Easy Answers

It’s the middle of summer, when happiness should be at its peak, and I’ve been feeling a little discouraged. I keep running into people who, when faced with complex options, opt to take no action. I have started doubting my own activities.

Hearing the slew of news about our deteriorating environment, diminishing resources and deep piles of refuse can get pretty depressing. There are those who are convinced that any negative consequences of human activity can be offset. They are happy to address the problems down the road. Others latch on to new, “greener” ways of life with passionate fervor. My guess is that the majority of people are somewhere in between. The truth is, there aren’t too many easy answers to questions about how we should live our lives day-to-day. We all would love a Twitter-sized 140-characters-or-less answer to the question, “What is the antidote?” It’s rarely available. We live in a large world, disconnected from each other in many ways, and connected in many ways we may not want (thanks, Google). Every action, even every inaction, has consequences. A proposed solution to a problem may lead to another problem.

Sometimes we are confronted with choosing the lesser of two evils. Take my blog project, for example. Driven by the global statistics of 30-40% of food sent to landfills, I try to keep as much as possible out of the trash. I don’t need the produce I choose to be perfect. I’m part of a CSA which provides centralized, weekly deliveries of fresh, nutritious organically-grown vegetables, helping me avoid ad hoc car trips to come up with meals, thus saving on fossil fuels. I also live in a suburban area, so I don’t need to go far to get something I’m missing. Even the choice to cook fresh ingredients at home involves tradeoffs. I use a significant amount of fresh water, a limited resource for many, to clean and cook my ingredients and to wash all those dishes. There’s natural gas and electricity used to run appliances and lights in my kitchen. And I’m usually cooking for only one or two people, verses in a cafeteria or restaurant, where energy consumption per diner is often reduced due to economies of scale.

People need to be reminded of the tradeoffs. Last week, July 3 marked International Bag Free Day, promoted by several organizations that want the elimination of single-use shopping bags. I got to thinking about the fact that plastic bags have been a contentious issue for years. I remember, back in high school, I selected the topic “paper or plastic?” for a research paper, having grown up with the phrase ringing in my ear after every trip to the grocery store. I hoped to find a straight-forward answer about which type of bag I should use–which type of bag is the “greener” choice. I assumed that paper, being recyclable, would win out. Instead, I learned that the process for recycling paper bags demands huge amounts of water and electricity and transporting them generates greater CO2 emissions. Single-use plastic bags are, of course, a big problem because they are made of petroleum, a finite resource, and they take more than a lifetime to break down. They have contributed significantly to the litter in our oceans and can be toxic and harmful to the marine environment. Knowing these tradeoffs, I tried to skip bags or reuse them as much as possible.

Wouldn’t it be better to get rid of single-use bags and commit to reusable bags? In the United States, California is leading the charge to eliminate single-use plastic shopping bags; according to a February 2014 article in The New York Times, state lawmakers are moving to establish a statewide ban. The bags are already banned in nearly 100 municipalities there, with paper bags usually available for a fee. The article was fairly light and fluffy, smattered with quotes from consumers who were making do and those who see the ban as unfair and unhelpful. The online comment section, however, went on for days. People felt strongly for and against the ban. Guess what? Making an impact by switching to reusable bags isn’t easy either. One commenter directed readers to review this study from the U.K. Environmental Agency, which showed that certain multi-use bags needed to be reused many times (173 times for a cloth one) to have a definitively lower “global warming potential” than a lightweight plastic shopping bag that was reused as a garbage bin liner. More than one commenter pointed out the fact that reusable bags can be dangerous, because they harbor bacteria. (That made me stop and think. I even laundered my cloth grocery bags and disinfected some of my vinyl ones.)

The opinion in Europe must be polarized as well, preventing their proposed government ban from going through.

While it can be tempting to throw in the towel and join the inactive, I am reminded that there are plenty of people out there dedicated to steering others in the direction of lesser evils. Witnessing these successful efforts to chip away at the consciousness of our consumer culture makes me hopeful. Through creative marketing and ingenious products, complex choices have become simplified. It becomes possible to envision our citizens changing behavior on a larger scale. Just when I needed encouragement, I learned (thanks to Edible Manhattan and Leanpath) about French supermarket chain Intermarché’s launch of an “Inglorious Fruits and Vegetables” marketing campaign to promote the sale of less-than-perfectly shaped produce. If you have read through my blog, you saw the Eat Ugly Food post, in which I wish for something like that here in the United States. The video about their campaign is truly inspiring; you should watch it.

How could we make the elimination of plastic bags a no-brainer? Companies, like Ikea, have charged customers for single-use plastic bags. In fact, after reporting that “92% of their customers said no more plastic bags!” Ikea discontinued offering them altogether. But what did this do to those responsible citizens of the earth, who would have reused those single-use bags in their homes as trash bags or for other perfectly reasonable uses? Perhaps, instead of implementing a polarizing policy and running the risk of ticking off some of their best customers, Ikea could have tried a BYOB (bag) discount. Would 100% of deal-loving Americans stop and think, “we don’t need plastic bags”? Would they consistently remember to bring their reusable bag if they could save a buck?

What about you? Could you survive a ban on the single-use plastic bags, or should the focus be on getting you to stop using them on your own? What creative initiatives have convinced you to take action?

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