The Nickel Effect

For as long as I can remember, there have been "grocery bags."  First they were paper, then they were also plastic, and often now you have a choice. But for the past year in Montgomery County, Maryland, you also have another choice. You pay a nickel for every bag you get from the store. But you have a choice of bringing your own reusable bags and avoiding the 5 cent charge.

The logic behind this policy is fairly evident. When bags were all "free," we bagged things wastefully and created mountains of trash. Also paper bags are made from trees and plastic bags are made from petroleum. Petroleum is a resource the world is running out of, and burning it creates gases that contribute to global warming. Cut-down trees can be replanted with seedlings and replaced over time, but we are cutting our forests much faster than we are re-growing them. Saving our wood and oil just makes sense.

The transformation in people's shopping habits during this first year of the new law has been remarkable. In the early months, few people brought bags from home and just paid the extra charges. But every 5 cent charge you paid was a reminder. You began to notice more and more people bringing their bags, and you made mental notes to do the same. When you forgot, you scolded yourself and felt stupid. As you carried your groceries out in plastic, you imagined people staring at you disapprovingly. Then you became a regular.

Social distinctions then appeared. The "better" stores have their own better bags including their branded snob appeal. Not many people are seen bringing Wal Mart bags in to shop at Whole Foods. (Bill Maher's name for Whole Foods is "Whole Paycheck.") But the new law applies everywhere and is no respecter.

I have not seen figures on the amount of wasted wood and petroleum saved by this one law in this one county, but it has to be significant. I do not know the effect if the law became a national one, but the result would have to be huge. 

Like others, I was resistant to this law at first. But in these few short months, I have become a willing supporter. Bringing my reusable bags is easy and has become second nature. I feel good about saving our resources and the impact of all the waste we used to create.

I know this is one small step, compared to all the steps that are needed to bring our lifestyles into harmony with the evident strains of our economies and environment. But it is something, and it is easy. 

Commentary Health

How Far To Guadalajara?

Guadalajara is the second largest city in Mexico, second only to Mexico City. It sits on a highland plateau at an altitude almost identical to that of Denver, making it Mexico’s “Mile High City.” As such, it is known for sunny days, cool nights, and a spring-like climate. You would think that a mile high city would be known for its clean, refreshing air. I used to think that about Denver until I learned differently. Like Denver, Guadalajara has an air pollution problem. …


Shooting At Windmills

We were driving in the Allegheny Mountains of central Pennsylvania.  Ahead on a distant ridge appeared a line of electricity generating windmills.  I suspected that the road might cross close to one of the windmills.  Having never seen one up close, I drove on.  Sure enough, there at the top of the ridge, right beside the road, stood a windmill.  I pulled off the road into a small gravel lot and beside a chain link fence with two trailers inside it.  As we got out of the car two armed guards emerged from the trailers and started walking toward us.

I am inclined to start explaining when an armed guard starts walking toward me.  I quickly explained that we had never seen one of these things before and had just stopped to look.  I kept my hands in sight and spoke in the least threatening way I know how.  The guards smiled and said that was fine.  They came down to the fence and began telling us about the windmills.  They told how much they cost and how many homes each one can power.  One guard went back to the trailer and brought us some literature.  It was all very interesting.  They explained how fast the blades turn and how there is something that keeps them from turning too fast when the wind blows too hard.  We asked lots of questions and the guards seemed to love having company and someone to appreciate the windmills.

My last question was different from the rest.  I wasn't sure if I should ask it, but I did.  "Why is it that these windmills have to have armed guards here?"

His face changed expression.  Then he told us that people had come and shot at the windmills and almost hit a technician who was working on one of them.  After that the company decided that they had to guard the windmills.  He said they hoped that someday they would not need guarding any longer.

As I asked myself why anyone would shoot a windmill, I remembered some signs I had seen down in the valley.  The signs said "NO turbines in Bedford County."  I later examined one of these signs and visited the website of the organization that sponsored them.  I expected to find something extremist and perhaps ill-informed.  Instead I found an environmentalist approach to the subject.  "Save our Allegheny ridges" is their name and slogan.  And being an environmentalist myself I have sympathy for their position.  But I also recognize the need for renewable energy to replace our dependence on the oil we are running out of and paying more and more to get.  I recognize that drilling miles deep under the oceans and in riskier and riskier places will inevitably lead to more and more disasters like the one we are now seeing.

It is strange to me that people in the Gulf region still support "drill, Baby, drill" despite the effects of the oil spill on their environment.  The lure of jobs and money is too strong, I suppose.  And if this holds true for all of us it means that we will keep moving irrationally toward ruin, despite all warnings to the contrary.  On the other hand, I do not live on the Gulf and my livelihood does not depend on the oil economy.  I wonder what my position on these issues would be if I were in their places.

I have read the "NO turbines" materials on their website and I see their side of the debate.  I've read that the North Carolina legislature is blocking any windmill building on ridges in the state.  There certainly are no easy choices to be made.

My one and only experience with one of the windmills was not unpleasant.  They are very large and they certainly detract from the beauty of the mountains.  But no more so than transmission towers and microwave relays and power plant smokestacks.  They are remarkably calm and quiet things, actually, especially being so large.  Given the alternatives, they might not be so bad.  We certainly don't need to be shooting them.

Scroll to Top