January 1st 2020, the state of Oregon banned the ubiquitous single-use “t-shirt” bag at grocery and retail stores. I heard a limited amount of grumbling before the law went into effect, but mostly, I have been watching how this new law is quickly changing habits. Shoppers and store employees seem more adaptable and amenable than I expected.
A few years ago I would have to argue for the right to carry too much loose produce in my arms to my car. When I did remember my bags, I always got the side-eye. As the offending cloth grocery bag neared them on the conveyor belt, checkers always looked at me as if I had asked them to bag up avocados in my dirty underwear. (In fairness, maybe tote bags could have come in colors other than dirty white and I could have washed them a bit more.) But no more! The gold rush age of the reuseable bag is upon us. Now it is time for our farm to take more responsibility and more action to decrease plastic use.
Background: It’s not (all) your fault. It’s the system!
When you stop and think about it, why is it the individual’s responsibility to recycle bottles, packaging, bags, etc. that companies create? Why isn’t the responsibility of a company, a larger entity with more resources, expertise and employees than you, to manage waste they manufactured? Why do we think so much about littering and recycling? Because of a highly crafted marketing campaign to make you feel responsible for trash you didn’t create.
I learned about the history of “Don’t be a litter bug” campaign from the excellent podcast Throughline. It has made me question our own practices as a family and business.
In short, the podcast argues “trash,” in some ways, is a modern idea. People were so unaccustomed to throwing anything out, beverage companies had to actively teach customers that bottles were disposable. In 1953 the “Keep America Beautiful” PSA campaign funded by beverage companies teaching us not to litter–after earlier teaching us to do just that. This was all a way to avoid having to pay for the cost of dealing with trash they created, which is now the fault and responsibility of individual consumers. This is true until today–Keep America Beautiful is still at it, telling us trash is our fault, and you can even donate to help them spread the word!
How I’m Changing Things on the Farm
Just as beverage companies should deal with the zillions of single-use plastic bottles they sell, Nella Mae’s Farm should take responsibility for the plastic we use and sell to you. This is what we’re planning to do in 2020. I hope you’ll send me ideas and feedback about what else we can do.
1. We will provide paper bags for dry produce and limited compostable “plastic bags.” This means you’ll see lots more paper lunch bags out at our farmstand and our market booth for you to use. We have also been experimenting with BioBags produce bags this winter. BioBags seem to be the best solution on the market. They compost quickly (if properly composted) and are made of non-GMO corn.
2. We will take back your plastic and compostable produce bags. Unfortunately, the BioBag is permeable and was a big fail when it came to packaging. The greens get slimy and/or wilted within a day or two. We will still use plastic produce bags for salad mix, but we will take them back at market and the farmstand and get them properly recycled or composted. (Side note: I learned from a friend that works at a lumber company that Trex decking is really, truly made of recycled plastic bags!)
3. Provide plastic free options. We will test out a self-serve salad mix bar at the market where you can bring your own bag (plastic or re-usable) to fill with salad and buy by the pound. We will test out selling salad mix in re-usable produce bags that you can bring back. Let’s see how it goes!
4. Reduce & reuse plastic use in our farming practices. It is really hard to avoid plastic irrigation parts and greenhouse covering. Plastic mulch is very helpful for suppressing weeds, but we can get by with a little weeding help from our friends.
We will re-use greenhouse plastic by making low-hoop coverings for outside growing and offer plastic for you gardeners to use. (Check out our upcoming classes where you can get some!)
We already reuse and patch old irrigation t-tape as many years as we can and then use it to trellis our tomatoes. We will offer free used t-tape to any gardener who wants it. You can probably use it in your garden because you need shorter sections than us, or use it to trellis too.
We are also buying new tools and products that are made from plants or metal–sisal twine, wooden handled-tools, and metal buckets instead of plastic. Our favorite re-use by far, though, has been the dog neck cone that we use as a funnel for pouring concrete into post holes. (Patent pending!)
5. Push for changes at the farmers market. I recently participated in a webinar on plastic at farmers markets by the Clean Fairfax Council. I learned that a single random farmer at a farmers market in Fairfax County, VA gave out 76 plastic bags in an hour during a Clean Fairfax survey. That is 10,000 bags from one vendor in a season! While farmers markets are not subject to Oregon’s single-use plastic bag ban, markets should get on board. This is a much easier sell now that shoppers are becoming accustomed to paper bags and bringing their own. I have sent a proposal to the La Grande Farmers Market to ban single use “t-shirt bags” and things we can do as a market to make things easier for vendors and shoppers.
You know what I’m going to do. Here’s what you can do.
I am always relying on customers, neighbors, friends, and family for farm support–this effort is no different. I need you!
1. Show support for banning plastic bags at the farmers market. Email me a letter expressing you support! I will share with the market, and your support will help vendors see that customers aren’t going to freak out. You can also volunteer to help us get reusable bags to shoppers. Clean Fairfax Council suggests creating a “take a bag, leave a bag” station at the market. I have also been talking to friends about having reusable bag sewing days at the market. Can you help out? Let me know!
2. Help other shoppers with our experiments. It takes a lot of time to show each individual shopper how to utilize our farmstand and market booth. Help spread the word! Tell friends and fellow shoppers, “hey, Nella Mae takes back compostable and plastic bags. Here’s where you put them.” If you see someone who looks confused about our new self-serve salad mix, help them out! If people are confused, they won’t buy and this experiment won’t work. (Please note, we will still have pre-bagged options, not just self-serve.)
If you’re really into this idea and have an hour on a Saturday, volunteer to be a guide at our market booth and help folks get the hang of things. It sounds silly, but it is really important for our business and the success of our plastic reduction efforts.
3. Help me weed! If you want some farm time, come help me weed! When we eliminate plastic weed mulch, that means more weeds to pull. After plants get established and shade the ground, it isn’t such a big deal, but until then, I could use some extra weeders!
Thanks for reading!
Your grateful farmer,