I was in a meeting recently where the organizer asked us all to introduce ourselves and say something we are doing to protect and preserve our planet.
I’m shy, and I don’t like business meetings that require personal revelations, because what’s next? Bonding retreats? Trust falls? Will people judge you? Will you judge them?
As it turned out, it wasn’t a big deal. People mentioned things like bringing refillable water bottles to work, cutting down on meat and trying to get the kids to help with recycling. Someone was planning to start composting, and a few said they try to remember to bring reusable bags to the store but usually forget.
So yeah, I’m the judgy one. I mean, how hard is it to bring a bag to the store?
Back in college several decades ago, my housemates and I took our backpacks and tote bags to the store, packed bulk goods in our own containers and biked or walked them back to our communal kitchen. Am I the only one who never stopped doing that?
I have quite the collection of reusable bags. I pick up sturdy canvas bags at thrift stores. I make reusable bags out of the woven-plastic feed bags we bring in for the animals. I pick up extra shopping bags when I find them at two-for-a-dollar at the checkout. I stash some in the trunk, some in the seat pockets. Even if I’ve left most of them in the house after a big grocery trip, I can usually find a couple somewhere in the car. If not, there’s that lightweight cloth one that rolls into a tiny packet and stays in my work bag.
That roll-up cloth one is my just-in-case bag and fits in a pocket or purse. I took it with me to New York City last weekend, just in case I needed it.
New York was, as I’d hoped, full of first-spring flowers and early blossoming trees. The grass was greening and a walk through the park was a relief for us spring-deprived northerners.
But on the streets, I was stunned by all the plastic bags — blowing across the sidewalks, smashed into the curbs, tangled in the trees. They were everywhere.
I don’t know anyone who purposely drops their plastic bags on the street. Everyone I know who leaves the store with several plastic shopping bags insists that they use them responsibly, storing them carefully at home for reuse as trash liners and lunch bags, or to carry library books or returnable bottles and cans.
Somehow they escape and blow around town, float down rivers and into the sea. Even if that garbage island in the middle of the ocean is not particularly your fault, isn’t it all of our responsibility to prevent it from growing and to clean it up? Who’s going to change things if not us?
Reusing your plastic bag one time isn’t enough, and those bags are too flimsy to use more than twice. And of course, bringing a reusable bag to the store doesn’t change the fact that most of your groceries are already packed in plastic. It just cuts one car out of the plastic train.
New York state just enacted a single-use plastic bag ban law for retailers, set to go into effect in a year. By then it could be strengthened to include takeout restaurants, or it could be weakened to exempt certain stores. Who knows?
What we need is a mindset change. In parts of the world where bags are not handed out as part of the shopping experience, people are accustomed to bringing their own. They can manage to pick out a couple of pears or a bunch of carrots — not encased in plastic — and put them in a string bag or a canvas tote or a washable plastic bag sturdy enough to last for years.
The bag ban is an attempt to force us to change our habits. That seems like a reasonable step, but it’s just a step. There’s a lot more work to do.
Greenpoint appears every other Sunday. Look for it next on April 28. Reach Margaret Hartley at [email protected] or @Hartley_Maggie on Twitter. Opinions expressed in Greenpoint are hers and not necessarily the newspaper’s.