Small step to sustainability
Sonoma Market's recent decision to stop providing customers with carry-out plastic bags is a small but important step in the right direction. It's a voluntary move, one that Whole Foods has also taken, and one we'd like to see other grocers follow, especially Safeway and Lucky, whose Sonoma stores use plastic bags almost exclusively and in volumes far exceeding Sonoma Market or Whole Foods.
In fact, if all the large retail chains represented in town - Safeway, Lucky, CVS and Rite-Aid - adopted similar policies at the corporate level, we could begin to see a significant, measurable reduction in the gross consumption of plastic bags in America.
Stopping the use of point-of-sale plastic bags is not an easy step for consumers or for retailers. Plastic bags have countless, hard-to-replace uses, including the rainy-day protection of this very home-delivered newspaper.
And no one has unveiled an alternative to the grocery store's plastic produce bags that keep our by-the-pound green beans separate from our snap peas, radishes and mushrooms.
But even baby steps have the potential of shifting ingrained habits. If all of us began to carry reusable bags on every shopping trip, we would find very quickly we don't need those disposable plastic ones.
And if you wonder why that is so important, just google the words "North Pacific Gyre," or "Great Pacific Garbage Patch," and read about the Texas-sized zone of degrading, toxin-leaking plastic bits floating in the Pacific that end up in the stomachs of sea turtles, ocean birds, even jellyfish that are later eaten by larger fish, passing up the food chain, in a perverse loop of eco-karma, back to humans. Plastic bags make up an important part of that oceanic debris.
Plastic bags also represent a broader issue of overtaxed resources, oil being one of them, and as we learn more clearly every year, the global consumption of natural resources is ultimately unsustainable. The Earth's human population is expected to pass 7 billion sometime this month and we are, in fact, operating with a global deficit that gets larger by the day.
A phenomenon called Earth Overshoot, developed by the Global Footprint Network, calculates an imperfect but nevertheless credible formula for computing the date each year when we use more resources than we or nature can replace.
This year, Earth Overshoot took place on Sept. 27. That means the planet is three months in deficit, we're operating on three months of borrowed time. Global Footprint Network's preliminary 2011 calculations show we are now using resources at a rate it would take between 1.2 and 1.5 planets to sustainably support.
And if you think the state and national budget crises are intractable problems, think about what lies ahead if we can't figure out a way to sustain our fisheries, our forests, our rivers and streams, arable land, the water we drink, even the air we breath.
So one carry-out plastic bag at Sonoma Market may not add up to much in the grand scheme of things, but it's a step, a symbol and a message we need to pay attention to.