In the current climate of environmental do-goodism, there are two kinds of people.
One is Robert, a portly man loading five plastic bags filled with food into his Chevy Tahoe SUV in the parking lot of the Fresh Market, the upscale grocery store in Coconut Grove. His ginormous white vehicle still sports Montana plates — even though he moved to Florida long ago — and he is proud to say he carries a chainsaw in the truck.
Told that Miami might follow eco-crazed San Francisco and prohibit use of plastic bags at grocery stores, he rolls his eyes. "Why should they be banned?' he snorts.
Environmental concerns, petroleum, manatees, birds, you know.
"So?" he spits. Then he and his blond companion roar off in their 13-mile-per gallon SUV.
Then there's Marc Sarnoff, a Miami city commissioner who represents the neighborhood where Robert gas-guzzles. This month he plans to float four green proposals before the commission: ban all leafleting in the city, ask county leaders to require that all taxis be hybrid vehicles, stop city government from buying bottled water, and prohibit grocery stores from using plastic bags. He also bought 3000 canvas shopping bags for his constituents. "Miami's a town of ultimate convenience and ultimate consumerism," Sarnoff says. "Let's break the mold a little bit."
The most controversial proposal could be the plastic bag ban. It's unlikely that other commissioners, much less the business community, will support it.
India, Australia, and even genocide-plagued Rwanda prohibit the bags. San Francisco's ban, passed in March and soon to take effect, requires large supermarkets to offer customers bags made of recyclable paper, plastic that breaks down easily enough to be made into compost, or reusable cloth.
Plastic bags, which are made from petroleum, take up to 1000 years to decompose. They strangle or suffocate tens of thousands of turtles, fish, and birds each year. Americans use about 100 billion of them annually. It takes about 122 million gallons of oil to make the disposable totes.
Now — along with Miami — Santa Cruz, Baltimore, Austin, Annapolis, Philadelphia, and London are all considering banning or taxing the bags.
The hardest sell might be in Miami. We're a notoriously apathetic and trashy city. Every April, volunteers sweep 30 tons of garbage from the Biscayne Bay shoreline during Baynanza — and much of that is nonbiodegradable plastic. We're ranked 314 out of 359 metro areas for use of energy-efficient light bulbs. And earlier this year, Washington, D.C.-based Earth Day Network ranked Miami 71st out of 72 large cities, based on "overall goodness of environmental indicators."
Only Detroit fared worse.
Perhaps the biggest hurdle in Sarnoff's plastic bag crusade will be in the checkout lanes of Miami's largest stores, where robotic baggers place one lonely item in one plastic bag and then double-bag it for good measure. Even when people bring their own totes, it's often awkward to convince baggers to use them — sometimes they try to put the canvas bag inside a plastic one.
"You get looked at like you're nuts," says 31-year-old Andrew Nienaber, a red-beard, shaved-head transplant from California. He keeps six canvas totes in his Toyota truck. On a recent night, he gently loads some sushi into a tan cloth bag at the checkout at the Publix on Biscayne Boulevard at NE 50th Street. He began using the reusable bags a year ago, after a cabinet in his kitchen overflowed with hundreds of plastic bags from past shopping trips. "It was getting stupid. What a ridiculous waste," he says.
Nearby, Samantha Kruse fills a dozen plastic bags with sushi, juice, spinach, and other goodies. "If they banned plastic, it would make for a greener Miami," says the 24-year-old raven-haired beauty. She reuses the bags at home. "Kitty litter," she says. She'd love to start using canvas totes. "If they had some here, I'm sure we'd buy them," she adds.
As a matter of fact, Publix does carry them, roomy green ones for $1.49 each. But they are hidden amid the flotsam at the checkout counter, including one stash wedged next to a rack of butterscotch confections and tubs of cotton candy.
It's lunch hour on a recent Friday at Coconut Grove's Fresh Market — a store that pipes in soothing classical piano music and offers everything from organic broccoli to 82 percent organic cacao candy bars at five dollars a pop — and 14 of 15 shoppers counted are using plastic bags. No one is spotted carrying a paper bag, which is at least biodegradable.
One person has canvas totes — and she's a holistic health practitioner driving a Prius hybrid. "I'm trying to avoid plastic as much as possible," says Christine Davies, age 61, as she loads her four bright green canvas sacks into the Prius. "A plastic bag ban would be great, but I don't know how it's going to go down here."
Most of the other shoppers are like June McNicoll, a 51-year-old horticulturalist. She walks past the fall pumpkin display erected outside the store's exit, toting a few items in three plastic bags. McNicoll is a little embarrassed to be asked about the bags; she doesn't like the idea of using trees for bags, but knows plastic is bad for the environment. "I do have a canvas bag at home," she comments sheepishly. "I know I should bring it to the store. It's a free one — I got from a pledge on National Public Radio."
Things aren't much better across town at the Shoppes at Liberty City strip mall on NW 54th Street, where three deflated and dirty bags soggily litter the parking lot. Ronnie, a 47-year-old with a big smile, isn't aware of the petroleum connection to the fistful of bags in his right hand. Asked whether people should bring their own canvas bags to the store, he shakes his head. "No, people would be stealing if they brought they own bags," he says.
Ronnie backs Sarnoff's bag ban, however. "I'm down with it. Anything for the environment — hey, anything to keep us here."
Nearby, a large 48-year-old woman named Jay loads 27 plastic bags filled with trays of frozen food, gallon juice jugs, and canned beans into the trunk of a Toyota. "Plastic's convenient for me. I reuse them for garbage bags and to put Pampers in," she says. She is incredulous that someone would even consider banning plastic. "What else are we gonna use?" she wonders.
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Paper bags aren't an option, she says, because they attract roaches at home. And she doesn't like the idea of shelling out cash for canvas bags when the plastic ones are free. As far as the environmental benefits of canvas bags, Jay is skeptical. "The plastic is good enough," she says.
Publix, the state's largest grocery chain, could be a leader on this issue — but isn't. Maria Brous, a spokeswoman for the company, sidesteps the issue on whether Publix would encourage or even support a ban on bags in Miami. "Obviously we follow all local ordinances," she says. "But our job is to serve the customer." The idea of charging for plastic bags — something that international furniture giant IKEA does — isn't on the horizon for Publix.
She points out that Publix offers bag recycling outside its stores. But at the Biscayne and NE 50th Street location, the green bins are either empty or filled with trash.
Sarnoff admits it will be a struggle to wean people off plastic. His fellow commissioners aren't very enthusiastic about the ban. And he acknowledges he isn't much of an eco-leader. He uses plastic bags. He drives a BMW X5 SUV (but he has ordered a tiny Smart Car). And he drinks Evian water (in plastic bottles) by the case. Even before proposing the ordinance, he is exasperated by the anticipated opposition. "Maybe we can't ban plastic bags. But we can talk about it."