One Corner of One Room at One Time

I’m sticking to my promise. As far as blog posts about plastic shopping bags go, this one is the last. But it’s also my first step towards making one corner of my life greener. Granted, that corner is inside my trash can and it will be a while before the job is done there. But like Bob Marley had once said: “You got to start somewhere to get somewhere.”

With that as my motto, I’m on my way!

I have to confess though, once I’d committed to this change, it wasn’t all that hard. What helped too, because of writing this blog I’d learned enough about why I should say ‘no’ to plastic shopping bags to make doing so meaningful. Then it did’t take long for it to become less of a chore and more of a habit.

I now never leave my bags in the car and that ‘oh-darn’ feeling I used to have when I’d get to the cash register and remember them no longer happens. My husband has made the change as well, as has my mother. She recently said that she’s been telling her friends about it. (She also told them that I invented recycling. She’s very proud of me, apparently, because it seems to be catching on. I tried to tell her that I’m the one who is finally catching on; that people have been talking about recycling since the 1970’s. I don’t think she’s convinced.)

Anyway, as had happened when I fooled myself into moving the contents of my house one corner of one room at one time, when I went about eliminating shopping bags from my garbage can, I wound up getting more done than I thought I would.Plastics that can be recycled-4 Through my research, I learned that in New York State, where I live, single-use shopping bags actually fall under a broader category of recyclable items called plastic film. Included in it are many types of plastic bags, like cereal bags, and frozen food bags, as well as packaging around items from a corner of my life that I would have put off making green for a very long time. Here’s why:

Setting: A recent conversation between me and my husband at the dinner table.

IMG_0743Me: “At some point we’re going to have to do something about our paper towels and  toilet paper.”

Him: “You mean the stuff I buy at Sam’s? Why’s that?”

Me: “A lot of it’s packaged in plastic wrap. It’s not bio-degradable.”

Then came that look usually reserved for when I overspend on my credit card. I knew I was in trouble.

Me: “All I’m saying is we need to switch to eco-friendly products.”

Him: “You know ‘eco-friendly’ is code for ‘more-expensive,’ don’t you?”

Me: “I’m just saying we should look for–––”

Him: “Just because I went along with the shopping bag idea, doesn’t mean I’m okay with everything changing.”

So that happened.

In retrospect, I should have had a conversation with him about going green before I started this blog. We talked about it a little, but at the time I hadn’t expressed that I intended to make EVERY corner of our lives greener. The thing is, I’m starting small; one corner of one room at one time, because that’s what I can handle. Maybe that’s why I’d left out that one broader detail. It’s also likely that in the back my husband’s mind he thinks this is a phase I’m having. He’s waiting to see if it ends before he puts his foot down. The way I see it, that buys me time to figure out how green living and our cost of living can balance out.

So now, not only have I dodged having to talk my husband out of buying Bounty in bulk, but I’ve made a second corner of my life a little greener.  I realize, of course, that if everyone, including me, stopped buying items packaged in plastic, then manufacturers of those items would have to figure out a greener way of packaging them. But, while there are some things I can do without, like salads in bags, (the plastic bags they come in are not recyclable and the loose produce is fresher, anyway,) IMG_0766 I’m not ready to give up my Bounty, either. And, I want these changes to last.  It’s easy enough for me to store the plastic wrap that paper towels and such are packaged in instead of tossing it, and then to take it to the Dump with our other recyclable. That’s my comfortable fit for now.

IMG_0789Also, I made my first trip to the Dump with my plastic bags and saw where they keep the ones they’ve been storing for eight years. There’s a lot of them. I wonder why no one has offered to buy them yet. I had emailed Price Chopper’s headquarters a while back to ask what they do with the bags that people put in their drop-off barrels. These plastic film-3What I learned from their response was that Price Chopper has a “robust” recycling program with Trex. The chain sends Trex all the shopping bags from those barrels as well as the shrink wrap that goes around those pallets  that get delivered with jars of beets and stuff on them. Trex uses the material to make decks. (To watch short commercial about how Trex does it click on the link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z0gBMWPlcIU )

So, here’s what my first greener corners look like:

 

IMG_0816

Finally, in case you’re wondering if I sleep any better these days; oddly enough I no longer lie awake nights feeling like the world is about to end. It’s not that I’ve fooled myself into believing that by recycling shopping bags I’m going to save the planet. I still see myself as ant-sized compared to the mess we’re in. But, having taken control of something attainable has helped me to feel less afraid. Instead, I’m more determined to keep making positive changes, no matter how small. Enough small changes can add up to something that matters. Right? And, if you listen to my mother, which I always do, this recycling business is catching on.

For more information on plastic film recycling please go to: http://www.plasticfilmrecycling.org/s00/index.html

Next week: What’s so bad about my mail, anyway?

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…