Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Plastic and Bicycles

Standing in line at a shop, I wait behind an older woman who just realized the coupon she was trying to use has expired. The employee behind the register, an aging woman herself, assures the customer that an exception can be made and that she can still receive the discount. The customer asks for a bag for her goods as the items have been left strewn about the checking area, and soon after vanishes from the store.

As I approach the register, the cashier rings up my items and then goes for a bag.

I don't need a bag, but thank you, I say, as the cashier turns back toward me.

Oh? she responds. I wish more people would skip a bag. We're leaving our children with a world of waste to deal with and our planet would be so much better if more people would leave the plastic alone.

It is extremely rare that I request a bag anywhere I buy items because I have reusable bags at the ready and many times it's just easier to carry an item or two without a bag. When I'm on my bike, I don't always have a reusable bag with me, but I know it's generally easier to stash items in bike bags, baskets or panniers and not have to contend with a paper or plastic bag.

Well, I'm on my bicycle, so it's easier to carry things without the bag actually, I say. To which I receive a perplexed look.

You're riding a bicycle today? she questions. It's awfully cold out.

I wonder if she's been outside on this particular day because it's quite a bit warmer than it has been in some time and the sun is shining brightly.

It's not so bad, I respond, and it's always more enjoyable to ride than to be in my car.

Well, you be sure to be safe out there. You really should be driving on days like today.

And with that, I am off, wondering how I so often end up with a lecture when I mention that I'm on a bicycle.

This is not the first time I've had this sort of interaction with a cashier or employee of a store. The prior instances usually play out similarly with an overly-excited employee who is thrilled that a customer is rejecting a bag, but when I make a comment about riding a bicycle there is a perception that I don't have the money for motorized transportation or that I'm making a foolish choice to ride a bike in what is perceived as undesirable conditions.

Anymore, it seems I've lost the will to attempt to explain or try to convince anyone that my choice to ride is no more dangerous than any other mode of transportation. Still, I continue to be perplexed by the number of people who view a plastic bag as dangerous to our future, but cannot make the same correlation to constantly driving every place we go.

It's not that I think plastic bags are wonderful, nor that we shouldn't reduce our dependence on them, but couldn't the same comparisons be made to riding a bicycle instead of driving? There are alternatives to plastic, throw-away bags, just as there are choices in transportation.

I cannot help but believe that a piece of our inability to make the same associations with personal vehicles is partly due to the attention plastic bags have received over the last few decades. We have been told time and again through commercials and videos like the one above that we are ruining our world with our incessant use of plastic bags.

Today, nearly everyone I know has reusable bags that they bring to the grocery store with them, which was definitely not the case 1-2 decades ago. Even people who aren't necessarily highly environmentally aware are often bringing usable bags for shopping purposes. The message, I believe, has simply sunk into our subconscious to the point that many now feel guilty when we don't have a reusable bag to use - and I suppose that was really the point, right? To get the attention of the population, to get us to understand that we are doing something that can potentially destroy our home and our children's future.

But what if the same were done with bicycles? The commercial above is one that I vividly recall to this day, over 20 years after it originally aired. Partly because it was shown quite regularly, but also because the debate of plastic versus paper bags really did feel like an end-of-the-world type of decision, so many people easily identified and giggled along with this advertisement.

What if instead of an ad for Honda this was a commercial that ended with the customer riding off on a bicycle?  What if we saw commercials with people riding bikes to get to and from work, to school, to baseball practice, or music lessons on a regular basis? What if riding a bicycle wasn't only viewed as a sport, but was instead shown to the masses as a way to save our environment or help endangered animals? What if there was suddenly a surcharge for driving a car instead of choosing to ride a bicycle; or if instead of car commercials or ads for Doritos during the Super Bowl we were shown images of how great it is to be outside, getting to destinations under our own power?

I suppose at this point, it's just a thought, a dream, really, but it does make me pause for a moment and ask some questions.  What if riding a bicycle were viewed as a regular, every day means of transportation by more people? How would our world be different? If only the message could sink in to our collective subconscious the way the use of disposable bags have over the years, maybe we'd see more people on bikes and fewer in cars.

If you were in charge, what would you do to change the way the majority view people on bicycles? Would you use radio, television, or online advertising, or some other means to get your message out? Do you think if more people regularly saw people on bicycles in advertisements that it would change the collective viewpoint?


  1. I agree. We need bike riding to be normalized. An ad campaign is a great idea! I also think that we need to make driving less convenient. So long as we continue to incentivize driving by building more and more parking, allowing high speed limits, and forcing bikes and pedestrians to yield to cars, people will continue to see the car as "normal" transportation.

    In Tennessee -- in theory -- every place where two roads intersect there is an implied crosswalk. What if we actually enforced that? What if we issued citations every time a driver didn't yield at every corner? It would take forever to drive just a mile down our major arterial roads.

    1. I suppose it's figuring out how to fund the ad campaign, because I think it would have to be a big one to get the message out there. And, on top of that, I'm sure there would be kickback from oil companies, car companies, etc. I still think it would be beneficial though.

      Citations are definitely something that could help as well. I know we often read or hear that cyclists need to be ticketed as well, and I don't disagree with that if s/he is doing something wrong, but I find it a lot scarier when motorists run lights/stop signs as it really could result in death or severe injury.

  2. We live part time in Seattle, where "free" bags at the grocery store are outlawed and we carry reusable grocery bags into the stores. The rest of the time we are in Tucson, where bags are still readily available in grocery stores.

    I confess the net result in Seattle is we now buy new bags for the regular uses we have around the house. In Tucson, we collect all the bags we get at the grocery store and "export" them to Seattle for re-use there. Since we would previously re-use all of those bags we got at the store in Seattle, I'm not sure there is really any savings in the end. However, I expect many people feel better about the system in Seattle and I'm sure a lot of people throw their bags away and don't re-use them like we do.

    1. Boulder (which I do not live in, but it's close enough I can bike to the city) passed a 10 cent plastic bag fee for grocery stores in 2013, which was interesting. Supposedly, within the first 6 months of the ordinance, plastic bag use dropped 68%. It's amazing what a few cents can do to people's minds. Locally, they haven't started charging for bags, but many do offer a 3-5 cent credit for each bag brought to the store. It's interesting that the surcharge seems to do more to motivate people than the credit though. :)

      My reusable bags are actually made of recycled plastic bottles because I wanted to be able to wash them and it was difficult to find cloth ones that didn't fall apart fairly quickly. Of course, I think about all the contaminants and pollutants from the making of those bags too. It almost feels some days like a pick-your-poison sort of battle. I've had the bags for probably over a decade now though, so at least they are getting used very well - and they're all still in fantastic shape.

      I think reusing what you receive is a great way to go about it as well. One thing that I have not found a replacement for with plastic bags is picking up dog droppings when out at a park or walking. I've tried the ones that supposedly disintegrate quicker, but they have problems of their own (that I won't go into detail about here so as to not gross anyone out).

    2. We have two Great Danes. Failure of the poop bags is not an option we'd ever want to contemplate. We use the Jumbo Nuclear capable variety from Amazon for THAT purpose!

  3. We do need to eliminate as much plastic from our lives as we can. Otherwise we will be drowning in our own trash and pollution. That goes for continued material use in general. If we had protected bike lanes, we'd definitely see more people on bikes. It's getting to the point with sheer numbers of vehicles and large ones at that, may make people demand alternate means to get around and a safe way to do it. High vehicle mortality rates in the Netherlands made their citizens demand safe bicycle routes. This may have coincided with high gasoline prices.


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