Monday, 14 June 2010


The lady at the bakery takes a steaming loaf from a pile and gives me a shy smile. She doesn't see the cloth bag I'm holding out to her. She whips open a clear plastic bag and pops the loaf into it. "Here you go," she says in Turkish.

My husband cringes: he's been through this with me any number of times. He knows what's coming. So do my kids. If they were with us, they'd be blushing and edging away from me.

I pluck the bread from the plastic bag and transfer it carefully to my own bag. The woman frowns and her mouth drops open. You can see it in her eyes: What's wrong with my bag? My bag is cleaner than your bag! Which it is. Yesterday, I bought lemons and coriander and there are a few leaves still sticking to the sides. I shake my head and smile: I don't want the bakery lady to think that I'm just being contrary. But even if I knew the Turkish for "I'm saying no to your bag because the world is filling up with plastic," I'm not sure she'd be convinced. Only a handful of the shoppers here recycle plastic bags or bring their own cloth ones.

But I persist, and sometimes I know I'm getting my point across. The man at our local supermarket had no idea why I kept bringing my own bags to his store. To my delight, he spoke English, so I told him that the world was filling up with toxic plastic and I was concerned. He might still think I'm nuts, but he heard me out.

I'm not naturally contrary. I really don't enjoy embarrassing my husband and kids. But the world really is filling up with toxic plastic. On the off chance that you haven't read about this yet, please click on the link above. I had a rough idea about how bad the problem was, but after I read Bish Denham's blog post in April this year, I became fanatical about carrying cloth bags with me.

If we had to live next door to a vast plastic rubbish heap, I think many of us would start to notice. As it is, this is happening in our oceans where most of us can't see it. Thousands of feet of plastic trash are now drifting about in the North and South Pacific, the North and South Atlantic and the Indian Ocean.

This is a huge problem. It isn't going to go away unless we all start to do something. Like rejecting plastic bags in favor of cloth bags. "Come on," an acquaintance scoffed, "a couple of plastic bags aren't going to ruin the earth." And of course they aren't. But it isn't a couple, is it? What's the world population now -- over six billion eight hundred million, right? If only a modest fraction of that number used only one plastic bag per month, that would still be a phenomenal number of plastic bags to dispose of. And if I insist on plastic for my own convenience, why shouldn't the whole world?

"But everybody uses plastic!" people protest. They complain that the problem is too widespread, that there are too many people who depend on the plastic industry, that individuals can't make a significant difference. Moreover, people who insist on cloth bags and recyclable materials are often depicted as tree-hugging neo-hippie fanatics.

But consider this: fanatics get things done. By the end of the 19th century, slavery had been abolished almost everywhere, and yet this would never have happened if it hadn't been for a handful of people who were seen at the time as real nutters, fanatics who got so worked up about slavery they would virtually tremble whenever they spoke in public. When these crazy men and women first started their efforts, many people laughed in their faces. Slavery was a huge business, but a handful of fanatics brought it down, and without the aid of the internet, computers, or modern transportation. (If you want to be inspired and uplifted by the power of human goodness, just read Against All Odds, from Mother Jones January, 2004 issue.) After you read it, please remember that the fanatics of the 1780s worked their miracles without Facebook, Twitter or blogging.

So if you haven't already, go on and get worked up about plastic pollution. At the very least, go out and get yourself a couple of cloth bags, if you haven't already. Keep them everywhere: in your bag, in the glove compartment of your car, near your front door. Carry them with you, and if your local stores still use non-recyclable plastic bags, be a fanatic and tell them why they should change. Embarrass your children, make your spouse's toes curl up. Be a fanatic. You'll be following in some great footsteps.


meredith said...

I'm already an anti-plastic fanatic. Besides, in my town you'd have to beg or pay for a plastic bag. The stores don't use them anymore. And at the market, you'd better have your basket! I just have to remember to put the bags right back into the trunk of my car after grocery shopping so that I don't find myself as a bagless lady at the grocery store.

Kit said...

Good for you, Mary. Here in South Africa, they made it law that shops have to charge for plastic bags, so most people now take their own bags and re-use the plastic ones that they do buy. It has made a difference to how many there are blowing around the landscape here.

Most of the bags are recyclable too, but there's still a long way to go to get most people to recycle. It's not as high profile here as in Europe. Except for copper, which scrap merchants pay for by weight and so we are constantly finding our phone cables stolen for recycling...!

Pat said...

We all are fanatic about something- mostly - and mine is hygiene so Mary, don't get the hump but do make sure it is a clean cloth bag.

Carole said...

I couldn't get the link that said plastic, but wanted to read it. I do always just have the store place everything in plastic bags. So I scurried around this morning and found that I have at least five cloth bags that will work for getting my groceries home. I have placed them in my vehicle. You have one convert Mary and I will continue to look for the article on plastic.

Kim Ayres said...

We're pretty good about reusing and recycling our plastic bags, but I know we could do more.

But you're right about the fanatics. You have to be prepared to overcome the social convention of not wanting to draw attention to yourself if you want your message to be heard

Charles Gramlich said...

I have an issue here with the fast food places. If I'm going to take the food home I ask them not to give me napkins,which I will just throw away. They don't seem to understand that request though and I've actually gotten laughed at for it.

Robert the Skeptic said...

To the Turkish woman in the bakery, and millions of other like her, the plastic bags represents modernity, progress. That in itself will be a difficult meme to reverse.

It reminds me of when my ex-wife's grandparents were moving from their old farm house. They were throwing on the burn pile stuff they weren't going to take with them. Granddad had an old pendulum wood school clock he threw on the burn pile. After all, now he had a nice plastic battery clock from WalMart he didn't have to wind up every day. (The aunts and uncles descended on the burn pile fighting over the lost treasures).

The point being that to many, cloth bags will represent the "old times". But I agree, plastic bags are a major environmental hazard. They should be outlawed, actually.

Vijaya said...

I grew up with cloth bags, made from our old dresses. Love them -- so versatile. My kids use them for lunches, picnics, carrying books to the library (we have all different shapes and sizes and strengths of cloth/canvas bags). They're fun to make and decorate.

Nothing wrong with being a fanatic over the things you care about, Mary. And you will change hearts one person at a time.

Mary Witzl said...

Meredith -- Good, we're in the same club! If you can't find plastic grocery bags where you live, you live in my kind of town.

You're right: once you've trained yourself to put the bags back into your car, you're home free. Or rather, plastic free. "Bagless lady" -- I love that!

Kit -- South Africa is ahead of us if they make people stores or shoppers pay for plastic bags. The store manager I talked to here said that people get upset if he doesn't give them plenty of plastic bags. I beg the greengrocer's to give me only one plastic bag and then put half a dozen bar code stickers on it when I'm buying lots of vegetables in small quantity, but other customers are getting irritated when they don't get enough. Sigh...

Pat -- My bags might not look all that clean, but other than a few leaves or the odd receipt, they're okay. I'd never put a dripping package of meat (or cheese for that matter) into my cloth bag, then use it again without washing it.

Carole -- YAY, a convert! You've made my day, writing that.

I'll try to send you the link once I've checked to make sure I didn't make a mistake entering that URL, which is entirely possible. Or you can google 'toxic plastic waste' and 'National Geographic, but if you do, try not to get too depressed.

Kim -- Fanatics have a bad name, but they've been the ones who accomplished the big things, like ending slavery and getting women the vote. Sometimes you have to do things because they're right and not because they look cool.

Charles -- I get laughed at all the time for the bag thing myself -- "Oh look, it's that crazy bag-hating foreigner again!" They may never get the point of what I'm doing, but that's just how it has to be.

Robert -- Thank God you got that clock out of the fire! (You did, right?)

My mother was just the same. She was amazed when we expressed dismay over the destruction of an old wooden spinning wheel -- "But no one could use it anymore!" -- and the discarding of some old washing boards, which she actually did use when our washing machine broke down. The new, plastic things were wonderful in her opinion.

Plastic has revolutionized the world, but no one could foresee all the problems it would cause.

Vijaya -- I'm glad your kids take their lunch to school in cloth bags -- it's hard to imagine that happening here. When I was a kid, we took our lunches to school wrapped in wax paper and brown paper bags and we never felt deprived. In Japan, almost all kids carry their lunches to school in reusable plastic boxes packed in small cloth bags which their mothers make. In the U.K., lunches tend to be packed in plastic, as they are here. It's very hard to get your kids to do something that the other kids don't do, so it's great when the majority are doing the right thing.

Franziska said...

Mary, I have just finished my second draft of a PB entitled Plastic Monster. I got the idea after reading about the 'plastic monster' in the Pacific.

You should find out about the town in the UK where one woman convinced everyone - from shops to locals – to give up plastic bags. It's the only place like it as far as I know. Here's a link to one story:

Mary Witzl said...

Franziska -- Thank you for commenting, and for that link -- what an inspiring story, and what a great role model that woman is! If I'm ever in Devon, I'll definitely go to Modbury and tell every merchant and shopkeeper there what a great thing they've done. Good for you, too, putting this in a picture book for kids! You're spreading the word too.

AnneB said...

Odd -- when I was in Italy in the 1970s, all the locals carried their own net shopping bags. True, some of them were plastic (held up better than the string ones) but they were recyclable.

It seemed strange for about one day, and then I bought my own. Still have all three of them.

Where I live, all of the grocery stores give discounts, 5 or 10 cents per bag, when you bring your own. And all the supermarkets now recycle bags, too.

Robin said...

Yay for you, Mary! I've become pretty fanatical about plastic bags, myself, over the past couple of years. I've noticed a definite attitude difference as time goes on.

At first the cashiers looked annoyed and rolled their eyes. Now they happily take them and practically give me a high five. Since cashiers around here are pretty young, I'm thinking that young people are realizing they're going to inherit a toilet if something isn't done, even if it's done by you fanatics. I mean "us" fanatics.

Anne Spollen said...

There was a health food store where we used to live that refused to supply plastic bags. You had to bring your own or recycle a box from a pile they kept on their porch. They sent the message in a big way.

There are huge clusters of plastic that wash ashore here in South Jersey every summer.

I've reduced our usage of plastic to as low as it can be; last summer, I also gave up using bleach due to the damage it's creating in our waters. I wish there were more folks like you out there...

GutsyWriter said...

Having lived in Europe during my youth, I'm totally into bringing my own shopping bags. I hate it when the stores in California put two items in each plastic bag and there are at least 30 in the shopping cart.

kara said...

i haven't read the other comments so i don't know if someone's already suggested this...but what if you hand her your bag when you order the bread? then there's not that pesky awkward transfer situation.

Mary Witzl said...

AnneB -- In Europe, many people have reusable shopping bags, plastic or otherwise. It's such a civilized way of doing things. We're starting to adopt this in the U.S. and the U.K. (which isn't really Europe), but here in KKTC, we're in a real time warp.

The store manager I talked to said he wished he could charge for bags, but knew from experience that his customers would complain. There has to be a grassroots public awareness campaign to get people to see that limiting plastic products or creating ones that are biodegradable is in our best interests. People resent changes that they perceive as inconvenient, but if they saw what was at stake, I'd like to think they'd rise to the occasion.

Robin -- Hooray for you for helping to raise public consciousness! I can think of a few young people around here who would be wise to look towards the future and forgo a little convenience. I think I put my own family off with my zeal, but hope that eventually they'll be won over.

People roll their eyes at me a lot too. I wish we were here long enough to see that stop happening, but it won't. I like to think I'm a pioneer and pioneers just have to accept being seen as idiotic in the beginning.

AnneS -- I should have known you'd be singing this song too, and good for you!

We have a few shops in town that encourage people to bring their own bags or pay a small amount for cloth or jute ones they provide. I think this is good in a number of ways: it encourages people to start taking their bags with them, raises their consciousness, and it hits them where it hurts.

I'm a low bleach user: I can get by on a tiny amount, judiciously recycled, and make a bottle of it last for years. But I'm thinking of cutting out altogether. (White shirts? Who needs them?)

GW -- I hate that two-items-in-one-bag thing too! I'm brazen enough to repack my bags and give the check-out clerk back the superfluous plastic just to make a point. And sometimes I just give up and take them, then use them until they fall apart.

Kara -- I always do this! You wouldn't believe how often they haven't sussed what its function is, or even if they do, how quickly they forget. I get the feeling some cashiers figure I'm a halfwit trying to show off my art project.

Falak said...

I actually "live next door to a vast plastic rubbish heap" amd during the rains I walk through muck and slush that is adorned with plastic icing.Yet, no one notices!!! I seriously think we need more fanatics like you out here in Mumbai. I alone don't seem to be getting much done:(

Anonymous said...

I wish Morocco and the US would make plastic bags not free! It's a terrible problem. I always take my cloth bags to the shop, but very few people do.
When we first used to Mauritania, I couldn't believe how bad the problem was. I used to joke about how the trees were decorated in plastic bags! They were so cheaply made that they were not reusable either.

Eryl Shields said...

I have a wonderful collection of cloth bags that have come free with magazines over the past few years, and a great little parachute silk one that folds into its own tiny pouch and so lives in my handbag.

I saw a thing recently about a beach in Hawaii (big island) that is totally covered in plastic that just washes up constantly, they try to clean it but always more plastic rolls in. Grim.

TerryLynnJohnson said...

Good for you! And I like the way you told the story.
Our stores charge money for plastic, so everyone brings their own bags now. It's nice to see.

AnneB said...
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Mary Witzl said...

Falak -- My sympathies. What you've described sounds a lot like a place we drove through in Glasgow a few years ago. All the trees, bushes, and ditches were festooned with plastic debris of all sorts, and as we drove along, I saw a group of kids finish their sandwiches and soda and fling their empty bottles and bags right into the shrubbery without a by-your-leave. Just as you describe, none of them seemed to be at all affected by their awful, depressing environment, or mindful of what they'd done. Which is awful, of course, but am I any better if I carefully dispose of my plastic rubbish and it ends up in a floating island in the Pacific? Sad, isn't it? Until people break their dependence on plastic and we get the industry to create practical alternatives, we're going to be stuck with this situation.

Elizabeth -- I wish they would do this too. I think it's the only way to go!

Unfortunately, I can't imagine we have it any better here in KKTC. People leave their plastic rubbish everywhere and rubble and leftover building materials are scattered freely along the roads and even in decent neighborhoods.

Eryl -- When I think of how pristine and unspoiled those beaches used to be, I could cry. What a legacy to leave our children. We are truly the 'plastic' generation.

I know about your cloth bags: I've seen you using them! And we use them at the same stores, don't we? :o)

TerryLynn -- I think charging money for plastic bags is a great idea. In fact, if they upped it to a dollar a bag, I'd go along with this -- and I say this as a true cheapskate. It's a question of 'pay a little now or pay a lot more later'. Carrying our own reusable bags or forking out a dollar a bag is a small price to pay for a cleaner environment.

Carolie said...

Amen, Mary! As Margaret Mead famously said, "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it's the only thing that ever has."

Carolie said...
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Lily Cate said...

Cloth is big around here.(in Wisconsin) I see at least 1/3 to 1/2 of my fellow shoppers bringing cloth bags.
Some of our stores actually offer a small discount to people who bring their own bags, after all, it saves the store the cost on buying the things, too!

Kim said...

I've made several cloth bags and we've bought some of the reusable ones at the store (when I forgot my homemade ones). Whole towns here are starting to ban the plastic bags. Sometimes it seems like our puny efforts won't amount to much and small steps may seem, well, small, but things are improving "poco a poco" I think :)

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