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The recent battle of paper against plastic bags has made many a consumer pause. Plastic bags have remarkable utility and toughness. They are too tough in fact—as we age and decay, they will remain in the oceans and, full of their own baffling malevolence, occupy themselves by strangling innocent cetaceans. Even when they do break down, they release endocrine disruptors, causing crustacean sexual identity crises. And so, we opt for paper bags, cutting down forests and using prodigious amounts of water to create the pulp. 

I have a suggestion. Perhaps we should do away with bags altogether. The bag has encouraged many vices. Avariciousness and pride in possessions, rather than accomplishments, arose in concert with the bag. Before the bag, prehistorical people might carry one or two items strictly necessary to furnishing the necessities of life. Once the bag had been developed, Urk would be able to show his compatriot Ogg his collection of stone axe heads, spear tips, hammerstones, and long blades. Ogg felt a new emotion: envy. Undoubtedly, this all ended in bloodshed, and the bag is largely to blame.

Much of this is water under the bridge, you might feel. No one can reverse the invention of the bag. And that’s not the point. Bags enable overconsumption—if you had to shop without a bag, your purchases might be far more careful. Waste would be reduced. Shop theft would almost disappear. I have made a ritual of visiting Woolworths with no bag and leaving with no bag. I am only able to purchase what I can carry.

But consider those other aspects of everyday life that would be immeasurably improved by the bag’s disappearance. Consider for a moment how airline travel would be improved. Your meagre possessions could be restrained in a hessian sack (I have never taken the position that sacks should be forbidden) and placed in the onboard compartment. The cargo hold could be pressurised and house another 60 or 70 semi-recumbent passengers in windowless comfort. This would mean a substantial reduction in airfares and pollution.

Language often unconsciously betrays our real feelings about objects. To be ‘left holding the bag’ means that you will be blamed by all and sundry for mistakes for which you had little responsibility. If a situation is a ‘mixed bag’, it is likely the good elements barely outweigh the negative. If you ‘let the cat out of the bag’, it will claw the faces of your guests into a bloody pulp in a way that is hard to live down socially (perhaps my interpretation here is based on my own experience). A bad person is a dirt, douche, or scum bag. In old age we fear becoming a bag lady or more simply an ‘old bag’. Our final journey is in a body bag.

And, even when the word is used positively, there are connotations of death or deception about it. We ‘bag’ a brace of pheasants or a family of elephants. We greedily state that we ‘have something in the bag’, just before it all goes wrong. The ‘bag man’ is a shady and corrupt character who might be paying off those who do ‘black bag jobs’, infiltrating places for espionage purposes. The dark patches under our eyes we declare illogically are ‘bags’.

It is curious that there is such a pattern of negative associations surrounding what seems to be a practical device. Perhaps a little etymology here would help. The Old Norse bǫggr is (probably) the source of our modern word. Its meanings were multiple: ‘load’ and ‘burden’ were two, as you might expect. But it also contained the meanings ‘harm’ and ‘shame’. Its close companions in Modern English—‘pack’, ‘satchel’ and ‘bundle’—contain no such negative connotations.

Perhaps Old Norse is suggesting that our bagged possessions are a burden to us. They indicate not our wealth but our shame at having plundered the environment. It might be time to put down our burdens/shame and select neither the paper nor plastic bag.

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