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Reducing plasticity one grocery bag at a time

Local grocer is doing small part to save environment
Sam Lensing, owner of Sam’s Main Street Market in Solon, sports one of the reusable shopping bags he offers free to consumers who wish to reduce their use of plastic. (photo by Lori Lindner)

SOLON– People might be surprised to learn that planet Earth has a local warrior fighting one of its biggest battles right here in little Solon, Iowa.
Former Solon resident Pam Landgrebe was surprised, at least, when she visited Sam’s Main Street Market a few weeks ago and found herself without a reusable bag. As an environmental advocate, it has become Landgrebe’s practice to forego single-use plastic bags when shopping, but she came to Sam’s unarmed with her own bags because this trip to the store was unexpected.
Equally unexpected was the offer of a free, reusable cloth bag instead.
“(The checkout clerk) said I could have one of these, and they’re free. I was really impressed because I live in Iowa City, and I’ve never heard of anyone doing that there,” said Landgrebe.
As a new member of 100 Grannies Uniting for a Livable Future, Landgrebe was thrilled that her hometown grocer was engaging in the progressive practice.
Landgrebe is part of a growing coalition of Johnson County residents working to eliminate single-use plastic from the landfills and the landscape of Johnson County. The 100 Grannies are not all biological grandmothers– Landgrebe awaits the pending birth of her first grandchild, due this August– but they are ladies of a certain age, including retirees, who share a sense of urgency in turning the tides of global warming and destructive ecological practices. It is a grassroots group with a mission of promoting renewable energy sources, reducing carbon footprints and encouraging sustainable practices. The Grannies group was organized by Iowa City residents Barbara Schlachter and Ann Christenson, after Schlacter was arrested in Washington, D.C. during a protest of the proposed expansion of the Keystone XL pipeline in 2011. Schlachter described on the group’s website the inspiration she gained from the impending birth of her new grandchild.
“This is our purpose for the rest of our lives– to guard the earth, the source of all life,” Schlachter wrote, “and to do it with perseverance, love, humor, and hope, that our grandchildren and all children may live in a reawakened, regenerated world.”
The Grannies launched their coalition in 2012 by hosting a booth at the Iowa City Arts Festival to introduce people to the impact of global warming on the earth’s Arctic regions. Later that fall, they staged a rally on the Iowa City Ped Mall, encouraging passers-by to exchange their plastic single-use bags for reusable ones the Grannies had garnered from local businesses. They continue to provide workshops and presentations to all types of audiences, from seniors to lobbyists and legislators in an attempt to affect change.
In November 2013, the Grannies presented their proposal to ban single-use plastic bags to the Metropolitan Planning Organization of Johnson County (MPOJC), which was met with measured encouragement. MPOJC‘s Urban Area Policy Board (UAPB), comprised of local elected officials, suggested the 100 Grannies form a subcommittee, with the support of MPOJC staff and UAPB members, to further explore a plastic reduction program. The MPOJC subcommittee suggested they initiate a three-phase process: (1) education and encouragement; (2) charging a fee for plastic bags; and (3) a plastic bag ban, over the course of six to 12 months. Since then, representatives from the 100 Grannies have appeared before municipal councils in Iowa City, Coralville and North Liberty to assess each community’s interest in a bag ban.
Outfitted in green shirts and loaded with information on the harmful
staying power of plastic, the Grannies’ education offensive is to the point.
“Plastic bags are forever,” member Maureen Arensdorf told the North Liberty City Council at its March 25 meeting. Most of the rest of the contents of a landfill will decompose, but plastic bags do not. “What are we leaving for future generations to deal with?”
Even when it breaks down into smaller pieces, those fragments leach harmful chemicals into the ground and waterways. Plastic manufacturers use an enormous amount of fossil fuels, Arensdorf said, and even though a small percentage of plastic bags are used a second time, they still end up in the landfill or as litter in farm fields that can damage farm machinery.
So far, the Grannies have received lukewarm responses from local governments, who say they are keen on continued education but express no willingness to sanction a ban or enact reduction policies, citing concerns that it could harm businesses and create unfavorable competition between retailers who provide plastic and those who don’t.
Solon’s Main Street Market owner Sam Lensing has not experienced any unfavorable consequences as a result of offering reusable bags, perhaps because plastic is still available at his checkout stands. Employee Denise Krogh said the public’s response to free reusable bags is generally positive.
“They usually take them,” she said, “but then they forget to bring them back.”
Lensing agreed.
“That’s the biggest response we don’t like to hear is, ‘oh, I have a bag but I left it at home,” Lensing said. “It’s a habit you have to be committed to.”
Lensing has been able to offer reusable bags for free because he periodically participates in an advertising campaign generated by Totes To Go, a company that promotes the use of eco-friendly canvas totes made of 100 percent recycled material, and funds the effort by selling advertising to local businesses that appear on the bags.
“It’s an easy thing to do,” said Lensing. “Except for the businesses who buy advertising, it doesn’t cost a thing. We are one of the premier spots to give these out to the public, and we’ll continue to do it in the future.”
Krogh said the reusable bags are more practical than plastic, as you can put more in them and they are much easier to carry.
“You can even wash them,” she added.
Lensing held up one of his Main Street Market reusable bags stuffed with papers and folders sitting near his desk.
“I even use one as my briefcase. ‘Sam’s man bag,’” he joked. It’s a pretty decent bag. People are less likely to throw something like this in the ditch.”
Lensing is ahead of the green streak in other ways, as his market is one of the few places that has a recycling receptacle for people to unload their unwanted plastic bags from home.
“Personally I didn’t know it was an issue because I thought everybody was recycling plastic bags,” Lensing said. “We send two bags of plastic every week back to the warehouse every week, and they forward it on to a recycling facility. We recycle grocery bags and all the plastic wrap that goes around our pallets of groceries. A couple of the pop companies are recycling too. They take their plastic with them.”
Landgrebe is somewhat heartened by the steps others are taking to reduce plastic use, but she joined the Grannies group because she knows it’s going to take major behavior changes to make a difference for the grandchildren and great-grandchildren yet to be born.
Landgrebe said her impetus to join the group was first, as a former guidance counselor in the elementary school system, she used a curriculum that taught children to take care of themselves, each other, and the environment.
Second, as an expectant grandmother, she is more aware of new children coming into the world who will have to deal with the long-lasting effects of the environmental practices we engage in today.
“Once you get involved in this movement, you ask what you can do immediately to make change happen,” Landgrebe said. Small action steps she has taken include using reusable bags, skipping plastic-wrapped products in the grocery store, no longer buying bottled water, and even things as small as not using plastic to bag produce or foregoing plastic straws in restaurants.
Landgrebe has also made a choice to frequent shops that try to reduce their own plastic consumption. When she learned of Sam’s Main Street Market’s free reusable bags, she took a photograph and posted it on Facebook, proud that her hometown grocer is doing his part.
“Once you raise your own awareness it becomes second nature to notice which businesses are making a concerted effort to reduce their use of plastic bags and offer placing recycling bins in convenient locations. You don’t have to spend a lot of time organizing a big effort. You can make a change, whatever you do. Any change in this country has always started at the grassroots level.”
And while Lensing may be in the minority of retailers making an effort to reduce the plastic leaving his store, he shrugged it off as an easy decision.
“It just seems like the right thing to do,” Lensing said.