Bag the Bags.

America is riding high on the wave of change. With the election of Barack Obama, we are a tangible step closer to undoing the disastrous, divisive, and embarrassing policies of the last eight years. Of these many disasters, President Bush’s environmental policy has been lost in the shuffle. For almost a decade, our planet has endured the rollback of Kyoto, a preposterous global warming debate, and a dependence on (foreign) oil that is best summed up in Dubya’s Crawford Ranch handholding sessions with Saudi princes (“Oh, Abdullah, why can’t I quit you”).

To be sure, an Obama presidency isn’t a panacea—we still have a national oil addiction, corporations who put self-interests ahead of the common good, and a loud segment of the population that still refuses to acknowledge our own culpability. Tina Fey wasn’t that far off when—playing Sarah Palin on Saturday Night Live—she suggested that global warming was a sign of the End of Days. And there’s the rub. Our nation’s policies on the environment won’t change until our attitudes do. Try as he might, President Obama’s efforts will only be hindered until all of us face the facts.

In his acceptance speech, Mr. Obama reminded us that there would be sacrifices; that his policies would only be as successful as our willingness to meet him half way. As much as we want to believe the populist/Robin Hood trope of taxing the rich and bullying corporations, those tactics will do nothing unless these groups themselves want to change. Despite the dire (and increasingly irrelevant) warnings from the Hannities and Limbaughs of the Right, we are not Socialists. This is still a free market, and as such, money talks. If we put the screws to the car manufacturers, oil companies, and all the other environmental offenders via organized boycotts and other (peaceful and legal) actions that affect their bottom line, we can make a difference.

This is where our sacrifice comes in. We need to change our attitudes and our habits. We need to realize that our actions and lifestyles do have an impact on the natural world. As I said, the success of any new, progressive environmental policy is dependent upon our support. And it’s more than catchphrases and empty expressions. “Being green” is easy to say, but let’s start to put that into action. I’m not calling for sweeping changes. We need to start small with simple, but effective demonstrations of action.

To this end, Sustainable Rutland is launching a Bag the Bag Challenge (this has potential for a James Brown reference, but I’ll try to resist it). We are encouraging people in the Rutland area to stop using plastic bags. Ideally, we would like to see an outright ban on disposable bags like many other cities have adopted, but like I said, baby steps. What is the impact of a few bags, you may ask. Well, let me drop some science on you (in easy-to-read bullet points):

  • Americans use over 380 billion polyethylene bags per year. Only 1% of these are recycled.
  • Plastic bags are made of polyethylene, a petroleum product. Their production contributes to air pollution and energy consumption.
  • It can take up to 1,000 years for polyethylene bags to photodegrade. As they break down into increasingly smaller toxic bits, they contaminate soil and waterways, and inevitably enter the food our food chain.
  • The estimated annual cost to retailers for plastic bag manufacturing is $4 billion. Naturally, this cost is passed on to you.
  • And paper bags are pretty bad, too (even worse in some ways).

So what are you to do? Roll out of Price Chopper with a cart full of loose groceries like some paranoid lunatic who thinks plastic bags are trying to steal your thoughts? No, there’s an alternative: reusable canvas bags. Remembering to bring your bags out with you may be a hassle at first, but ultimately all you doing is trading a bad habit for a good one. (As an aside, while any type of reusable bag is preferred to paper or plastic, not all reusable bags are created equal. Some are made of synthetic materials, or are produced in distant countries like China. If possible, seek out organic domestically-produced canvas bags.)

But wait—you don’t have a reusable canvas bag? No problem. Pick up one of Sustainable Rutland’s new canvas bags available at participating downtown businesses and the Winter Farmers Market. Smart, stylish, and affordably priced at only $2, you’ll be the envy of all your localista friends.

Like I said, small acts can make a difference, and can carry a powerful message. It is encouraging thinking that we could eventually become a bag-free community, and inspiring when we consider what else is possible when we commit ourselves to positive change and progress. So grab some canvas and do your part, because Rutland’s got a brand new bag. (Sorry).

(originally published in the Rutland Herald 11/12/08)

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