Paper or plastic: lessons in English and grocery bags

Rethinking the environmental impact of 'paper or plastic' recalls the role the words played in a new life for Bosnian refugees.

What's this about San Francisco banning plastic bags? Weren't the plastic ones supposed to save the planet? Or at least the trees? (By one estimate, 14 million US trees are felled yearly for use in paper bags.)

As a woman who's hit the age when it's getting harder to embrace change, I had finally switched from paper to plastic, only to learn that this talk about banning plastic is an international movement.

Oh well, I prefer paper bags anyway. They hold more, they're easy to hoist on my hip to carry, and they fold neatly until I'm ready to reuse and eventually recycle them.

But after being glared at – yes, right here in the heartland of America, where people are largely reserved with their opinions – for requesting paper bags at my local store, I began to mutter, "Plastic is OK."

Even when I thought choosing them was better for the environment, I knew that they had other disadvantages: The plastic bags my store uses don't hold a lot and what they do "hold" escapes in the trunk of the car and rolls around. They're not much good for reusing, only for recycling.

When I'm asked at the checkout counter, "Paper or plastic?" it reminds me of when Bosnian refugees poured into central Iowa about nine years ago. I was recruited to help teach English as a Second Language (ESL) at my church.

Two of my students, Ramiz and Edo, were brothers. Edo shared an apartment with Ramiz; Ramiz's wife, Ferida; and their daughter, Anela.

It wasn't long before Mike, another ESL teacher, had helped Ramiz buy a second-hand car and had found jobs for the brothers at a supermarket as – you guessed it – grocery baggers.

This supermarket requires their workers, even baggers, to wear white shirts and neckties. Mike found shirts and ties for Ramiz and Edo, who'd never worn neckties before. So he also tied the ties for them the night before their first day, then carefully loosened the ties, easing them off over their heads.

But Ramiz's daughter, who was 6 years old, played with Edo's tie, and it came untied. He didn't discover it until the next morning. What should he do? they wondered. If they called Mike, it would make them late for their first day. They decided to go ahead to the store, try to explain what happened, and have the manager help with the tie.

On the way to work, they noticed a cab and flagged it down. In broken English, Edo – the younger brother, in his early 20s – explained his predicament. Luckily, the cabbie figured out what Edo wanted and knew how to tie a tie. So that's how Ramiz and Edo made it to their first job in America on time.

A few days after the brothers had been through orientation at the store, I was at their apartment when they came home from work. Edo had loosened his tie. "Joy," he asked, "you understand, 'Paper or plastic?' "

"Yes, very good."

"What about, 'Driva up?' " Edo asked, his dark eyes eager.


"You no understand. Nobody understand." He raised his hands in frustration. "You know, 'Wanna driva up?' "

"Oh, you mean, 'Do you want to drive up for your groceries?' " I mimicked turning a steering wheel. "Or, 'Do you want to carry them out?' "

"Yes," he said. "Driva up? Carry out?"

So I worked with him to make it more plain to the customers.

What changes have occurred during these nine years. These Bosnian refugees are settled and have bought their own homes. Ramiz doesn't work for the supermarket anymore. In fact, he owns two businesses.

Edo has gotten married. He and his wife have two small children. He still works for the supermarket, but he doesn't ask, "Paper or plastic?" anymore. Now he manages their dairy department.

I don't teach ESL any longer, although I still see these families regularly. But now I'm in grocery-bag limbo again, just when I thought I had finally settled on plastic.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to Paper or plastic: lessons in English and grocery bags
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today