Plastic’s not fantastic

A rustling and puckered moment at a convenience store somewhere in the switchback of streets skirting Edinburgh's Castle Rock: I have placed a hand of bananas, a half-litre bottle of Volvic and three Mars bars on the counter; the man behind it has taken my £10 note and furnished me with change. Now there is an uncomfortable hiatus as we eye each other, until I venture tentatively: "Um, aren't you going to ask if I want a plastic bag?"

“Oh, yeah, sorry," he says, pulling one out from the slick sphincter at his elbow - for him, this must just be a little glitch in his repetitive weal, but I eye him wonderingly because this is the first time in years that I haven't been presented with a plastic bag as a fait accompli, as something integral to the purchase of an item as small as a box of matches or one already itself bagged. Moreover, it's also the first time in years that I've actually wanted a plastic bag.

Brand new bag

Is it just me, or does anyone else find this experience deranging? You walk into a shop, pull a plastic bag from a roll and tear it off, fill it with apples, take this to the counter and, without speaking, the shopkeeper sheathes this bag in a second. It's been a while now since, like Malcolm X refusing pork in the penitentiary, I took the debagging leap of faith. "No, no," I say when they try to bag the bag, "I don't need a bag for this because it's already in a bag." Or I say: "No, I don't need a bag for this because it's really small and I can put it in my pocket." Or I say: "Please,
no bag, because see . . ." - I lift my hand above the level of the counter - "I am already carrying a bag and I can put this thing in it."

Needless to say, these rational appeals to bag-pushers are met, at best, with indifference and, at worst, with the quizzical expressions bestowed on someone eccentric but harmless. If only I could leave it there - but I can't. "Are you not aware," I ask them as I tuck my purchases away, "that plastic bags break down in the sea into innumerable little pellets known as nurdles and that the ocean currents carry these myriad nurdles around
the world until they all come together in a vast patch of pollution in the northern Pacific that's already the size of Texas - and growing by the day? Does it not appal you, the thought of mile upon mile of waves colloidal with non-degraded plastic, beneath which heave the dead links of the entire food chain? You should feel responsible for this and, instead of unthinkingly dispensing these bags that are suffocating Gaia, you should refuse to hand them out, because they are evil."

If I've managed to retain any sympathy during this little rant, the word "evil" usually puts paid to it. No matter how massed they may be, ascribing moral characteristics to objects - unless they happen to be illegal drugs - is self-evidently schizoid thinking.

It wasn't until I began using the "e" word with reference to plastic bags that I realised quite what a behaviourist quagmire psychotics have to wade through every day. For the minute someone looks at you as if you're mad, it automatically calls forth the response: "You think I'm mad, don't you?" And the second these words are out of your mouth, the self-diagnosis will be confirmed by all that hear them.

Inner Spacey

It isn't the environmental argument about plastic bags that I find so compelling; it's more the aesthetic one. There is something insanely ugly about a culture that not only manufactures so much baggage, but has come to regard its provision as integral to the most marginal commerce. Plastic bags are thus, it seems, an appropriate garnish for the endlessly moveable feast of our consumerism.

So who exactly is mad here - the plastic bag refusenik or the capacious bagocracy? In Edinburgh, I needed my plastic bag because I was bagless and wanted to climb Arthur's Seat with some provisions for me and my two younger sons. Forty-five minutes after I left the shop, we were indeed on top of the volcanic plug, swigging the Volvic and looking north to the Firth of Forth across the sun-gilded city. I handed a Mars bar and a banana to each of the boys. The voided bag swelled in the wind and tugged against my fingers.

I dunno, it looked so blue, so beautiful and so clearly longed to go west . . . to America. I released it and watched as it waltzed up into the sky. Sometimes I feel mad but, on good days, I'm just a little bit Kevin Spacey.

Will Self's latest book, "Walking to Hollywood", is published by Bloomsbury (£17.99)

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 13 September 2010 issue of the New Statesman, France turns right