A Well-Kept Secret

You’re probably thinking: I hope that clueless girl hasn’t written another blog post about plastic shopping bags.

Note from that clueless girl: This is the second to last one. Promise.

Here’s the thing. Going by the strategy mentioned in  A Big House Full of Bad Habits, where I fooled myself into moving the contents of my entire house one corner of one room at a time, when it comes to making my life greener, I’m still trying to tips forimprovinGyour blogreduce what goes into my trash can every week. But I just learned a secret that’s going to make that a lot easier.

Before I go on about that, though, there’s something you should know about me: I live in the middle of nowhere. Seriously. Our neighbors are red squirrels and chipmunks. That means that while most people drag their trash to the curb on garbage day, we throw ours in the back of the car and haul it to the County Dump. So, last week, when my husband and I were there sorting our cans, plastic bottles, and cardboard into these big rusty containers for recyclables, I noticed two big boxy-looking bins stuffed with plastic shopping bags.

(This is me with a light bulb emoji music festivaloutfits foroctober
over my head and an aha-expression on my face.)

I had a bunch of plastic bags left at home from before I started bringing my own to stores. Now I knew what to do with them. Then it occurred to me that even though I kind of sort of knew that plastic bags could be recycled, I had no idea how it worked.

This prompted me to to give my County’s Waste Management a call and embarrass myself by trying to sound like a hard-nosed investigative reporter. I’m guessing Pat Pittsley, Recycling Coordinator, must have been rolling her eyes like crazy on the other end of the phone. But to her credit, she remained professional and was very informative.

And now for the secret she let me in on, which I am in turn sharing with all of you. ( Another thing you should know about me: I’m not good at keeping secrets. Really. If you don’t want EVERYONE to know, don’t tell ME.) It turns out that in addition to plastic bags; all the plastic Plastics that can be recycled-4wrapping around products like toilet paper, paper towels, and such is also recyclable. So are  ziplock bags, as long as they’ve been cleaned out and dried. (Although, I told my husband we’d stop buying them, anyway. It’s easy enough to use tupperware.) Really, most of the thin types of shopping bags they hand out at grocery stores, as well any clear plastic packaging (which the DEC calls plastic film,) can be melted down and reused.

Mrs. Pittsley also shared  that the staff at the Dump has been clearing those big boxy bins, bundling the contents, and storing them for the past eight years. Eventually, some company will put in a bid for them, and if it’s accepted, they’ll cart them away and melt them down into pellets. Then that material will be made into new plastic shopping bags, turned into plastic lumber by companies like Trex that make decking, or used as part of medical or technological innovations. Using recycled material instead of virgin material to make these things uses a lot less oil and is better for the environment. But unfortunately, less than 1% of single-use bags are actually turned in for recycling each year. Maybe that’s because THE SECRET hadn’t yet gotten out.

Enter: That Clueless Girl.

In NY State, since 2015 stores, like Price Chopper, have been responsible for arranging for plastic film and shopping bags to be collected, stored, and recycled. In fact, any store that provide customers with free bags is required to have some kind of container in a visible area where people can return them and other plastic film for recycling. They’re music festivaloutfits foroctober-2even required to label their own bags so that customers know they’re recyclable. The bags and such should be cleaned out of things like receipts or food particles, before being put into the bins.  (For more information about what types of plastic film can be recycled and to find a drop off location near you, please got to: http://www.plasticfilmrecycling.org/s00/index.html )

For me, my preference is to say ‘no,’ to the single-use bags entirely and continue to bring my own. While recycling the bags reduces the amount of trash in landfills and is easier on the environment than making them from scratch, the recycling process and transporting the materials still produces carbon emissions that the planet could do without. But what I now know about all the different types of packaging that can be recycled has taken a load off my mind, as well as from the inside of my trash can.

Next week: I’ll sum up my bit on plastic shopping bags. See ya then!

Paper or Plastic? I’ll Take Cloth!

Now that I know how bad plastic shopping bags are, I’m off them…well, for the most part. I’m really trying AND, I’ve been reminding my husband about it, as well. (He does not yet know how much he’ll appreciate my kibitzing some day.) I even went and purchased a few more of the multi-use plastic bags that were hanging near the cash register at Price Chopper. I felt pretty good after that, until I went on the Internet and read about what happened in Texas.

I was doing research for this blog post at the time. I wanted to highlight the good things people around the world are doing in the fight against plastic shopping bags. (COMING SOON: Animated short about a brouhaha between shopping bags and people. Just kidding. I wouldn’t even know how to make one of those.) It turns out the city counsel of Austin, Texas had something to highlight, too. But that would be for a blog about how NOT to save the planet.

According to Bloomberg View, in 2013 Austin banned plastic shopping bags. Two years later, the city reassessed and IMG_0706discovered that the numbers of heavy-duty multi-use bags, like the ones I bought, had increased significantly in landfills. Aside from the fact that it seems pretty silly to spend .99 cents on a perfectly good shopping bag and then toss it after only one or two uses, the broader problem is that these bags put out a greater degree of carbon emissions than the single-use bags when they’re made. In many ways, they’re more toxic to the environment––especially if you only use them once.

In contrast, Ireland got it right. In 2002 they imposed a .22 euro cent tax on the plastic nuisances (around .33 cents in US currency). But they also put out a media campaign to educate citizens. Within two weeks they saw a 94% drop in plastic bag use. A year later, everyone was bringing their own bags to stores and single-use ones had become socially unacceptable (nytimes).

One thing that made it easy for Ireland is that the plastic bags they used were mostly imported from China. There were no manufacturers in Ireland effected by the ban. No plastic shopping bag factories having to close doors. No workers losing jobs. No hit to Ireland’s economy. When China imposed its bag ban a year later, they didn’t have that going for them.

Prior to 2003, “White Pollution,” was what people called the plastic bags that littered the Chinese countryside. It was estimated that Chinese citizens would use and toss 3 billion bags a day back then and that 5 million tons of crude oil were used every day to manufacture them. (The emissions from that didn’t help the already poor air quality in many parts of the country, either, I’d imagine. But that’s for another blog post.) But then China’s Parliament imposed a new law prohibiting stores from providing free thin plastic bags to costumers and threatened to fine shop owners 10,000 yaun ($1,465 US dollars) if they were caught distributing them.

Soon after, the China Chain Store and Franchise Association assessed the ban and reported an 80% reduction in the use of the bags. The government proclaimed success! In fact, the ban was so successful that a plastic bag manufacturing company that employed 20,000 workers had to close. I’m sure lots of people resented the ban and the government for imposing it after that. Later surveys showed that, despite an army of inspectors ensuring compliance, 80% of food stores in rural areas and 96% of open food markets in Beijing continued to distribute thin plastic shopping bags to their customers (World Watch). Guess they didn’t really care about the fines.

Another thing that Ireland had going for it was that it has a relatively small population; around 4.6 million, compared to China with a population that reads like my phone number. Maybe China would have done better if they had targeted one region at a time. The US is late in addressing this issue compared to other countries, but most States now have some kind of plastic bag legislations as do many cities. Many businesses offer incentives to people who bring their own bags, too, like the .06 cents I earned off my purchases at Price Chopper recently. There’s also an awareness program for schools called A Bags Life that so far eight States has adopted. In putting it in the hands of local governments, we’re getting something right. A local governments that really understands the needs of its own communities has a chance of inspiring in a way that makes sense to the people living in them.

So, here’s my take away. There are countries all around the world, including the US, who have restrictions, taxes, or bans on single-use shopping bags, but if the governments don’t invest in education, then citizens might feel less inclined to do what’s being asked of them. Then they won’t change their behavior; and they can’t learn to factor in the environment in their choices; and that won’t become part of their core values; and they won’t be able to inspire others. I think in the end, it all comes down to what we do as individuals, but sometimes we could all use a little guidance.

As for me, now that I know better, the next time I buy a reusable shopping bag, I’ll make sure it’s a cloth one!

Is there really plastic bag pandemic?

The other day, someone stole my shopping cart right out of the frozen food aisle. The nerve! So, as I’m walking around Price Chopper like a total dope looking for it, I’m picturing this guy in a flannel shirt with missing buttons, sprawled out on a stained purple sofa and eating my Ben & Jerry’s out of the container.

But I have to say, it served me right. The reason I’d stepped away from my cart to begin with was because I’d forgotten my reusable shopping bags—AGAIN. And, because I’ve been doing some research on waste and plastics, and since I’d announced to the whole world (or, at least, to my eleven Facebook friends) my commitment to making lifestyle changes to help the environment, and because the best of intentions aren’t enough to save the planet, I went back to my car to get them.

So, here are some not-so-fun facts:

  • More than 3 million tons of single-use plastic bags, sacks, and wraps are manufactured every year.
  • It takes 12 million barrels of oil to make 100 billion bags.
  • A single family in the US will use and throw away 1,500 bags each year; that’s 100 billion bags per year for all of us together. (An average person in Denmark uses about 4 plastic bags per year. Just saying.)
  • Manufacturing and transporting plastic bags produces greenhouse gasses.
  • Plastic shopping bags are recyclable, but only around 0.5% of them actually get recycled.
  • The process of recycling them produces carbon emissions, too.
  • At best, if the conditions are right, a plastic bag will break down in a landfill after about 20 years, but the ink and chemicals used to make the bags seep toxins into the ground.
  • At worst, a plastic bag could take 500 to 1,000 years to break down, although plastics haven’t been around long enough to test that theory.
  • Plastic bags are among the list of top ten pieces of trash that wash up on beaches.L-Plastic-Bag-Turtle_t580
  • Many of them don’t wash up. They sink to the bottom where they never biodegrade, drift along on the surface for who knows how long, or are eaten by sea animals that later become sick and die.
  • According to the United Nations Environment Program, every square mile of ocean contains approximately 46,000 pieces of floating plastic.

With all that bad news, it might not be so far fetched that people on the Internet are saying we’re in a plastic bag pandemic. Paraphrasing from WebMD, “pandemic” is defined by the number of deaths from a given disease that spreads over a wide enough geographic area. If you look at the fact that single-use plastic bags—whether they’re baggies, shopping bags, or tall kitchen garbage bags—have been a part of daily life for people world-wide for over 50 years, and that today there is more than 7 billion of us and that plastic bags continue to pile up everywhere, making our planet sick, it could qualify. Even if you think those Internet people are being over-dramatic, there’s no denying it’s a problem.

Think about this: the first plastic baggies rolled off the assembly line in 1957. That means it’s only taken 59 years for us to have to worry about whether we meet criteria for a plastic bag pandemic. And, if you go by the 500-1,000-years-to-biodegrade theory, those baggies from 1957 are still sitting in a landfill somewhere. It’s a good thing we weren’t pumping out 3 million per year back then. We’d be neck deep in plastic baggies by now.

But there are simple fixes that could stop us from piling on to this growing global problem; for starters, don’t accept those free bags at the grocery counter and bring reusable ones to put your chips and milk and bananas in instead. (Said the woman who lost her shopping cart, because she forgot her bags in car.) I’m going to try harder to remember mine and look for other ways to reduce the use of plastics, as well.

But this topic has made me curious. I wonder how various States in our country and countries around the world have addressed the plastic bag pandemic? I bet there are plenty of us who are doing the right things. Think I’ll go look into that.

Until next week…

A Big House Full of Bad Habits

One good thing about being clueless is that there’s always plenty to learn. So I thought it would be a good idea, since I am trying to save the planet, to buy a book or two on the subject. The problem is, when you Google something like “best books on green living,” hundreds of options come up. On Goodreads alone there are over 700. It’s overwhelming. It makes the task of going green seem overwhelming, too.

A long time ago, when I moved from the house where I’d lived my whole life to a new place with my then-new husband, I felt about as paralyzed by the vast scope of change as I do now. I had accumulated a lifetime’s worth of stuff back then, just as I’ve accumulated a lifetime of less-than-green habits up until now. Back then, having to pack thirty-plus years’ worth of belongings into boxes made me hyperventilate. Seriously, I hyperventilated just at the thought. So I didn’t do it. Not that I didn’t move. I just didn’t pack up the whole house, not all at once anyway.

Instead, I put the contents of one corner of one room into a box. And, when that didn’t trigger a breathing session into a brown paper bag, I packed away the clothes from one dresser, and all the books and knick-knacks off one bookshelf, and the coats and board games from one closet, and so on and so forth, until every inch of the house was either packed up, thrown away, or donated.

I think the reason I’d put off going green for so long is the same reason I almost couldn’t move out of my house. The scope of change made it seem too hard. But also, all of those not-so-planet-friendly habits that I’ve acquired over the years—well, over time they’d begun to feel like home. I don’t know if living greener will fit as comfortably.

The other day I walked into my pantry and realized that the packages of half the foods we have stocked there are not biodegradable. Half of them! Does going green mean I can never again buy Pirate Booty? What about taking baths? I read somewhere that a bath can use about twice as much water as an eight-minute shower. Wait a minute! Not only are hot baths out, but now I’ll only have eight minutes to shower? Does going green mean I have to shop at the farmers market for local produce instead of Price Chopper? That would NOT be convenient. Does it mean I’ll have to put up a clothesline, attend rallies, and unplug my refrigerator? What about my RAV4? I can’t, I WON’T give up my SUV.

Breathe: In. And. Out.

One corner of one room at a time, remember?

Instead of worrying about all the things I’m doing wrong; some of which I’ll commit to change at some point; some of which I can’t even think about from where I am right now, I decided to make one small, comfortable habit adjustment at a time. The first on the list: From those 700 Goodreads books, I ordered one: Do One Green Thing by Mindy Pennybacker, because I liked the title. (Although, for some reason I didn’t order the Kindle version. I’m guessing Mindy would be disappointed with me for that.) And then, for my one-corner-of-the-house green change: those reusable shopping bags on the floor in the back of my car, the ones I keep meaning to bring into the food store when I go shopping. I’m making the commitment that, should I forget them again, I’ll leave my cart temporarily and go back to my car to get them. Who knows, maybe that kind of tough love will be enough to make me remember. It’s a small change, I know. But in the words of the great Bob Marley: “You have to start somewhere to get somewhere.”

Earth Day is Every Day

How many of you think that every day should be Earth Day? (I’m at home raising my hand. I promise.) It’s been 46 years since Senator Gaylord Nelson put his idea into motion on April 22, 1970; the start of the environmental movement.  I remember when I was a kid, going out and picking up trash on Earth Day number one––– the one day a year when we were supposed to do something nice for the planet.

But I guess we’d forgotten about Mother Earth on the other days, because in my lifetime climate change has become a certainty and plastic shopping bags have begun to wash up on beaches more than seaweed. I’m embarrassed to say that I’ve managed to live to adulthood without having thought too much about how my everyday activities effected this rock we call home. Pretty dumb, huh? Since this is the only rock I’ll ever have!

So, not too long ago, I decided to make some positive changes to try and help the planet and to write a weekly blog about my escapades while doing so. Then, I picked a start date that seemed to fit with the theme. But, instead of scribbling there on my calendar in blue ink, A Clueless Girl yada-yada, for some reason I wrote:

Starting today: Earth Day is every day.

Now, you’ve probably already guessed that it’s been a while since anyone has mistaken me for a girl. Clueless Middle-Aged Woman is more like it, but that doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue. The part about me being clueless—well, when it comes to knowing how to save the planet, that part is true. But I’m not one of those in-denial people who insists that the planet doesn’t need saving. I get that we’re in trouble. That’s why I keep reusable shopping bags in my car. Then I forget to bring them into the store.

Sigh.

Me, I worry that we could lose everything in my lifetime (scientists say it will likely take much longer than that, but I still worry), while at the same time wondering if remembering that shopping bag would make the slightest difference. But here’s the thing. The little stuff matters. Even if one less plastic bag in a landfill isn’t going to straighten up the whole big mess we’re in, I should try, right?

My husband would be the first to tell you, with a slight quiver in his voice, that not knowing rarely stops me from jumping in. Like that time after my daughter went to college and I decided to write a book. I had no idea that it would take ten years for me to learn enough about craft to actually finish one, but I did it!

My name is Mimi Rosen. I’m a fifty-something-year-old teacher who lives in the middle of nowhere and who stays up nights fretting over pretty much all of the world problems and a parade of other things that I can’t change. My daughter is twenty-seven. Someday she’s going to be my age and by the way things are going, instead of people fighting over land and religion and who knows what else, they might be killing each other over drinkable water. I worry a lot about that!

My husband says I need to calm down. He says this often, in fact. He should talk. He’s the one who blares his horn and yells at people in traffic. Jeez, that’s dangerous. I’m pretty sure there’s a psycho behind the wheel of one in three vehicles. (That’s not an actual statistic, by the way.) Me, I lay awake, sometimes for hours worrying, which is probably safer.

So, of course it was in the way-wee hours of the morning when I had this crazy thought; I can’t dial back global warming, but I can make small changes that could help a little bit. If you put enough small changes together, they could add up to something that matters, right? So, I decided to take this journey and do whatever I can to try to save this world that I love. So, starting today, Earth Day really is everyday–––for me, at least. Because, why not? I’m here anyway. Might as well try. And, who knows, maybe I’ll sleep better.