Paid internships are hard to come by. Luckily, as an intern at Audubon, I am paid for my toils. To pay the rent for my closet of a room in Queens, I took up a second job as a cashier at a little kitchen shop in Greenwich Village. Having worked throughout college at Bed Bath and Beyond to pay tuition, I am unfortunately no stranger to retail. I’m no longer shocked by customers who drop $1,500 in one outing on something like coasters like it’s no big deal, nor am I surprised at the requests for elusive and supposedly time-saving utensils such as an avocado slicer or a strawberry huller (won’t a paring knife work just fine for both tasks?). What really blindsides me is one comment I get from some people as I bag up all these consumer goods they don’t really need.
“Oh, I don’t need a bag. Let’s save the environment, right?”
Americans use 100 billion single-use plastic shopping bags each year, consuming an estimated 12 million barrels of oil. These bags, after perhaps one more use as a waste basket liner or doggy doo receptacle, then go to landfills, end up in marine ecosystems, cause storm drain clogs. They congregate at an island of garbage bigger than Texas in the North Pacific Gyre, a vortex of currents where massive amounts of plastic bits from bags, bottles and toys are trapped at sea.
We’ve all seen the “I am not a plastic bag” campaign, and now Whole Foods has begun charging for its plastic bags to encourage its customers to remember their own reusable totes. Trader Joe’s gives a discount to shoppers who bring their own bags, and I, for one, am glad that this particular issue is becoming part of the trendiness of “going green.”
The fewer plastic bags that end up in the ocean choking endangered sea turtles who mistake them for jellyfish, or in landfills taking a still undetermined amount of time to break down (estimates of how long plastic takes to break down are now at 500 years to forever), the better. But there is a disconnect in making that “saving the environment” statement when saying no to a bag. While making a choice to carry your own bag is commendable, it is definitely not enough. Other not-so-great habits may cancel out your well-meaning bag refusal. To really make positive changes we can’t just decide to be environmentalists in some instances and not in others.
Yes, please, if you haven’t already, acquire a reusable bag and make a habit of keeping it with you while shopping. Please, change those light bulbs. Turn off the faucet while brushing your teeth. Consider eating less meat or going vegetarian (my five-year anniversary of my veg-head diet is coming up next month --one of the best eco-friendly decisions I feel I’ve made). Buy local, organic produce. Make your own kitchen and bathroom cleansers… and on and on and on. No one small, easy change in anyone’s life will amount to anything. All of us have to be willing to do more than heroically refuse a plastic bag while buying those paper cocktail napkins and plastic cups for the next dinner party. So, while I continue to spend my weekends ringing up garlic presses and onion goggles part-time, let’s all make some full-time choices to “save the environment”… right?
Helpful links and more information:
reusablebags.com has cute options. My favorite are these bags that fold up into their own little pocket to easily carry in your pocket or purse. They're very hard to forget at home.
VBS.TV has an interesting documentary as part of its Toxic series about sailing to Garbage Island:
Here's an article by yours truly on the paper vs. plastic debate:
Paper vs. Plastic. The real answer may be neither.