Going green, New York style

It’s probably not unfair to say that – in the past at least – America has shown more collective concern for the result of the Oxford vs Cambridge Boat Race than for the environment. Sure, there’s an occasionally impressive recycling programme in some cities (in New York it’s effectively handled by the homeless, keen to get their hands on the five cents you can receive returning for beer cans and soda bottles), but when it comes to the wider picture, there has traditionally been more enthusiasm for a twenty seven year old repeatrerun of an episode of Diff’rent Strokes.

That’s not to say that Britain is some glorious eco-aware capital which leaves no environmental footprint. Far from it. This is, after all, a country that is currently attempting to expand Heathrow, which is already one of the busiest airports in the world. But, from the outside at least, there seems to be a consistent pattern of measures that are being introduced to significantly reduce the UK’s impact on the environment.

Much of it is down to the European Union, who appear to have given up on attempting to ensure that – say – all bananas sold in the region have to be straight, and are instead attempting to impose sensible environmentally conscious measures. Banning incandescent lightbulbs and forcing people to use long-life energy saving bulbs instead isn’t necessarily going to save the world, but every little helps. Obviously, having a romantic dinner lit by one of the new bulbs is broadly akin to dining under the glare of the Old TraffordYankee Stadium floodlights, but European bureaucrats clearly don’t need artificial lighting to get their partners in the mood for lurve.

For the average man or woman on the British street, the most noticeable change has been the effective abandonment of the disposable plastic carrier bag. Given that 13 billion of the bags have been given away every year, and the majority take around 1000 years to degrade, any move to reduce their distribution has got to be a good thing. Some supermarkets now discourage their use by charging for them, while others reward reusing old bags. And the measures are apparently effective, without any real customer dissatisfaction.

Sounds like a plan that could be introduced in the States, right? Wrong.

While the French took to the streets to bring about the downfall of the Ancien RĂ©gime, and 100,000 people flocked to Tiananmen Square in 1989 to protest the autocratic nature of their government, revolution in America would truly be caused by the removal of shopping bags from US supermarketsgrocery stores.

I should check up on this, given the immigration requirement to pass a US history test, but I believe that the 28th amendment to the US constitution enshrines the rights of the people to use plastic carrier bags to excess. Walmart stores have weird carousels that seem to allow the intellectual giants at the checkout to spit out bags to shoppers at an approximate rate of six per second. And if you happen to go to a supermarket for just one forgotten item, the look you get when you say a bag isn’t necessary suggests you’ve just accidentally accepted responsibility for every unsolved crime within a thirty block radius.

The strange thing is that most of the cheaper supermarkets have worked out that they spend a not-inconsiderable amount of money on bags every year, and have responded to that by making sure the bags are the cheapest they can possibly find. Indeed, so cheap are the bags that scientists have been forced to reassess the size of individual molecules in order to take into account the thinness of these (no doubt) Chinese imports.

Still, at least this means that there’s less plastic being used, and the landfills have less material being placed in them? Sadly not. The thin bags are singularly incapable of holding more than a single tomato without splitting irreparably and dumping all your shopping over the ground. Staff at the checkouts have to double bag everything to give you any chance of getting your groceries home intact.

It’s almost as if environmental policy was being handled by AIG, isn’t it?


Regular readers will know that I have a small obsession with the sandwich. My reputation is obviously beginning to precede me, as Toni and Mike at Pond Parleys have asked me to give my view of the American sandwich on this week’s post (which will be posted at some point today). I am my usual fair and reasonable self, as I’m sure you can imagine…

7 thoughts on “Going green, New York style

  1. Silverback

    Hey I’m doing my bit and brought no less than 5 reusable WalMart bags back to England with me to use in my local Sainsburys.

    Ok this wasn’t so much an environmental decision as a ‘lets see the look on the checkout person’s face’ decision.

    And as an added bonus, they have to have surpassed the key chain condom as my most practical US souvenir ever – considering IT wasn’t reusable !!

  2. Star

    My Sainsburys has stopped giving out disposable orange bags now. Instead we buy a stronger version, which is larger too, and we are expected to use it over and over again. I bought 8 of them and I regularly use 5 or 6 a week and it works really well. I hope they will start doing that in America too. I know they sell the sewn bags, which are excellent and I have also seen a recylcing container for the disposable bags over there.
    By the way, you may not know that this year, Sainsburys have put in a container for red noses. We can get them recylced too now. LOL
    Blessings, Star

  3. NFAH

    I do like the M&S Food Hall policy of charging even for normal bags now (and charging more for the heavier ones). Does it mean that I remember my cloth or thick plastic reusable bags 100% of the time? No, and I doubt it ever will seeing as I don’t always plan too far ahead with the shopping. But at least I feel sufficiently guilty when I have to buy bags when I know there are some perfectly good ones lying around at home.

    The problem, however, is when someone says they need to buy two bags and then find after paying for their food that they actually needed three, and the cashier then has to start a new transaction and get the customer to dig out 5p to pay for the extra bag. That is a time-sink that I don’t think many Americans would tolerate.

  4. Expat Mum

    I have my shopping delivered (you try shopping with three kids) and am always amazed that single items come with their own plastic bag. To be fair, I can give them all back to the delivery man to be “recycled”, but Chicago has no recycling program whatsoever.
    We were recently told that all analog TVs would soon be pretty much useless*, but we can’t leave them out to be removed, nor is the city providing anywhere to take them. No, we are on our own and will probably have to pay for the privilege.
    * I know you can buy the box, but ours date back to the 1980s I swear.

  5. Almost American

    I remember having to pay for plastic bags at Qwiksave back in the 1970s. They always had a good supply of cardboard boxes at the front of the store though, so we usually avoided having to pay for bags.

    I live in a particularly earthy-crunchy town where all the supermarkets sell reusable bags. At the supermarket I go to we get 5 cents off our order for each bag we reuse. They do have the flimsy plastic bags if you need them, or paper bags. I’m wondering how long it will take them before they try to charge for the plastic & paper bags. Wally-World is the only place I shop around here where very few people seem to use reusable bags – yet the evil empire does sell them.

  6. Brit' Gal Sarah

    Having not been home for approaching 4 years now, I expect this change in supermarkets to be one of the things I really notice. That and smoke free pubs at last!

    I always try to take the paper bags when offered, but there’s no getting away from the fact that plastic bags make great bin liners!

  7. Brooklyn

    I’m curious.
    One (or maybe two) objection(s) to the required use of re-usable shopping bags I thought were valid in NYC was that since NY’rs don’t drive everywhere, so a re-useable bag sits in a car trunk (boot- Hah-hah Dylan, I can do this too) for instant use, a NY’r would have to schlep one around while on foot and on the subway (tube) on the chance he or she may stop at a market on the way home from work or whatever, and would have to buy plastic bags as a trashcan (bin) liner anyway.

    Assuming Londoner’s have the same commuting patterns as NY’rs, do they carry reuseable bags around just because they might pop into the green grocers on the way home for a pound of potatoes?

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