Thursday, December 27, 2007

Ecospot grand prize winner: Sky is Falling

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I like this public service announcement because it addresses an elusive concept that's been on my mind for some time now: carbon emissions. I've read several examples of saving X tons of carbon saved for driving less, using energy-efficient appliances, and so on. But what the heck does a "ton of carbon" mean? What does it look like, smell like, feel like? There's no visceral experience related to that abstract concept. (At least, I've not fathomed it.) So that's why I like this PSA because it provides us a concrete metaphor (i.e., elephants) to raise awareness on climate change. I think this guy is on to something...I like it very much!

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

A Cute Packaging Alternative

With the holiday season still underway, I imagine many of us have encountered this: packaging peanuts (and their styrofoam cousins).

One way to reduce the amount of packaging is to simply ask for minimal packaging. I recently blogged about this topic as did Closet Environmentalist. But is there another way to reduce the use of styrofoam packaging?

Yesterday, I celebrated Christmas with my department chair and her family. After brunch and exchanging gifts, my chair showed me one of her latest knitting projects. (In case you didn't know, I like to knit!) I was blown away by her newly discovered project - not only is it NOT a scarf (which is the only thing I currently know how to knit!), but it replaces the use of packaging peanuts altogether!

See the cute dolls in the boy's pouch? They're called 'comfort dolls.' These so-called comfort dolls are used by ICROSS Canada, which is an organization that assists poor children and their families in Africa. These dolls serve two purposes: First, they're used for packaging medical supplies (so no styrofoam peanuts used!), and second, they're gifts for the little kids. What a brilliant and creative idea!

Ok, so maybe it's unreasonable for me to ask to package my goodies using comfort dolls, but that's because we're not thinking creatively about our packaging needs and desires! I love this project because it's jammed-packed with meaning and simple innovation. Be creative, make a doll, reduce plastic packaging, comfort a child, provide medical support to the needy. What more could you ask for?!

Monday, December 24, 2007

Merry Christmas!

Happy holidays! Love to you all, both near and far. Today's post comes from my friend Len, who reads my blog regularly but never comments! So he's making his debut by sharing his holiday travels (and personal journey involving bags, of course!) with us. I hope you enjoy his post! :0) M

Driving home from Louisville, KY on the 22nd of December, it occurs to me that this can be a strange and paradoxical season. It’s the winter solstice and, as if on cue, the temperatures drop and the wind blows icy cold creating a numbing chill. This uncomfortable condition is only exasperated by my somewhat twisted sense of obligation and competition that finds my home thermostat – now at 62 degrees --creeping ever lower. But, at the same time, this is a time of hope. The shortest day of the year means that the sun has turned and the days will now start to get longer. And by design, the early Christians chose this time of the year to celebrate the birth of Jesus. So,what does this all have to do with an environmental blog about plastic bags?

I guess it comes down to a question as to whether you are a “glass half full” or “half empty” kind of person. Or, perhaps more appropriately, are you a “landfill half empty” kind of person. Do the winds of December depress you or does the knowledge that we are now 1 day closer to Spring bring you some comfort? Me, well, I am a dyed-in-the-wool fence-sitting kind of guy.

Last week, I was at Martin’s and I turned down a plastic bag – again. I have not kept track of how many times I have done so, but I know it is more than the number of dates I have had in the past two years. So, that is a good thing. But, at the same time, I feel like I am jousting with windmills, unable to make even a blip of a dent in the number of bags that fly out the door of even this one store. So, to try to make my bag refusal more than an empty gesture, I always tell the checkout person WHY I refuse the bags and remind them that they are the first line of defense against this insidious plague. Usually I get a blank stare or a protest that limiting the number of bags they give out could directly correlate with the time they spend in the unemployment line. But this time, the two people behind me agree and chime in, and even the check out lady says, “You’d be amazed at how many people turn them down.” And, they next day, the bagger, a young man in his late teens, adds to my speech, “Yeah, they are bad for the environment.” So, I am feeling better about life in America. Some people actually do get it.

But then, the next night I am staying at a Holiday Inn Express in Louisville, and all I can see, everywhere I look, is plastic. The wastebaskets and ice buckets are lined with plastic bags. There are two bars of soap, each wrapped in a tiny little plastic bag. The coffee for the coffeemaker is in a plastic bag. And, the plastic cups are wrapped in little plastic bags. I am staying in a plastic hell.

But, every ying has its yang. The next day I go grocery shopping with my son and I am shocked – and elated – to learn that he has purchased 10 reusable shopping bags from Meijers! The bags cost him $1 each, but he gets 5 cents off the contents of every bag he uses. He tells me the bags are also available at Krogers. So, there is some financial incentive for him and grocery shopping suddenly became fun for me, as I proudly bagged and toted his groceries.

So, back in the “Bend” I head off to Martins once again. It is now noon on Christmas Eve and I am still on a little bit of a high from my trip to the Louisville Meijers. The parking lot is packed and I feel fortunate to have found a reasonably close parking. I walk across the lot and see a guy I know vaguely from somewhere. We both are in the Christmas spirit and we exchange a nod, a smile and a quick hello. Then I enter the store and suddenly I experience the strangest sensation. The aisles are packed and patrons are stacked 6 deep at every available checkout counter. I am sure there must have been some music playing and some decorations and Poinsettias, but all I can see – I mean ALL I can see – are plastic bags. Plastic bags bombard my visual senses. I can see NOTHING else. Dozens of full stuffed bags huddled in shopping carts, hundreds of bags pouring out the door, and thousands more lined up like piles of deadly ammunition waiting their turned to be fired off into the world. Baggers are grabbing them and filling them faster than I could ever hope to count. My second thought – right after, “damn you, Michelle!” – is the utter hopelessness of the battle we are waging.

Suddenly, I am depressed. It’s Christmas Eve, and I am depressed. I trudge off and buy three apples, carrying them in my hand rather than using the plastic bags provided. I pick up a jar of peanut butter and head for the express lane. The guy in front of me is a friend of mine. He is an attorney, and one of the most unemotional and stoic people I know. We chat briefly, then it is his turn in line. He has only one item, and he refuses the bag! I congratulate him on his decision and he says to me as he is leaving, “We all do what we can.” !

Finally, I, too, turned and left. As I passed the final checkout lane a lady was paying for her load of groceries. Like so many others, her cart was stuffed with bags. But these bags looked different. I walked over to take a closer look – they were re-usable bags from And once again, I was a landfill half empty kind of guy.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Japan, ahead of its time?

I lived in Japan for a while, but I never saw this: A bra that seconds as a bag! Apparently, the bra can be removed and converted into a reusable bag, for all your shopping needs. The question for the ladies (since I'm a guy and don't know these things) - isn't it a bit awkward at the checkout to take off your bra and use it as a reusable bag? I'd say so, but Japan is known for its quirky inventions and its overpackaging, so maybe this is the soluion.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Two ideas for reducing waste

I want to propose two ideas that I have had recently based on the fact that I doubt that people's behaviors can change without altering the incentive structure that currently exists, which is that there is little or no incentive to reduce waste or recycle. Given that at least a sizable minority, or more likely a unanimous majority of people are looking out for their own good, and they don't quite see the long term impact of their behaviors on the environment, I believe that institutions need to change what people see they get out of recycling in tangible terms. And the one language that all people speak is money.

1. Bag reduction
At my local store, they give a discount for bring in one's own bag. The reduction is not much - 5 cents. Imagine if the store instead gave a 50 cent discount. Now that's worth bringing bags for! Usually I have 4 bags for my trip, and that's $2.00...that can buy me coffee, while 20 cents doesn't even get me a gumball on the way out the door. But, you say, the store will go broke in no time! Not if the store CHARGED people who did not bring their bags 50 cents per bag. That's a hefty price! The 50 cents can offset the 50 cent discount that the bag reusers get. But, you say, sooner or later, people will realize that they have to bring their own bags, and the problem is that more people will be bringing their bags, and the store will go broke! Not if the store begins reducing the discount to the people who bring their bags to 40 cents. The bag reusers will have less of an incentive to bring their own bags, but still, 40 cents gained is better than 50 cents lost. One could continually adjust the cost of the bags and the discount given until a pareto optimality is reached so that the store neither gains or loses any money from the bag program. Why would a store do this? Because it is better than the status quo where the store pays for the bags - the bag incentive program pays for the bags.

2. Home recycling
In many municipalities such as my own, you place your trash and recyclables out on the curb. I see many people with multiple trash bags but no recyclables. The other trash day, I noticed through the plastic of one of these people's bags that there were numerous cans and bottles that could have been recycled if the person wanted to. How can we make this person want to? Simple: charge people for the weight of their trash, and pay people for the weight of the recyclables. Why not? There is a certain cost to removing trash in terms of creating landfills and the like, and a certain monetary reward for recycling in that it produces raw materials such as aluminum and glass. At the current time, people do not see the economic cost or benefit of either, except that they know that their trash pick up is paid for through their taxes.

The fee system (i.e., how much a pound of trash or a pound of recyclables costs) would have to be determined for the pareto optimization here, and this brings up a number of ethical issues (i.e., people stealing each other's recyclables and leaving trash in front of other people's houses) but I believe it may be possible to resolve these problems (i.e., locked trashcans that are unlocked by the garbage person, just as my mailbox is unlocked by the postal worker. Why would a municipality want to do this? Because once again, it places the cost from the municipality onto the people. Those who want to be wasteful can still be wasteful. They just have to pay more for it. Those who want to conserve can conserve. They will be paid for their efforts.

Unfortunately, I do not believe that environmental education works well. This is not to disparage blogs like this: Environmental education works sometimes. Take me. Sure, I never thought of plastic bags before I encountered this blog, and now I am up to having reduced the number of plastic bags in this world by over 530 bags. Not a drop in an ocean, but it is a start. But to make real change, society needs to get everyone doing it. And to get everyone doing it you need to speak to them in the only language we all speak, which is not the language situated in the brain, but the language situated in the wallet.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Carrots, Underwear, and Plastic Bags

Today's post comes from my friend Dan. I hope you enjoy his quirky solution to a recently encountered conundrum! :0) M

You’re probably wondering how I’m going to tie all that together aren’t you?

Inspired in part by this blog and by peace blog, I have been trying a little harder to live an environmentally conscious life. This means, among other things an attempt to use fewer plastic bags. The problem is addressable at the check-out counter by bringing one’s own bags or simply refusing to take a bag when buying just a couple of items that can easily be carried without a bag.

It’s a little tougher when dealing with the packaging of the things you are buying. It seems that everyone, everywhere has decided that their precious product must be protected by a hermetically-sealed, sterile barrier. And so the plastic bags still come into the house, and the option that remains is to try to find a way to reuse the bags.

Well, I’m happy to report that Fruit-of-the-Loom has decided to help us along with that little objective. I was in TJMaxx the other day looking to purchase some new underwear (yes, this blog entry is getting a little too personal!), and I noticed that the Fruit-of-the-Loom variety came in a re-sealable plastic bag! Why this would be the case, I could not fathom. Did they think that I would feel the need to return the underwear to the bag after wearing them? Or perhaps they thought I would take out one pair and want to keep the other pair “fresh” until I was ready to wear them?

But then it struck me: they must be trying to make it easier for me to re-use the plastic bag! I couldn’t help but be impressed with the ecological leanings of the company and decided right then and there that FotL was the brand for me!

I wasn’t immediately sure exactly what to put in my new resealable underwear bag, but I just had to give it a try, if for no other reason than to honor the opportunity that the corporate giant had provided for me. I know it would have been more appropriate to use apples or grapes, but I didn’t have any, so I filled up the bag with carrots and put them in the refrigerator. I ate a carrot this morning and I must tell you that I’ve never had a fresher vegetable in all my life!

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

How Low Can You Go?

My thermostat has been set to 60 degrees Fahrenheit since November thanks to Crunchy Chicken's latest challenge. At first I was cold, really, really cold. I'd wrap myself up in a blanket and frequently recruited the pups (those hot waterbottles!) for their support. But you know what? I got used to the temperature. It's true: This GA gal got used to the ice cold temps in her apartment!

I've gotten so used to this setting that I've been contemplating on whether I should lower my thermostat even more. A couple of my friends have exclaimed, "you're nuts!," when I spoke of this idea. But last night I did the unthinkable. I lowered my thermostat to 58 degrees before bedtime. And you know what? I slept just fine!

When I woke up this morning I figured I'd be charmed by a sore throat, but no, I didn't suffer any repercussions from this change. So I'm going to amend my participation with respect to this challenge: 60 degrees by day and 58 degrees by night!

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Bag Makeovers

It looks like high-end retailers such as Lord & Taylor and Saks Fifth Avenue are redesigning their bags for increased durability and aesthetics. Check-out this morning's story in the NY Times. The basic idea is to get people to reuse them while providing these companies with free advertising. And instead of thinking about bags as a liability, these companies are hoping that shoppers will treat these bags as great accessories. Now, if only I could afford to go shopping at these places! :0)

Thursday, December 13, 2007

UPS: Changing Colors From Brown to Green

I enjoy online shopping. With a click of a button, I have access to stores that aren't located in South Bend, which means I don't have to drive to Chicago to go shopping. But here's the rub: Just because I save a trip, doesn't mean that gas was saved. It still takes fuel to transport my favorite sweater from Timbuktu to my doorstep using UPS. Bah humbug!

Well, my friend Dan pointed me to a recent article published in the NY Times. It looks like UPS is changing their colors from brown to green! I was surprised to learn about their new policy to reduce carbon emissions, mileage, and gas costs for their company.

The policy? Don't make left-hand turns.

It sounds too simple, right? Yet, this minor tweak has provided UPS and the planet with great savings. By reducing the number of left-hand turns, UPS trucks have driven 28.5 million fewer miles and saved 3 million gallons of gas. Wowza!

I'm encouraged to know that businesses are adopting sustainable practices - surely, UPS is reaping economic and environmental benefits from this new policy. That's fantastic news, which is just in time for the holiday (shopping) season!

Monday, December 03, 2007

The number at the top of this page is off by 0.0000000001%

Yes, and that's because today, at Whole Foods this evening I refused my 500th plastic bag since having first stumbled upon this page. That's 500 fewer bags ending up in landfills. I've been counting since I received from Michelle Verges a set of canvas bags that I bring everywhere with me.

This includes small bags, the kind that they give out at gas stations when you buy a can of soda. I hate those little bags the most. What use do I have for a little plastic bag? As if I couldn't hold that 12 ounce can in my own hands?

Because of this general annoyance, the other day, I completed a little observational study and watched bag use at Philadelphia's equivalent to 7-11 (called Wa-Wa), 100 people go through the line. All were offered plastic bags. Seven refused the bag, and 93 accepted the bag. Of the 93 who accepted the bag, 20 threw away the bag at the trash can at the door of the store. So the bag was of use to these individuals for a sum total of less than five seconds.

In psychology, we often speak of the affordances of objects - fuzzy objects have a certain affordance that makes you want to pick them up - sharp objects an affordance that makes you want to handle them carefully. I wonder how much could be changed if just the affordance of the store were changed - if you simply were not offered a bag, but had to ask for one. I doubt that any of those 20 who tossed the bag at the door would have asked for one. For them, in fact, the bag seemed something of an inconvenience - something to get rid of. I admire the seven for simply refusing the bag outright. The problem is to change the 20 into people like me, who have no interest in carting around billions of bags.

But I find the social interaction and reaction of people to be somewhat startled when I refuse bags. Almost as if by refusing a plastic bag, I am violating the store schema we're all used to in which we walk out with our items neatly bagged. An awkward moment of trying to figure out what this means, that I wouldn't take a bag, or that I had my own bag with me. Just the other day, I bought a bottle of cologne, and the clerk made me put a little sticker on it saying "PAID" - as if there was some kind of guard who would have tackled me at the Asian Market and refused to believe the receipt that I had in hand.

Most disappointing in saving 500 bags, that perhaps a dozen or so times, out of the corner of my eye, I saw the clerk throw the unaccepted plastic bag into the trash behind the counter - as if simply because the bag has been pulled from the dispenser that it is in some ways polluted - as if the next person who walked in would be disgusted by a bag not visually pulled from the dispenser thingy. That seems silly, quite frankly.

Hopefully this will change in the future. With blogs like this, it may be possible. I think everyone should start counting the number of bags they refuse!

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Why Should We Care About Bees?

I've been wondering about this question for some time now. Over the past year, there's been several reports concerning a dramatic decline in the bee population. Some folks speculated that this decimation was due to cell-phone transmitters interfering with the bees' navigational system - that claim has since been discomfirmed by reserach scientists in England. However, scientists have continued to investigate possible factors that may explain why the bee population is rapidly declining.

Last month, I read a NY Times review about "Bee Movie" by beekeeper Susan Brackney. Her op-ed piece provided a non-fiction account of how bees really live. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Hollywood's version overestimates the males' role and underestimates the females' role in the hive. Brackney ends her piece by doubting whether Bee Movie will inspire people to seriously contemplate the current bee crisis we are facing.

Admittedly, I don't know much about bees. As a cognitive psychologist, what I do know is that people generally have a negative association when they think about this concept. Maybe it's because we're likely to think of bees stinging people, which hurts.

I have a few friends, however, who know a lot about the importance of bees. For instance, I've learned that bees play an important role in almond pollination, and that a declining bee population is closely related to an increase in almond prices.

So this issue has been percolating in the back of my mind for some time now. And just this morning I found a trailer for a documentary called, "The Vanishing of the Bees." If you have a moment, take a look at this trailer. Hopefully, this film will provide critical information as to why we should care about bees.