Sunday, June 24, 2007

What's Important To You?

I've been thinking about what's important in my life, both professionally and personally. In the context of my class project, it was important for me to visually grasp and comprehend what 380 billion plastic bags looks like.

The task was ostensibly simple: Take my bags out of the kitchen cabinet and count them; you do the same thing. And together, we form a massive pile of plastic bags.

Executing this task, however, was anything but easy. It took me eight months of hard work (i.e., writing, presenting, practicing, planning, ordering) to implement this collaborative event.

But, we did it. My students and I transformed this idea into reality. Starting from zero, we began with a clean slate:

Then we pitched the first set of bags into the container:

Just moments later, we had a small pile of bags:

In one hour, we tallied and pitched 14,640 plastic bags into the container:

At 2pm, we tallied and pitched 53,712 plastic bags:

At 4pm, the final count was 72,571 bags:

Now that BagFest is over, was it worth all the effort?

Some of my students thought so, but not everyone thought this project was worth the effort. One of my students wrote in my teaching evaluation that "many students dreaded attending class because it was a constant state of pretending to be enthused about recycling and making BagFest a success."

Yeouch, that hurts.

But isn't it unreasonable to think all of my students would consider this to be an important project? I certainly had my goals outlined for everyone, but I recognize that what's important to me may not be important to you.

So, I'd really like to know: What's important to you?


Experimentaholic said...

You're important to me, Ms. Conserve Plastic Bags! That's why I come here so often!

It is important to me personally, as an individual, to surround myself with positive people who inspire me to be even better than I could have ever imagined myself to be, surround myself with nice things that leave the least harm in terms of their impact upon people (just say no to diamonds, buy fair trade coffee) or the environment (just say no to plastic bags; recycle), and live in a place where there are people who are positive and things that are nice (Philadelphia).

Michelle Verges, Project Director said...

Aww, shucks, Expermentaholic. Thanks for the kind words!

Yes, we are social creatures after all, so I see what you mean by wanting to surround yourself with good, quality people (and artifacts).

Why settle for less?


Rey B said...

Just because everyone doesn't agree with your thinking doesn't make it wrong. Of course it doesn't always make it right either. I can't say that I agreed with 100% of what you said but I didn't take it personally. As for student evaluations I think you can probably figure out which comments are mine. That's what happens when you have a unique style of writing. If your class was so horrible the student had the option to drop early and not lose money. I have in the past made it very clear that I stand behind my statements and have little patience for those who make nasty comments from the safety of anonymity. Sorry I will step off my soapbox now. You can only do what you think is right and let the chips fall where they may. Second guessing your decisions because one person didn't like them is a quick way to develop ulcers and other anxiety disorders. Oh and experimentaholic, quit trying to lure her away, I still have a cognitive psych class to take.:)

Anonymous said...

The truth is important to me, in my research into the overuse of plastic bags, i have found no proven scientific evidence whatsoever that plastic bags have any significant quantifiable negative impact on the environment other than that of visual pollution. I find this to be disturbing as so many people have devoted so much time to combatting the use of these items, if anyone has any evidence proving the detrimental effect of plastic bags, could you please post it.

Talia Mana said...

Visiting from blogging chicks

This sounds like a great project.

anonymous - I really don't understand your comment. Plastic bags are non biodegradable which means there is a cost when they go into a landfill, or when they end up in the natural habitat and get ingested by birds and animals, or the birdlife/animals get trapped in plastic wrapping from bags, or those little plastic things that link together cans of drinks into a 6 pack.

here is one example: marine birds and plastic pollution.

I would suggest you haven't looked very hard for scientific evidence.

Experimentaholic said...

When you look at those pictures of that mountain of plastic bags, that is that much less waste entering landfills. It is that much less petroleum used in the manufacture of those plastic bags. Unless one can come up with good arguments for how the use of reusable bags is more harmful than the use of disposable plastic bags, I'd err on the side of my intuition over science likely funded by such impartial parties as British Petroleum.

Michelle Verges, Project Director said...

Hey guys,

Thanks for the insightful dialogue; it reminds me why I love blogging!

Rey: I appreciate your post about taking a balanced perspective on course evaluations. I do agree with your point; if only it were the case that I received one negative evaluation!

Anonymous: I'm curious to know where you've been searching for information about the plastic-bag issue. Please know that I do appreciate your comment. In fact, relatively speaking, I think the consumption of plastic bags is a puny issue!

But, the great thing about this project is that it gave my students a starting point to make a difference. How do you solve a huge problem, like global warming?

When my students saw the film, An Inconvenient Truth, they walked away from the film overwhelmed, not knowing how they could change their lifestyle habits to reduce their net impact on the environment.

The plastic bag project, however, gave my students an opportunity to take a pro-active step forward--it raised their consciousness about an issue, it related this topic to a larger problem (i.e., waste), and it offered a practical solution they could apply to their daily lives (i.e., stop using plastic bags and start using reusable bags).

I also hope this project inspired my students to stretch their thinking to other issues (i.e., use 100% recycled toilet paper, reduce dependency on driving, stop using disposable water bottles), which merit greater attention and behavioral changes.

Anyway, it is true that plastic bags are made from non-renewable resources; it is true they photodegrade in landfills, leaching into waterways and contributing to methane emissions; it is true they kill animals and marine life; it is true they are an eyesore when littered; it is true they cost retailers about $4 billion dollars each year; it is true that we consume billions of them each year; it is true we are responsible for cleaning up this mess.

As Talia Mana suggested, it's worth checking your resources for more information about this issue. Throughout this project, I've posted my resources on the blog. I invite you to peruse the blog to read what I've learned along the way. And I wish you luck as you continue searching for the truth.


Anonymous said...

It is true that “plastic bags are made from non-renewable resources”, as are many other useful items in our every day life. Polyethylene plastic uses far less oil in its composition and production than any other form of packaging think how much petroleum is burnt in the transport and lopping of trees used to make paper bags for example. Not to mention the environmental cost of bleaching and coloring. Most packaging is produced in countries without the proper safety mechanisms to ensure the safe disposal of waste water from these processes.

The majority of reusable bags on the market today are in fact made of a non woven polypropylene plastic, which are many times thicker than conventional bags and will persist even longer in the environment.

“It is true they photo degrade in landfills, leaching into waterways and contributing to methane emissions”;
polyethylene plastics are bio-inert, occupy a very small space in landfills, and as virtually every landfill in use today uses a dry tomb method of covering waste, the bags are not exposed to ultraviolet light which would cause them to photo degrade. Even if they were to degrade, the bags would degrade to water and carbon dioxide, and in quantities far smaller than any of the other food matter surrounding the bags. However, bags produced from renewable resources such as cotton or starch in an anaerobic environment such as a breached landfill environment will degrade to methane in large quantities.

“It is true they kill animals and marine life”;

All evidence that I have found points to other forms of pollution such as nets, long line fishing debris and other inflexible plastics. My point is that single use, light weight bags make up a tiny percentage of marine debris ingested by marine animals, and in fact no research I have found refers specifically to the ingestion of any light weight single use shopping bag. Remember that there are many other types of bags out there beside high density bags.

“It is true they are an eyesore when littered,”

This is a point that I can not refute, the bags look terrible stuck on trees, fences and in waterways. There are ways to combat this however, with the introduction of oxo-biodegradable additives such as those produced by EPI, Symphony or Greenplas for example or throught the use of publicity campaigns aimed at reducing all litter, instead of focusing solely on the shopping bag debate. This money and time could be spent in a much wiser fashion.

While plastic bags may be useful as a rallying point to group together like minded people in a fight to save the environment, there are many other items which are far worse.

“It is true they cost retailers about $4 billion dollars each year”

Realistically this is a small cost when you look at the convenience associated with the humble plastic bag. Dangerous goods can be separated from foodstuffs; the bags are light, cheap, waterproof and recyclable. It is true that we consume billions of them each year, but one must think, is there not a reason for this high level of consumption, could it be that these bags actually make our lives better, and if so should we not analyze other facts and points of view before vilifying an innocuous product over more dangerous, environmentally harmful ones. It is true we are responsible for cleaning up this mess, but what mess are we really talking about?

Experimentaholic said...

Anonymous brings up a point that I find fascinating...namely, the fact that the issue of conservation is quite complicated. For instance, one needs to think about whether paper trumps plastic given the hidden environmental costs of cutting down trees, grinding wood into pulp, transporting the produced paper bags, which bag for bag is heavier than plastic.

Relative to all the environmental evils of this world, reducing plastic bag waste may seem relatively trivial and silly. But what I like about Michelle's project is that it has made me rethink a good deal about how I consume and waste in general. And that raised awareness, that shifting of attention, I feel is helping me change my behaviors in what I believe is a positive way. If nothing else, I no longer look at that drawer full of plastic bags and think, "What the hell am I going to do with these?" then guiltily fill a plastic trash bags with plastic shopping bags. Instead, I have been for a month using these three little reusable bags that I find to be much better than plastic bags. Plastic bags sometimes rip, spilling the contents on the street. These reusuable bags are strong and easy on the hands, so they don't cut the circulation like plastic bags. I LIKE them better than plastic bags.

But anonymous, can I ask you...what is it that you like so much about plastic bags that you would go through the trouble of researching this? Do you work for some plastic bag lobbying firm?

Anonymous said...

No, not at all, my interest in the subject probably stemmed from the same place yours does, in an interest to save my local and the global environment, I stopped using shopping bags and bought reusable bags. I began researching the topic for a university newspaper article and was surprised by the results. I live in Australia and as such, the protection of marine life is of paramount importance to me, but the lack of articles proving what I now believe to be propaganda in the information marketplace worried me.

Further research has shown that the drive against plastic bags, at least in Australia, is being pushed by not for profit organisations such as Planet Ark and Clean up Australia. These organisations stand to gain enourmous amount of funding if their proposed plastic bag levy goes ahead.

Now these organisations do a lot of good for the environment but I for one just don't like being lied to.

That and I prefer to use high density plastic bags. I don't believe them to be detrimental to the environment in any normal cirsumstance and I especially dont think they have a negative impact if they are disposed of correctly. In fact I believe that they are, in many situations, better for the environment than any alternative solution.

I do agree that the push against bags has done a lot of good in promoting green thought amongst the masses, but i just find it annoying that so many obviously bright people are ignoring the obvious lack of facts being presented.

Michelle Verges, Project Director said...

Again, thanks for the continued discussion. As Experimentaholic noted, the plastic-bag issue is actually more complex than one would expect at face value. To recap, we've raised several related issues (i.e., landfills, marine/wildlife, economics, consumerism, values, oil) throughout this online discussion.

The conversation began with a question: "What's important to you?" As I continue to reflect on this question, I realize that I value the 3R-hierarchy (reduce, reuse, recycle).

Relying on plastic bags to carry my groceries is not important to me. I don't want to use a disposable bag made from non-renewable resources. Plus, the state of Indiana doesn't have any facilities to recycle plastic bags.

So I've decided to reduce my consumption of this product. Like Experimentaholic, I prefer to bring reusable bags to the store.

Now, from what I've learned throughout this project, Wal-Mart is the only store in our area that recycles plastic bags. So there is one outlet, thank goodness. But I didn't know that until I started asking questions. And not a lot of people knew about this either, until they attended BagFest. (And true to form, I have empirical data to support that claim.)

For the most part, I'm glad I directed this project. I've met several amazing people, I've learned the importance of addressing both the environmental and economic aspects of this issue, and I've made numerous lifestyle changes (i.e., composting, eating local food, biking to work) that reflect what I've learned these last eight months.

So, for me, this project goes way beyond the plastic-bag issue. But if I had ignored this issue, I never would've been empowered to take on larger, more important environmental issues in my life.


JENNIFER said...

Minelle I would like to let you know that I may not have been one of your students but I really felt like one. Watching the pile of bags grow as fast as it did. I really don't think that that many thousand of bags would have been collected. I didn't tell anyone on how I did with sales when they asked me I told them that "over 74,000 bags got aon a wal-mart truck to be recycled." To just have been there for the four hours has a real good eye opener for me. To tell you the truth I didn't think that 10,000 bags would have been brought in. So over seven times that was just something I really enjoyed to watch. Thanks so much Michelle for letting me be a part of the event. And I have learned from everything that was been said on this blog. I really feel like one of your students. Jennifer