15 June 2010

It all began with Canada

Back when I lived in Canada, which was a really long time ago, in 1992 or 93 or something like that, I found out that at the liquor store, which is provincially run and called the LCBO, at least in Ontario — like in that Sloan song (listen below), where they say something about “on the way to the LC”, (though I never actually otherwise heard that expression the whole time I was in Canada, Sloan, with their earnestness and their pop song on the radio (this is before they became a 70s band with a light show) convinced me that somewhere in Canada, there were youth saying such things) — they had reusable bags for a loonie. And that was really cool. I’d never seen anything like that before. They were these fairly high-quality, reasonably attractive, eminently smooshable cloth bags, and they were only a dollar! I mean, think back to 1992 or 93, or whenever it was. You couldn’t buy a cheap bag. The weren’t on every corner as a readily-available impulse consumer item. You had to go to the bag store, and buy a bag. And it was probably going to say something dumb on it, too.

So, back when I used to go to the liquor store in Canada, which I did quite a bit, being, at that time, a avid consumer of martinis and other cocktails requiring mixing and a store of plentiful ingredients on hand, they had these bags. So, I picked up a few. The designs changed from time to time and I collected them all. Ok, like 3 of them.  And it was really great, because I could put my heavy liquor bottles in them and not have to deal with a breaking paper bag while walking home.

I still have the bags. And they’re still really handy. And I just used one at the grocery store and it was very convenient.

Nowadays, 18-some-odd years later (really?! It’s been that long? How the hell old am I?) even in many countries less progressive than Canada, such as the United States, you can get reusable bags pretty much everywhere. So, there’s really no reason to use plastic or paper bags that they give out at the store. In fact, some states, like California are attempting to make the regulations stricter — in San Francisco, Oakland and Malibu they already use only corn-plastic bags, which is a great step, although there’s some debate as to whether the corn-plastic material really biodegrades properly in typical compost settings. But that may be too serious a topic to discuss right now.

Eventually, and hopefully soon, the practice of giving out free paper and plastic bags at all stores will just go away. It will seem as archaic as, oh I don’t know, well, something really unreasonable. Something where people dig really far into the earth, make a big mess, ruin their surroundings, kill plants and animals, extract oil, make it into a cheap material, create billions of bags out of that material, give them out everywhere, constantly, to be used for about 1/2 an hour and then put into a pile of refuse somewhere to not rot for millions of years while further disturbing the plants and animals and looking awful. And so, you might as well get used to the bagless lifestyle now.

And when I say “bagless”, I don’t’ really mean “bagless” (nor do I mean “bagels” which spellcheck insists I do mean), I mean, bringing your own. I know it can be kind of a hassle to remember and to have bags on hand at all times — for example when you think you’re just going out for a walk but find you desperately need soy-pudding or something along those lines. Here’s how I manage to have bags on hand. And this took me a long to figure out.

How I handle this bag thing

First of all, I have several bags that smoosh up really tiny itty bitty. Most of them I got for free at conferences or trade show type places as schwag. One, that’s really great is is Baggu brand, and although I lost the little pouch thing it came in, though capacious when unfurled, it smooshes up pleasingly compactly and fits nicely into this tiny pocket of my purse-type-bag. (Check out their site… these things come in terrific colors, including stripey!) I almost always have that one with me, except when I forget to stuff it back in the purse-pocket after unloading it.

Then I have a couple other ones that I got recently at An Event Apart as an Aquent giveaway. They’re from Chico Bags and they’re they’re not as capacitous, but do come replete with a small carabener fold back into their own little integral pouch — and such things are always pleasing. Indeed, for a recent trip I purchased a Sea to Summit day bag which folds into its own pouch and is super lightweight and micro-tiny. It’s completely awesome. And, though he has thusfar restrained himself to just zip-off legs, my gentleman friend has talked, rapturously, for years, about the pants from REI (or is it EMS? Somehow, searching for “pants pouch” did not lead me to my expected results!) that fold into their own pouch. But I digress. I was going to say, these bags are great to clip on to one’s backpack or bag and to generally have on hand at all times — especially when traveling about the world by foot and public transport. And Chico Bags make a whole line of other things too… the Sling bag looks especially appealing to me. And they use recycled PET bottles to make their fabrics… that’s very cool.

The car trick

Then there’s the car. If you have a car. The trick here, I’ve discovered by trial and error, is to have a lot of bags. Especially if you have better things to do with your brain than remember to bring bags out to your car (or are flakey, or both). You need to have so many bags that even if you fill up a bunch of your car bags, and bring them in the house, and don’t remember to bring them back out, you still have more. My hatchback trunk area thing (boot, caboose, whatever you want to call it) is quite full with totebags of all shapes and sizes. I don’t even know how many. Zillions. Twenty. Twenty-five. And I cycle them in the house, out to the car. It’s handy to have them in the house too — because you can, you know, carry things places.

So what I do is: when I come into the house, I try to empty any bags that have come with me. Then I hang the empties on the front doorknob. This seriously irritates my gentleman friend, who does not like obstructions in doorways, but it does help me remember to take them back out to the car next time I go. So, that’s the secret. Once you hit this critical mass of bags, you always have one handy. And I’m not advocating buying bags all the time, or spending a lot. But, you get them for free places… people are always giving out totebags for this and that reason these days. Very trendy.

And, despite inflation elsewhere in the economy, you can still pick them up for a dollar at lots of places — when you do forget yours, until you reach that critical mass. That’s how I got a lot of mine, when I was always without a bag and had to punish myself in stores for forgetting them by buying more, rather than getting a free paper or plastic bag.

My campaign

So I was thinking of making some badges that say “bagless” (and by badges I mean buttons, pins, whatever) and starting a bit of campaign and to celebrate the whole not-asking-for-a-bag-at-the-store lifestyle — but I do think it might be kind of confusing. The whole having a bag that says “bagless” on it. Maybe that doesn’t make sense. Maybe I’ll just imagine making these badges for now. Ok, sounds good. That’s all.

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1 March 2010


At the risk of redundancy in having two regular features that utilize the word “happy” in their title, I hereby announce the start of another regular feature in which “happy” is a word in the title.

In the great editorial tradition of such esteemed publications as TV Guide and PETA’s Animal Times with “Cheers and Jeers” columns, I thought I’d make some layman’s observations on various companies’ positive and negative contributions to more sustainable products and packaging under the taxonomic classifications “happy” and “crappy”. Granted, PETA almost always seems to give “cheers” to Pamela Anderson’s wearing of bras made out of lettuce and cabbage, and I although unable to compete with that journalistically, I’ll just do what I can.

I say a “layman’s” view because I’m not a packaging or product designer, or a material scientist or chemist (despite many in my family tree). This is just what I see, as a consumer and observer, as seemingly good and bad stuff going on in the world of things on offer. I don’t know how to do Life Cycle Analysis. I’m not, necessarily going to talk about purposefully, consciously green products (check out Inhabitat for that, it’s an awesome site) but just regular old stuff I see for sale or happen to come by one way or another.

OK, enough introduction.

Happy: Refillable Sharpies

Plastic pens drive me crazy. I love them, horribly, painfully, indefatigably, but I know they are wrong. I know I should be using my lovely heirloom fountain pen (which sips ink from glass bottles ever so daintily) all the time, and perhaps pencils and should stop buying any sort of non-refillable, non-recyclable, filled-with-god-knows-what-chemicals writing implements. I’m working on it. I put a moratorium on the number of such offending tools I’m allowed to have at one time (I get to fill the 4 jars on my drafting table and the 1 glass on my desk. When they’re full, that’s it). It’s hard for an artsy-fartsy/designer type person like myself. I was raised to love the fruits of the art and office supply stores. (My gentleman friend has been making his way through a 20-pack of Bics for the past 5 years or so… he still has lots left. He doesn’t own paperclips either, and is good at sitting still).

Certain pens, though, one needs. Or at least one thinks one does. So imagine how pleased I was to see, at the office supply store, (where I wasn’t buying anything, I swear) a refillable, stainless steel Sharpie marker! A return to refillable pens is certainly a positive step towards designing things we need with a systems mentality.

Now, that said, it doesn’t seem like Sanford (the manufacturer) is necessarily taking the refills back for reuse, recycling or anything else — and that’s not very systems-thinking at all. Indeed, their web marketing centers on the “luxury” quality of the pen, not any sustainability benefits. While a Material Safety Data Sheet is available for the product, it’s quite vague. It basically says you can huff Sharpies or write on your skin and eyes under “normal conditions”. And the ink is non-toxic. Doesn’t mean too much.

So this product is a “happy” in that it’s a baby step. Sharpies are popular and, dare I say, even seem trendy of late (since they started innovating in the product line so aggressively over the past few years), so it’s good to see them, perhaps, leading the way with a non-disposable product. Keep pushing that envelope! (Can a pen push an envelope?)

Crappy: Dixie Grab’N GO Cups

Also at the office supply store, and featured in a TV commercial that I happened to catch only to be shocked by its environmental callousness, are these disposable cups from Dixie. I’m not sure how new this product is, but the ad framed it as a clever new invention. It’s shocking a company would bring something like this out at this time (but I guess people still want it, and I guess Georgia Pacific, Dixie’s parent company has to do something with all those trees they cut down.(I’m not going to read their whole Sustainability Report and try to figure out whether they’re being cool or not… I don’t have the knowledge to really determine it fairly. You can read it if you want, though.) (And, full disclosure, I have used papers they manufactured for design projects in the past.)

At Staples, you can get 50 of these cups and 50 lids for $20. They’re touted (twice, in the 5 product benefit bullet points) as being a great alternative to “costly” double cups. Wait… a disposable paper cup is great alternative to two disposable paper cups? Well, I guess…

Bur really, in this day and age? Paper cups and plastic lids meant to last the duration of the morning commute, at best? Not cool.

Reusable hot beverage vessels are not that difficult to come by, deal with or know about. Their benefits are easy to understand. They can save not just 2 cups, or 1 cup, or 50 x 2 cups, but all the cups. You can even put a lid on a reusable hot beverage vessel.

Really. Why bring out this product now? Why encourage this behavior? The French would be appalled. (Well, actually, I believe most of the rest of the world is fairly flabbergasted at North American’s need to drink hot beverages while mobile… but I have to admit I like to make sure I have a coffee with me when entering potentially coffee-less environments, such as long meetings… especially as a non-milk-drinker, it is best to come equipped with your own pre-soy-milk-infused concoction).

Since I’ve bothered to go to the Dixie website to see what I can find out about this product, I would like to add, what’s with this web copy?

These are no ordinary cups. Just like you, Dixie cups work double-duty. They’re easy drinkware, for everything from tea for two to galas for gazillions. And they’re hygiene heroes, teaching kids the importance of rinsing with their own cup. And not just any cup. A Dixie cup.

That’s it…

Though a normal sort of “Cheers and Jeers” column would have 3 or so of each, I talk way too much. It would just get silly long. More for next time!

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20 January 2010

What is the oldest thing you own? For me, I’m pretty sure it’s the tattered volume of Virgil that my grandfather had somewhere in his storehouse of a basement and gave to me when I was studying Latin. It’s imprinted with a publishing date of 1799. A two-hundred and eleven-year old object. Created, albeit not here, 23 years after the US made the jump from the birth canal to the outside world of viability as an autonomous being. I have a few Victorian books and articles of clothing kicking around, and my piano (which was free on craigslist) celebrates its 109th birthday this year (and has the arthritic action to prove it).

Why do I ask?

As I look around my domain, I realize that most of my possessions, these objects for which I’ve volunteered to take responsibility for my earthly lifetime (or “dispose” of appropriately), are almost all younger than myself. And, in relative terms, I’m a spring chicken. As I gaze around, I see my plastic calculator that helps me to tell you how old my piano is (and works slowly because it’s solar-powered and I leave it in the dark too much, making me sometimes wonder if I should replace it); my ceramic coffee mug from Target at Halloween time several years ago — with bats, a lovely, presumably haunted, federal style mansion and a lurid green moon; my plastic pens and type-measurement rulers, and certainly all this well-adored plastic, glass, metal and strange-elements-containing digital equipment from our friends at Apple. All of this stuff, despite how proud I am that my Cinema Display is 9 years old and still calibrated and going strong, is really really new.

Historical figments

Now I’m thinking about my imaginary friends from the past, who are touchstones in these matters. People I might have been if I weren’t here and now. The Victorian char woman (cleaning up after after artists and disapprove, in shocked wonderment, at the naked ladies), the rural Medieval agricultural lords (longing to wear the impractical stuffed-toe pointy shoes of the fancy city folk), the 19th century Ukrainian peasants (living more or less the same for centuries, scraping by, marginalized by one ruling party after another, at least looking forward to market day), the scrappy and zealous American pioneers, discovering crazy exotic places like Ohio and such.

What did they own, especially, what did they own that was new? Not a hell of a lot, for the most part. Until the full impact of the Industrial Revolution really trickled down to everyone (well, “everyone” as in everyone in the “first world”, for lack of a better way to delineate the haves from the have nots — but that’s a rant for another day), people didn’t have a lot of stuff around. It was too expensive, too resource and time-intensive to make. You generally went through the trouble of making, buying or otherwise obtaining an object only if you really needed it: tools, some cookware, a set or two of clothes, some furniture (and all of this could be mended, to some degree, as needed).

And they certainly didn’t obtain things, if they could help it, that weren’t well made and weren’t going to last — with any luck, last through their lives and perhaps on through the lives of their children. It would be considered lunacy to buy anything built with “planned obsolescence”. And, no doubt, my historical imaginary friends would be quite horrified by the realization that most of these items we have around, the ones with built-in obsolescence — like my purple PaperMate flair marker right here — still have to exist, somewhere in our ecosystem, for hundreds or thousands of years, after they stop working. They can’t be mended, they can’t be used for something else, they can’t be passed along to the next generation. They just have to go sit in a pile of other, similar junk somewhere and, likely, exude not-so-peasant chemicals as they ever-so-slowly succumb to rot. Oh, I suddenly like my purple marker somewhat less than I did!

Of my imaginary friends who could write, they were likely, depending on the year, to use a turkey feather pen (a byproduct of agriculture — not that I advocate turkey eating, but again, that’s a rant for another day) and India or iron gall ink. They were likely to put their ink in a glass, metal, or ceramic vessel that stood a reasonable chance of lasting their lifetime, if they were careful. (I have similar aspirations for my $2.99 Target Halloween mug.)

I used to be a scullery maid in 1830, so I know these things

There weren’t even wastebaskets, generally, until the 20th century. When I worked, in costume, at an early 19th century historical house in Canada, there were no trash bins. No scraps went to waste in the kitchen or when clothes or other textiles were put together — they all had their secondary purposes. Even though I was a maid to a rich family, we still saved everything (and locked up the tea). There was no away to throw things. Just the pre-20th century version of reduce, reuse, recycle: don’t have a lot to start with, keep using and fixing it, and use it for something else when it’s no longer useful for its primary purpose.

Even our parents, grandparents or great-grandparents, if they grew up during the Depression, thought of these behaviors as pretty much the norm.

When I’m thinking clearly, and look around at the masses and masses of stuff I own, it terrifies me. So much plastic, so much planned obsolescence, so many “disposable” (i.e., I get rid of it but it still exists) items. For the most part, these items are not well-made, but ironically, though I will outlive their useful lives, their physicality will outlive me. It’s not nice to think about.

My grandfather saved things because they might come in handy. They might be able to be reused. He had a large collection of parts of things. But he did use them. He did make new things out of old. He did reduce, reuse and recycle. I just have a preposterously large collection of things, and they’re not all very useful, or worth their carbon footprint, utility-wise.

Working on it

I’ve been trying though, the past few years, to end the madness. I’ve limited myself to a finite number of disposable pens (the number that fit in the re-used jars on my drafting table). I don’t buy knick-knacks or random this and that’s any more. I’m conscious of the packaging my food comes in and try to make good choices. I don’t use disposable plastic bags, I don’t buy bottled water. These are microscopic actions. They don’t turn me into anything like a Victorian char woman, and certainly not a Medieval dude. My hypocrisy stares me in the face at every turn, especially in my studio. But, being conscious when making buying decisions and thinking about the physical things one owns is important. It’s changed my life. It will change it more. I hope I can progressively own less (but only if the things I’m already in charge of can be upcycled or reused). I hope I can invest in heirloom objects that will last as I go forward — even if it’s a bit of a sacrifice to spend more.

I know this article is all over the place, and doesn’t have a coherent sort of linear narrative. It’s just my brain going crazy about all the crap that we think it’s normal and ok to own, when our ancestors would be gawking at us in confusion or horror (or envy, until they heard about the consequences). That said, along with my non-linear-narrative-type apologies, I just want to keep a dialog going to make us (me) remember to keep questioning the obtaining of stuff. There are better answers to these needs. There’s systems-thinking and better materials. There’s simplicity and learning to be happy without constantly consuming. We do what we can. Maybe every day, we think about it a little harder, and do a little more.

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