A while ago, in the halcyon, pre-pandemic days, when the most pressing concerns were Brexit and global warming, I remember having a startling thought: One day soon, I might run out of plastic bags.
Way back in the teenties, long before supermarkets started charging for them, I had stopped accepting plastic bags in response to reports of their impact on the oceans. I carried two or three tote bags folded up in my handbag at all times and used these for anything I bought. When we moved out of London and started driving to the supermarket, we put a stash of sturdy bags for life in the boot and took these in with us in the trolley.
Yet, there were still occasions when a secondhand plastic bag came in handy. If I was packing a suitcase, for example, I would always wrap my shampoo and shower gel in a plastic bag. In addition, in the early months of pregnancy, when waves of nausea washed in at inconvenient moments, it was useful to have one about my person for emergencies.
We kept our used plastic bags in a tote bag hanging on the door handle of the cupboard under the stairs. Over time, it became clear that the supply was dwindling. Sturdy, premium specimens were scarce and most of what remained were those flimsy, transparent sleeves from the fruit and veg aisle. Rooting through them one day in search of something that would be up to the task I had in mind, I experienced a stab of anxiety that I might one day raid our collection only to find that all serviceable bags were gone.
I no longer have such fears. Having spent the last couple of months surviving almost exclusively on online shopping and supermarket deliveries (which have become relatively easy to secure after the initial frenzy in the early weeks of lockdown), we are swamped with the plastic bags that are now used to deliver groceries that can no longer be carried into the house in crates because of Covid-19. Far too numerous for one tote bag, they are crammed on top of the cabinet in the cupboard under the stairs. In another month or two, there will be too many of them for even this space and we will have to start devising creative solutions for using them up – stuffing cushions, perhaps, or adding an extra layer of insulation to the loft. (Any suggestions gratefully received.)
The change is worrying – particularly when you extrapolate the situation in our house to wider society and consider all the disposable cups, utensils and other items that were gradually being phased out and have now been brought back in full force because of the pandemic. It is a reminder of how quickly positive changes can be reversed in response to circumstances beyond our control. Good habits may take years to form, but they can be undone in no time at all.