An incident at my local Wal-Mart the other day really made me meditate about where America is in terms of thinking green.
After completing my weekly grocery shopping this past weekend, I found myself standing behind several people at the check-out counter. It was Sunday, so accepted my fate and waited patiently, sandwiched between two rows of impulse-buy items.
Normally, I would be distracted by Almond Joy and Jack Link's Beef Jerky, but for some reason, my eyes wandered to the bottom row, where there were attractive, blue, reusable cloth bags for 50 cents a piece.
I had never really noticed them before, but after looking at them, I thought about the dozen or so plastic bags I use each week for the 15-minute ride home, and throw away shortly after. I figured I could pack twice as many groceries into the cloth bags than the plastic bags, and by so doing, I would be doing my part to reduce America's dependency on petroleum products. Convinced, I put three cloth bags on the conveyor belt in front of my groceries.
What happened next, though, made my brain implode a little. The clerk picked up my three reusable bags, rang them up, and proceeded to shove them into a plastic bag along with the rest of my groceries.
I didn't ask her to re-pack my groceries because so many other people were waiting behind me and I didn't want to make a scene. Also, while I have my concerns about the environment, I didn't necessarily want to look like a New Balance-sneaker-wearing, Prius-driving, hemp-necklace-sporting, Planeteer.
After leaving the store and re-packing my own groceries, I realized why people in America don't recycle. Part of the reason is mindless, comfortable repetition. The other part of it is that America, knowingly, or unknowingly, goes out of its way to make environmentally conscious people feel silly about being environmentally conscious.
Consider the hybrid car market. I would love to replace my 1992 Mercury Grand Marquis "street boat" with a sleek, mid-size hybrid vehicle that gets 50 miles per gallon. However, most of the hybrid cars on the road are space-age, box-looking, concept cars, rather than cool, stylish cars that blend in with the rest of traffic.
Not everybody feels the need to express what they believe with bumper stickers, nor does everybody like to wear their political and religious beliefs on their sleeves. Why should a person making a conscious decision about lessening his or her impact on the environment have to stand out and risk being the subject of ridicule? It's the equivalent of making someone wear clown shoes to deliver their recyclables.
I think there has been a lot of effort in the past few years on the part of retailers to make it "cooler" to recycle and re-use. It's a noble gesture, but to be effective, retailers need to convince consumers that recycling is not only the right thing to do, but the normal thing to do.
In the supermarket, perhaps it will take making people pay for their plastic bags to make them less apathetic about using cloth bags. In the auto market, perhaps engineers need to design affordable, hybrid and electric vehicles that look like regular cars to everyone else.
Making the choices available is one thing, but a little bit of encouragement also goes a long way. No one wants to feel like they have to take a stand when they are doing something as mundane and essential as grocery shopping. When businesses really start thinking green, it will brush off on the general public.
Joel Hall covers government and politics for the Clayton News Daily. He can be reached via e-mail at Jhall@news-daily.com.