Thursday, August 30, 2007

Introducing Bagonaut!

I know what you're thinking...Michelle's concocting another zany enterprise with plastic bags! Well, my friends, that is incorrect! ;0)

Turns out, there's another fellow who wants to raise public awareness about the consumption of plastic bags. His name is Egon "Bagonaut" Sanders, and he's organized the "Big Bag Event," which will take place on Sept. 8th at the Sam's Club store in San Angelo, TX.

As part of this event, there will be various talks concerning environmental issues that affect communities and a discussion of practical solutions to help solve these problems. And that evening, Bagonaut is hosting a Plastic Bag Film Festival, featuring "bag" classics, such as “I Don't Need a Bag” and “Bag Monster Attacks San Francisco.” (Who knew there were films on this topic?!? This is hilarious!)

Of course, this Big Bag Event wouldn't be complete without giving folks free, reusable bags. But here's the catch: festival attendants need to donate a non-perishable food item at this event in order to receive their free canvas bag. (These food items will be donated to the Concho Valley Regional Food Bank). What a sweet deal!

And as if that weren't enough, Bagonaut has created the world's largest canvas bag. It's so large, in fact, that he's going to be in this "BIGBAG1" for 24-hours during this event. This big bag is also serving as the screen for the film festival!

Wow!! Sounds like this is going to be a memorable event!! ;0) As I told my stats students last semester, sometimes it takes a spectacle to get folks to stop what they're doing, consider an issue they've not really thought about before, and get inspired to make some positive changes in their community. I really hope this Big Bag Event does just that--Good luck Bagonaut!!

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

William McDonough: "I Think We Have a Design Problem"

I watched this video today, looking for inspiration. And I think I experienced a glimmer of hope thanks to this video. It's a 20-min flick from the author of Cradle to Cradle. If you have any downtime, I encourage you to watch this movie (and then read the book!). :0)

Monday, August 27, 2007

Cultural Differences in Handling Garbage

I've been curious as to how different cultures regard garbage, recycling, and other environmental issues in their country. A research article I read last night suggested that it doesn't matter whether you're from Russia, Czech Republic, India, New Zealand, Brazil, or Germany, people have the same set of beliefs and attitudes concerning the environment. That is, your concern about environmental issues may stem from one of three attitudes: 1) personal interests (i.e., my health), 2) caring for other people (i.e., children's health), and 3) caring for all living things (i.e., plants & animals). All people, no matter their country of origin, tend to fall in one of those attitudinal categories.

But what about examining people's behavior? Do these attitudes translate into pro-environmental actions? And if so, are there cultural differences in those practices?

In today's Wall Street Journal, there was a story that suggests rather dramatic cultural differences in handling waste. The article focused on a reporter's personal account of handling her garbage in Japan. Not knowing the cultural norms in her area, she inadvertantly placed her trash in her neighbor's garbage spot. Not a big deal, right? WRONG! This is what she found posted on a door one morning:
As she was soon to discover, Japan handles its garbage very seriously. For example, residents must sort their garbage into 34 categories. (Don't worry about remembering all those categories, there's a 48-page booklet that explains the garbage rules.) Residents must also place a blue net over their garbage so that crows don't eat the garbage. And garbage must be thrown away in clear plastic bags so that people know who's recycling and who isn't.

But what was most striking to me was the peer pressure that residents placed on each other. (Case in point: The public shame this reporter felt when she read the note posted on the door.) It appears as though folks in Japan have a shared belief that it takes teamwork to handle garbage properly. And they make sure everyone is doing their part to make this system work efficiently.

From a cultural standpoint, there seems to be significant differences between Japan and the U.S. when it comes to handling waste. I imagine we could learn a lesson or two from the Japanese. As one of the quotes in the booklet stated, "Resources when separated, but garbage when not separated. Think more!"

Friday, August 24, 2007

Victory for Lake Michigan!

I'm astounded--BP made a public announcement stating they will not increase their dumping of ammonia and sludge into Lake Michigan. Rebecca Stanfield, Director of Environment Illinois, sent this email to everyone who signed the Save-the-Lake petition:

"Citing 'ongoing regional opposition,' BP America Chairman and President Bob Malone announced this morning that the company will avoid any increased pollution into Lake Michigan from its oil refinery in Whiting, Indiana. BP has heard the voices of hundreds of thousands of Great Lakes region residents saying that Lake Michigan is a natural treasure and source of drinking water, not our dumping ground. In response, BP has issued a non-binding statement indicating it will avoid increased dumping of ammonia and toxics-containing solids, which are allowed by its new discharge permit issued in June by Indiana's Department of Environmental Management."

This victory is due in part, to over 100,000 people voicing their opposition and working together to overturn this permit. Wow, what a great success story!! This is a clear example of how individuals can band together to make a positive difference in their community.

But the battle is not quite over. Because this is a non-binding agreement, BP may be playing lip service to quell the public outcry, perhaps waiting for the opposition to diminish and forget this issue. And once forgotton, BP may quietly increase their dumping of pollutants into Lake Michigan--and they'll get away with it because that permit has not been amended.

So let's make sure BP will stand by their word! Rebecca Stanfield would like for you to send a message to BP asking them to obtain an amended permit that will prevent any increase in pollution into Lake Michigan. Click here to send your message to BP.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Confronting Bag Attitudes

Earlier this month, the New York Times filed a report on the consumption of plastic bags. While several legislative changes have been proposed and implemented across the country, and more grocery stores are promoting the sale of reusable bags, some consumers are resisting these bag changes.

I was particularly struck by this quote in the NY Times article:

“I would never be convinced to bring my own bags. Never,” Kathy Young of Dix Hills, N.Y., said recently as she pushed a shopping cart loaded with plastic bags of groceries and her young twins, Dylan and Sarah. “I can hardly remember what I need to get here, let alone bring my own bags.”

This response fascinates me for a number of reasons. First, I'm dismayed by this person's belief that they would be so impervious to change. Perhaps she may reconsider her stance if she had to pay for those plastic bags, or if a social stigma were associated with using plastic bags. Second, this negative attitude signals a missed opportunity for teaching her kids how to become environmentally responsible. It's an understatement to say that children are influenced by their parents (well, that is, until they become teenagers!). This parent could serve as a good role model to her kids by using reusable bags. And third, her comment reminded me of some current research in cognitive psychology, which focuses on people's remembering to perform an intended action (i.e., bringing reusable bags to the grocery store).

More details about prospective memory later, but in the meantime, here's two simple tricks to help folks remember to bring their bags to the grocery store. If you're the type of person who writes a shopping list, just write a note to yourself (like "bring bags!") on that list. And always keep a stash of bags in your car. That way, if you're forgetful like I am, at least the bags will be stored in the car for you to retrieve while you're at the grocery store.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Jack & Willy's Compost Pocket

Originally uploaded by mverges
It's been nine days since I've been using a compost pocket to handle pet waste. And so far, so good! There's no odor, which is a blessing to my nostrils. That's probably because the flies and other little critters are doing their "thing" inside the pocket. (How 'bout I spare you from any further details about this process? You may want to eat after reading this post, and I'd hate to be responsible for a loss of appetite.)

Making the compost pocket was easy, too. Now, Sean and I didn't exactly follow the instructions; we just played it by ear by digging a large hole. But for those of you who are good at following instructions, this is what you need to do:

1. Dig a hole 10 to 15 inches deep and less than 2 feet across.
2. Place pet waste in hole and cover with soil. To ward off pests, make sure you have at least 8 inches of soil cover.

That's pretty much it. The only additional suggestion I have is to use biodegradable doggie bags. I use ones made from cornstarch, which takes about 30 days to biodegrade. Please don't make the mistake of tossing ordinary plastic bags into the compost pocket--bugs don't eat plastic bags made from polyethylene!

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Word Association Game!

Here's a silly question, but one I'd like to pose anyway: What comes to mind when you hear the word 'environment'?

I was asking myself this question today, hoping to generate a list of items that are associated with this word. The first two items that came to my mind were green and hippie. Good grief--I blame my friend Dan for the hippie reference, which I continue to deny as part of my self-schema!

Anyway, feel free to play this word association game with me. Who knows what we may learn about our views concerning the environment!

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Top 15 Green Colleges and Universities published a list of 15 "green" colleges and universities across the globe. What makes a college green?, I wondered. There's several factors, to be sure. And one important component to consider is the students. I was struck by how students have successfully advocated for environmentally-productive changes on their campuses. Take Middlebury College, for instance. There's a student group called MiddShift that's effectively managed to get their Board of Trustees to agree to make their school carbon-neutral by 2016. This is the same institution, by the way, that launched Step It UP 2007, which we participated in at BagFest.

Anyway, without listing the myriad of possible factors that makes a college "green," one theme I gathered from reading this Top 15 list was that students, faculty, and administrators alike collaborated to reach a common goal at their institutions.

This got me thinking about a classic research study conducted in the 1950s. A researcher by the name of Muzafer Sherif (University of Oregon) was interested in how people formed positive interpersonal relationships with others. He predicted that when people lacked a shared history or some kind of established relationship, they created their own roles and a group structure so that members of a group would know how to interact with each other to acheive a common goal.

This "common goal" goes beyond organizing and attending an ice-cream social (or any kind of contrived social setting). Instead, the goal has to be large (beyond the resources and capacity of a single individual) and important (catering to our basic needs for survival, like drinking water or breathing clean air). That way, everyone will understand what each person needs to do in order to transform a lofty goal into reality.

This 1954 study reminds me about the importance of identifying a common goal and collaborating with others who passionately want to attain that goal. I take comfort in knowing there are colleges out there with folks working together to make a positive impact on the environment. I think my institution is trying to make a difference, too. It will be interesting to see what environmental initiatives will take place at IU South Bend during this new academic year.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Dear BP: It's Not OK to Pollute Lake Michigan

The fight against BP is not yet over: Congress is trying to pass legislation to reverse the EPA's decision of allowing BP to dump more toxic waste into Lake Michigan.

Today's Chicago Tribune also features a great story on the EPA's response to the public's outcry against polluting the lake. I'm not sure if the public will accept the EPA's seven alternative suggestions. I think folks just want BP to stop polluting Lake Michigan!

My First Blogging Anniversary!

I just realized that I've been blogging about plastic bags for a year now. My how time flies! I really had no idea that my frustration about the consumption of plastic bags would develop into a statistics and community project.

My dreams, for the most part, came true: My students and I hosted a festival called BagFest to raise public awareness on this issue in our community, a documentary was filmed, and my students worked with a non-profit organization to help children improve their math skills.

And several unexpected behaviors occurred to me this past year: I started biking more to work, driving less, drinking water from aluminum bottles (as opposed to plastic bottles), composting my food and pet waste, and eating more local foods. (Of course, when this project first began, I had already stopped using plastic bags in favor of using cloth and other reusable bags.)

It's good to take stock of what's happened since last August. Part of this journey has been shared with others (students, community members, faculty, media, industry people, bloggers), and part of this journey has been conducted solo. Sometimes the journey was fun, other times, it was painful. Sometimes the journey was easy, other times, it was difficult. And it was certainly everything in-between. Such is life, right? ;0)

"And where do I go from here?," I hear myself asking. I've completed this first year without any clear predictions as to how my second year will continue. Despite this uncertainty, however, I'm looking forward to learning, to becoming more environmentally-conscious, to living a mindful existence both at home and at work, and to sharing my experiences with you.

Monday, August 13, 2007

The Compost Pocket Movie

And here's a little movie on today's compost-pocket adventure. Think of it as cinéma vérité...but don't bother getting out the popcorn for this flick. You may lose your appetite!

Digging a Compost Pocket

Originally uploaded by mverges
Today Sean graciously dug a compost pocket for me. Now I have an environmentally-safe way of handling pet waste, and that's to toss it down a hole and allow it to naturally decompose. Sweet!!

To see more photos from today's digging adventure, please click on the flickr pic.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Environment Illinois

I'm not sure if this will have any effect on the EPA's recent decision to allow BP to dump toxins into Lake Michigan, but I just signed another online petition to stop polluting the lake. If you're interested in letting BP's CEO Tony Hayward and the EPA's Regional Adminstrator Mary Gade know your concern against further dumping of water pollutants into Lake Michigan, please click here to sign the petition.