket. They look about as pleasant to haul as a baby carrier, and I’d imagine that a load of eggplant and apples would make them nearly as heavy.
Melanie Fosnaught of Takoma Park has been going to the neighborhood market there for 15 or 16 years. She carries a wicker basket.
For Fosnaught, it’s all part of the experience. “One reason is that you don’t have to get a bag from vendors—you don’t have to use a plastic bag. The other thing is actually, for me, I kind of like walking through the market and creating little still lifes as I go. You put a little green here, some purple there.…Sometimes I’ve actually bought something just to make the basket prettier.”