For nearly a year, I’ve been waging a campaign to reduce the use of plastic bags in my local, independent health food store. It’s pretty low-level — nothing like the Super, Duper Tuesday contests. But like the presidential contenders, I’ve been prepared, done my research, polished my arguments and radiated (or at least I think so) that elusive and oh-so-essential quality in politics, likability. I’ve explained to the genial assistant manager that Americans may well use 100 billion plastic bags a year (see my previous post on this here); that I’d like to see the community store help the community be greener; and that there was sure to only be goodwill from customers if the check-out staff always asked, “Do you need a bag?” instead of immediately encasing people’s purchases in not one, but two, layers of thin plastic.
The store, I suggested, could make more readily available string or canvas bags, the latter emblazoned with the store’s name and logo if they liked. Heck, they could even post a sign saying, “Save the plastic and bring your own bag.” If they wanted, I suggested, add something to the sign like: “Join Al Gore and do your part to reduce global warming. He won a Nobel Peace Prize.” I also had a zinger, of sorts. “You know, Whole Foods does this and they’re planning to open a store in our neighborhood. Wouldn’t it be good to get out in front on this, build customer loyalty now?”
But, unlike Clinton and Obama, I can’t report that I’ve battled to a draw. And I’m very far from McCain’s surge.
In fact, first Earth Day and then World Environment Day came and went, as did Al Gore and the International Governmental Panel on Climate Change’s Nobel ceremony. But the plastic bag onslaught at the health food store continues. When I shop, I’m usually the only, or one of a tiny handful of, customers with a canvas bag or backpack. The assistant manager and I chat on and off about the situation. He’ll tell me he’s talking to the owners, and I have, too (after a few minutes, the young man redirected his attention to the catalogue he was flipping through). I’ve heard him say the other assistant manager has been tasked with the “up with canvas, down with plastic campaign.” He assures me his washes his lunch dish and reuses it every day, unlike most of his colleagues. And he’ll tell me that, yes, the reduction of plastic is the right thing — and inevitable in a world of limits.
But the other day, after I hadn’t seen or chatted with my erstwhile friend for a couple of weeks (travel and the holidays intervened), he confided this to me: he’d pretty much given up on the owners grappling with the plastic bag issue. They don’t really care about the environment, he said. This is a business for them. Then, he added, he felt so bad about the lack of progress that he’d been avoiding me whenever I came into the store. Avoided! It stuck me as hilarious and also rather sad. Neither he nor I had made any headway. Truth be told, on occasion I avoided him, too, since I felt like a broken record: “Plastic bags? Canvas? How’s our campaign?”
But as another Earth Day approaches, I’m going to try a new tactic, and perhaps a new tag line. (I see that a re-branding can work wonders for political candidates.) I also have a new piece of information to share with the assistant manager and the higher-ups: Whole Foods recently announced something that, in a consumer society, feels dramatic: it’s phasing out plastic bags altogether. Paper will be available, but customers are being strongly encouraged to buy a re-usable canvas or recycled plastic bag. Customer service abounds: Whole Foods stores have any number of these bags on display in a range of designs (the Whole Foods name is standard). I’m going to share that news…and see where it gets my campaign. One hundred billion (bags) and counting — back.