Friday, March 21, 2008

Have you ever seen the movie, Sex, Lies, and Videotape? If memory serves, the first line in that movie is "Garbage. I can't stop thinking about garbage." I mention this because for the last two months, I can't stop thinking about plastic shopping bags.

I don't think it's because I'm covering up some deep-seeded neurosis. Plastic bags have been in the news as of late. In the last couple months, I've stumbled upon several articles about them in the newspaper (1,2,3). Toronto Life recently told readers where they could buy stylist substitutes and last week I mustered the courage to take on more bad news about plastic by reading the cover article on plastic from This Magazine. I don't read much environmental news lately because it just makes me feel pained and frustrated. This article was no exception; at its end was the obligatory "WAYS TO REDUCE YOUR PLASTIC FOOTPRINT." "Carry Tupperwear" and "Don't litter?". Is that all that can be done?

I already carry and use reusable bags (I swear by these ones). I want to see real substantial change occur instead, oh say, like in Ireland where a tax of 15 cents on plastic shopping bags caused a drop of 90% of plastic shopping bags within 5 months of its introduction. That's not going to happen where I live. My government likes to work together with the folks responsible for the problem in a non-binding, non-threatening manner:

The provincial government wants Ontarians to cut in half the number of plastic shopping bags they use over the next five years.

Today, Environment Minister Laurel Broten will announce a partnership with the Recycling Council of Ontario and grocer and retail associations to come up with a system of consumer incentives to meet the target, the Toronto Star has learned.

It's so frustrating. During this brief moment in time when plastic shopping bags are actually newsworthy, grocery store chains are using it as an opportunity to SELL more durable plastic bags for a buck a piece. But how serious can they really be when they make no effort in changing the process of checking out your groceries to accommodate these new bags?

However, I have hardly seen anyone bring their bags to the grocery store, and no one is talking about a key point ... how do you efficiently get the teller to use your bags? If you aren't paying close attention, the cashier just grabs your stuff and puts into a plastic bag. At that point I'm too embarrassed to correct him / her. If you are prepared, you can have the plastic bag or your backpack ready, and you have to speak up and say the dorky phrase "I have my own bag". If you have lots of groceries, it is really hard, because the cashier already has his little area with the grocery bag hanging on the wire frame, ready to be filled up. If you have your own bags, you either have to grab the stuff as the cashier scans it and throw it in your bag (not very easy, and hard to pack your groceries in a smart way), or I guess the cashier would have to put your bags on the wire frames, but that would take extra time, and everyone hates the person in line who slows things with coupons or arguing about a price or bringing their own bags.

When being "environmental" is being sold a choice (now you can get laundry detergent without phosphates!) then you know that the issue involved is not being treated seriously (but we still sell laundry detergent with phosphates to keep your whites, white and your lakes over-trophicated).

This magazine is supposedly a political magazine (its motto is 'Because Everything is Political') and yet the article didn't recommend a particular political action to take. This is ultimately is understandable because the article was written by a journalist and not a policy writer. And who's to say what's the best course of action - petition the current government? try to shame the grocery chains? work with the plastics industry? align with an environmental group, NGO or think tank and work toward the eradication of the plastic bag? This whole issue has highlighted how little I know about how real political change actually occurs. I'm currently reading Here Comes Everybody and there's a idea in it that resonated with me: sharing is easy but cooperation is hard.

I'm not sure what happens next. I could do some research to find out the process by which Ireland was able to make said changes. Another part of me is interested in what online tools exist (or could be developed) to help large groups of people set priorities and coordinate efforts. I don't particularly want to dedicate the rest of my life to the demise of the flimsy, plastic shopping bag but I suspect that the lack of such people is the true reason why they still persist.


Me said...

I was thinking about this more in my sleep-deprived state. All the big environmental NGOs use salaried employees, and only seem to take volunteers for fundraising or office work. What would maybe work is a charity that worked more like Amnesty International, which would utilize a smaller staff but a big pool of volunteers. They could pick a campaign every 6 months or so (like, let's get rid of plastic bags, or, all the fish are dying), run a big publicity campaign with public advertising, and at the same time get their volunteers to write letters to politicians, stores, etc., with more active volunteers doing public events or protests. The mass consciousness-raising could then perhaps fuel some real legislative changes or pressures on big companies. That's my idea.

Mita said...

I haven't found a website that does what you are proposing.

Right now, we seem to be in the "I'll do it if you do it" stage of social coordination. Some examples:
-The Point
-Once Upon A School

Not surprisingly, no one has implemented my idea of a pre-defined group to work through projects

Me said...

When I get in the letter-writing mood again, I'm going to email my great idea to WWF, David Suzuki Foundation, and anyone else I can think of.

Mita said...

Its not a new idea (Howard Rheingold writes about similar activities in his book Smart Mobs) but Carrotmob's approach is brilliant: buy booze to conserve energy!

cinnerd said...

Hey, this is quite true. I bring my own bags and do feel kind of dorky doing it. But then I ran out of plastic bags for garbage and am getting them off of other family members who are happy to give away their extra plastic bags. What do you use for garbage?

Mita said...

Oh, we still buy garbage bags that are destined for the garbage. There's still a lot of ways our house can reduce the amount of stuff we through away - we are hardly role models at this point!

Me said...

I bought some biodegradable bags at biobag ( but have yet to try them out as I'm still going through my supply of plastic bags...