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May 10, 2012

What Can Environmentalists Learn from Bad Kitties?

 

I’m back from my meditation retreat, where one of the common admonishments is “Don’t push the river.”  What does that mean?  To me, it’s about being in the flow and not exerting more effort than necessary to live peacefully and mindfully in the present moment.  After all, the river’s gonna flow whether you push it or not, right?  Recently, I’ve discovered that it’s often not necessary to dam the river either.  I’ve learned both of these lessons from my cat.  And now I’m wondering how we can apply them to environmental activism work.

Bad Kitty / Good Kitty

Arya is sweet and cuddly and naughty beyond belief.  I love her mightily, and until recently, have fought with her every single morning for the past two years.  She climbs on my desk, and I shoo her off.  She crawls under my desk and gets tangled up in the electrical cords, so I shoo her out.  Then she’s up on the desk again, and I yell at her.  She’s underneath, and I yell at her.  On… yell… under… yell… over and over until finally, I get sick of the battle and lock her out of my office.  This makes us both sad.  She wants to be with me, and I want her to be with me, but I can’t get her to stay out of my stuff.  WHY DOESN’T SHE GET IT???

The question I should have been asking is why I couldn’t get it.  They say the definition of crazy is doing the same thing over and over again and hoping for a different result.  Finally, by the grace of all that is logical and rational in the universe, I stopped to consider the reasons Arya was so hell bent on climbing on and under my desk, and address those issues.  First, she climbs on my desk not because she’s interested in anything on the desk (although every time she does it she knocks things over and causes chaos), but because she’s trying to see out the window in front of my desk.  It doesn’t matter that there are two other windows in the room that she can look out.  She wants to look out that one and no amount of my acting like an a-hole will get her to want it any less.  So last week, I devised a way for us both to have what we wanted.

I built a wooden window box above my desk, so she can look out without disrupting my stuff.  And it works!  She loves her box!  And she hasn’t once tried to climb on my desk since I put it there.

See Arya’s a force of nature.  She’s like the river, right? She wants to move in a particular direction.  And instead of trying to stop the river from flowing, I just redirected it a little bit.  It took one afternoon to build the box for a lifetime of peaceful kitty mornings.

Except there’s still the issue of the cords under the desk.  No sooner had I started congratulating myself, than she had stepped up her efforts to mess with those cords.  The yelling continued, until I once again stopped to reflect.  She wants the cords.  I can’t let her have the cords.  But I can find a way to block the cords from her while still allowing her to go under my desk.  Michael came up with the idea of wrapping chicken wire around the legs of my desk to isolate the electrical wires on the other side.

That solution, too works like a charm.  Arya can still hang out under my desk if she wants, but now she can’t destroy anything.   It’s actually a little embarrassing that it’s taken me this long to come up with these solutions, since I had a similar revelation way back in 2008 when we first got these kitties.  I wrote about my battles with ants and cats, “What I want to talk about is letting go of the struggle against reality, accepting things as they truly are, and finding ways to work with the world rather than against it.”

The Reality of Plastic Pollution

So what do these lessons have to do with plastic?  Well, it’s more about people and their habits.  People are like cats.  We have certain drives and desires that we can’t necessarily explain.  And we do what is easy, right?  Just as water seeks its level, we accept plastic bags at the grocery store because that is what is handed to us, and it’s just easier to take what is offered than to try something new.  We buy plastic-packaged convenience foods because they are available and cheap.  It’s not that we’re bad people but that we only have so many brain cells, and unless our passion happens to be environmental issues, we’d rather use those brain cells to focus on the things that really interest us.

We can try to educate people, and that, of course, is the purpose of this blog and my book.  I want to wake up as many people as possible to the reality of plastic pollution and plastic toxicity and inspire them to make changes in their lives.  Educating individuals is vitally important.  But it isn’t enough.   Plastic is being produced and wasted at such an alarming rate that educating individuals to change their habits will not be enough to reverse the trend.   But once we have educated enough people, we can organize ourselves to push for systemic changes… changes that will make it easier for the average person to do the right thing without having to use too many brain cells.

Bans on plastic bags work because they remove a detrimental choice from the checkout counter.  And fees on plastic bags work because they appeal to most people’s aversion to penalties.  Before his county instituted fees on plastic bags, my dad would often forget to bring his reusable bags into the store and end up with plastic bags.  Since the fee went into effect, he will leave the checkout line to get his bags rather than paying that fee.  It’s  human nature.  And what about those reusable bags that are so easy for us to forget?  Andy Keller of ChicoBags told me in an interview for my book that his motivation for designing a compressible bag with an integrated stuff sack was  to make it easy for people to remember their bags. Most of us don’t carry canvas bags with us whenever we leave the house, but if you always have a couple of balled up bags in your purse or backpack, you’re never caught without one.

In my rant about the plastic Turtleback cup holder last week, several people commented that they thought we would be better focusing our energy on educating people not to litter than on urging the company to find a different material for its beach product.  But the reality is that people do litter, often without meaning to.   Wouldn’t it be better for Turtleback to find an alternative material for its product than to try to educate the entire beach-going public about plastic pollution?  The less plastic we create in the first place, the less we have to deal with after the fact.

Taking the Easy Way Out

So, what are some ways that we can make it easier for people to do the right thing?  For example, I’m still thinking about how to approach Trader Joe’s to reduce its produce packaging.  To do that, I need to analyze the reality of the situation, understand why they use so much plastic (without making assumptions), and figure out how to make it easier, or at least worthwhile, for them to change.  It could just be a matter of public relations.  But I have a feeling there are deeper issues at work.

What suggestions do you have not just for how to approach a grocery store like Trader Joe’s but what policies should be instituted, products developed, strategies devised to make caring for the planet as easy as petting a good kitty?

 



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41 comments
Kitten
Kitten

Your kitty looks so much like mine I would accuse you of catnapping if I didn't know any better.  Right down to the single white eyebrow antennae.

MrsWhipple
MrsWhipple

In some European supermarkets they provide a "produce basket" that sits in the shopping cart - you place all your produce that requires weighing in this basket and it stops it rolling all over the conveyor and makes it easier for the check-out person. Saves tons of those little plastic produce bags.

PDH
PDH

Re: produce in plastic- Early last Saturday at the "farmers' market" I witnessed two busy workers pouring blueberries from plastic clamshells into paperboard boxes for their display. You know the line "I didn't know whether to laugh or cry"?

Green Jeanne
Green Jeanne

"Don't push the river"  sound like what my wonderful hubby says to me when I get frusterated with the masses, "Pick your battle or you'll go nuts" funny it's to late :) Pick one thing to focus on, change that and more will follow.

Jane23
Jane23

I understand your "Don't push the river" stradegy as I have several kitties, but after moving to Virginia from California a few years ago, I feel like I'm faced with a torential flood with regards to plastic vs. reusable bags here!  I am independent and a pioneer and will not give in to the behind-the-times local peer pressure and so I bring my reusable bags as often as I can. I usually get annoyed looks from the checkers and sometimes they hand them back so I can bag them myself. It's not just the continued use of plastic (bags, bottles, etc) here, it's the dispose-out-the-car-window mentality that irks me. All the stores here sell reusable bags, but I rarely see them being used.

I can only be assured that my good example will be noticed by some.  I also plan on making and selling bags from discarded items (50 lb. coffee bean bags, clothing, wool sweaters, etc.) to encourage people to carry and use fun and interesting "designer" bags.

I'm sure the pre-packaged items at Trader Joes are the result of bottom-line savings from upper management, but maybe it goes against their Mission Statement or image and they, like Turtleback, will change with consumer protest.

Tiger Lee
Tiger Lee

oh noes.. hmm. I'll let u know if I see it anywhere. The season is over for the time being so I don't have on DVR. It's realkly great. Jackson Galaxy is so sweet.

My Plastic-free Life
My Plastic-free Life

Oh! It's a TV show. We don't have cable, and it doesn't seem they have full episodes online? Suggestions?

Tiger Lee
Tiger Lee

You should watch My Cat From Hell. It's awesome/

MaxMax
MaxMax

When I lived in Quebec there was that same battle, then most stores (big grocerye chain) started to charge 5 cents for a plastic bag, took a couple month and now the vast majority of customer use reuseable bag. And if you don't well the store still make money with that 5 cents buy less bag so everyone is happy. I do not know for trader joe since I have never been there.

monkeyjen
monkeyjen

Watch My Cat From Hell - it's awesome

Alexa
Alexa

Trader Joe's claims that by pre-wrapping produce in plastic it saves on costs because it reduces spoilage and lowers theft.  Supposedly, it also means that employees spend less time in the produce section and less time typing in codes and weighing products at the check-out line.  All lowering TJ's overhead costs and allowing their food prices to be so low. 

 

Unfortunately, beyond being wasteful, in California, you are supposed to be able to buy just one of something, like a potato, without having to buy the entire package, TJ's won't let you do this, so they're not just creating more waste, they're actively breaking the law. 

TraceyTief
TraceyTief

Kudos on the shelf!

 

I think that government penalty and incentive models applied to manufacturers would be effective in the same way as fees for plastic bags are. Drive up the cost of packaging in non renewables/compostables, and make non waste packaging attractive. Of course they'll lobby and tie up the courts before they take responsibility for vtheir wn mess, but it would be worthwhile.

 

As far as convincing real people goes, I think setting an example and showing what IS practical and possible is effective.

Me: I only buy dried peas in bulk.

The Other:  Where can you get peas in bulk?

Me: At my coop.

The Other: Oh that's near me.

Bingo! A convert.

In this way, being a retailer provokes some social change. What I carry and do not carry, and my reasons why, make change palatable and satisfying for people.

 

Jay Sinha
Jay Sinha

Love your mix of reflection and action. Um, Beth, is that a blue fake plastic fish (perhaps from days gone by) that I see in Arya's window shelf? ;)  On your environmental question - BTW great news about the Turtleback decision to listen - I'm a deep believer in the power of individual relationships, and every relationship begins between two people, or a person and an organization, or two organizations (though even if it's an organization the actual interaction is coming from a person or persons). With companies, I think there is always a critical mass of feedback required before a company will listen, and act. With some companies it may be one person, with others it may be thousands, and the quality of feedback usually matters, depending on the issue. One can see it as the 'tipping point' Malcolm Gladwell has popularized. Maybe with Trader Joe's that critical mass and tipping point is one person. Maybe that person is you because the quality of your feedback is so credible and authoritative. So I guess what I'm saying is that if we all educate ourselves while we educate others we build up a magnificent critical mass of relationship building feedback providers looking for change in all the right places. Onward!

Erin
Erin

That shelf is pure genius. Now you've got me brainstorming ways to build one across my headboard. Every morning at about 5am, my 2-inch-wide headboard is the site if a cat-battle of epic proportions as they fight for position in front of the window that is TOTALLY big enough for both of them. I'm usually woken up by a cat to the face. No fun, I tell you.

knutty knitter
knutty knitter

Sounds like Sprocket and my wool basket.  It now sports a large chunk of felt from a horse blanket.  He gets the basket and my wool is safe if a little squashed :) Or holes in the boys socks. I make them from carpet wool now and they will last a lot longer.  They don't seem to mind the rougher texture either and I don't have to try making them wear slippers!  Redirecting the river is a good way to put this  and I seem to do a lot of it :) The plus here is the savings in plastic everything slippers that don't last.  The wool really is just that, wool!

 

viv in nz

Susie
Susie

I am sure you've considered the Patagonia approach before, but reading this article recently http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052702303513404577352221465986612.html

really brought home the point to me that it does usually come down to the bottom line for companies. But quite often making changes for environmental reasons can cut back costs. If those savings can then be transferred to the customer, it's a win win win situation - right?? 

EcoCatLady
EcoCatLady

Oh my... power struggles with kitties. The human never wins. 

 

I wish I had some sort of wonderful suggestions, but I don't. I've never actually been to Trader Joe's - they're just now opening some stores in Colorado. But there's a local chain here - "Natural Grocers by Vitamin Cottage" - and they have me totally flummoxed. On the one hand, they are WAY ahead of the curve - they don't even offer bags of ANY kind at checkout. They offer the cardboard shipping boxes for people to re-use and strongly encourage people to bring their own bags.

 

BUT they have a "bulk foods" section where everything is pre-packaged in plastic! I'm not even sure how they can call it "bulk" - but they claim it's more sanitary etc. 

 

Anyhow, my point isn't just to complain... it just confuses me to no end. I mean this is a company that obviously wants to do the right thing, so there must be a reason they are doing things the way they are. So you've got me thinking that rather than just boycotting the store (which is my current strategy) perhaps I should try to understand why they are doing things the way they are. If anybody has any insights on this one I'd love to hear them.

 

And speaking of pushing the river... just have to pass this song along, it's one of my very favorites:

 

http://www.myspace.com/music/player?sid=74942491&ac=now

Lauren
Lauren

I missed the Turtleback post, so I just read it. Then I went to the Turtlebacks FB page and saw this from four hours ago: 

 

You spoke and we listened! As a young start-up, all feedback is important to us. Some of our friends wanted to see "greener" Turtlebacks. We are proud to announce that a new line of Turtlebacks made from biodegradable materials will be available this summer. We sincerely appreciate the majority of you who engaged us in mature and constructive discussions.

BethTerry
BethTerry moderator

I sometimes wonder if I could identify Soots and Arya in a room full of other black or black and white cats.  I like to think I could... and that they would recognize me and come to me.  But a lot of cats do look alike.

Debra Kapellakis
Debra Kapellakis

 @PDH That is a situation where I would start laughing and then cry like crazy...

EcoCatLady
EcoCatLady

 @Jane23 You know, reading your comment just gave me an idea. At my local grocery store we have a self-checkout aisle, which is what I generally use. It has a "bagging area" that has plastic bags that have racks that hold the bags open while you put your groceries in. The software recognizes when you bring your own bags - it senses the weight and asks you if you're using your own bags, which is great, but it's still sort of a pain because the racks designed for the plastic bags don't hold the reusable bags open very well....

 

SOOOO my thought is that maybe someone should design a better rack - one that was easily adjustable and had some sort of arms or something that would easily hold open the re-usable bags. I bet that stores would be a lot less resistant to sacking with reusable bags if it were easier on the folks doing the sacking. It doesn't address the pre-packaged produce thing, but it would remove one obstacle to customers bringing their own bags. Any inventors out there?

BethTerry
BethTerry moderator

Interesting.  I wonder if that is why some TJ's produce is available unwrapped.  Do you happen to know where I can read more about this law?

BethTerry
BethTerry moderator

Yep, it's my fake plastic fish.  :-)

BethTerry
BethTerry moderator

Erin, just make sure you don't build something that you'll hit your head on when you wake up in the morning!  

 

Speaking of epic cat battles, ours used to fight every morning... on my head.  Fortunately they grew out of that and are no longer banned from our bedroom at night.

Stella
Stella

 @EcoCatLady  I don't have any ideas on how to confront big businesses, but regarding the bulk buying that's pre-wrapped in plastic- I had a similar experience discussion with my husband recently when he came home with a family-sized ready-made trifle. He was all beams and smiles about his bargain priced purchase until he saw me rolling my eyes and sighing at his plastic purchase. To try and keep the story short, we came to the conclusion that his purchase would actually result in less plastic waste than if myself and all the other purchasers made our own, based on: pre-made= one bowl (strudy enough to be re-used/repurposed) with film lid; homemade= plastic film wrap from jelly/jell-o mix, one plastic pot and lid from cream, one container from custard mix or ingredients to make custard.

Bulk buying of other products will have the same basic principle too, 5kg of rice will be packaged in less total area of plastic than buying 10x 500gm packs over several trips, as long as we have the room to store it. It's the basis of the whole plastic fight- ideally, all plastic production would cease overnight and alternatives would be instanly available. We realise this is not possible or realistic, so we compromise: any amount less is better.

BethTerry
BethTerry moderator

Wow.  See?  I tell people all the time that we have to speak up and sometimes companies listen!  I'm not sure that their new "biodegradable" version will be better because a lot of bio-plastics need heat to biodegrade and will not biodegrade in the ocean.  But this is certainly a testament to the power of speaking up!  Tons of people left comments on their Facebook page, and after some initial attempts at censorship, they did listen.  

 

I think now we should leave comments asking them what type of biodegradable material and whether its been tested in marine conditions.

Green Jeanne
Green Jeanne

 @EcoCatLady Hi EcoCatLady, Glad to hear your asking inventers to help out with this problem.   I have designed a better reuseable cotton bag that fits the racks and carosels that the stores already have instead designing a better rack.

Karen
Karen

The reusable bags from Fred Meyer have a small loop sewn at the top of one long side that can be looped over the metal rack where it holds the plastic bags. I keep meaning to sew these on my other bags as well so they'll all be easier to use.

jay
jay

 @BethTerry The other thing I have noticed is that their produce spoils much more rapidly. I imagine being suffocated in plastic is not good for fruits and veggies!

EcoCatLady
EcoCatLady

That's a good idea. I've got some bags with the loop and it does make it much easier. Not sure how it would work with the taller bags, but I'll take a look at my current hodge podge of bags and see if I can make them more "loopy" :)

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