Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Why Resuables Make The Green Miles Feel Like Johnny Appleseed

Confusion reigned from the moment I handed my reusable grocery bag to the bagger at my local Harris Teeter recently. First she tried handing it to the customer who’d just checked out, thinking it was something they’d dropped. Then she just set it aside, clearly having no idea what it was, and started putting my groceries into standard plastic bags. Finally, the cashier turned to her and explained how the reusable bag worked.

Incidents like that make me feel like the Johnny Appleseed of reusables, spreading the word about reusables whereever I go. And sure, that's cool, but on the other hand, it would be nice to sport reusables without having it be a major production.

Granted, I’ve used my reusable bag many times at Harris Teeter with no problems, and it was obviously a new bagger, but the situation illustrates one of the sticking points as reusable items are introduced. Service employees have to be trained to use the new items, even if that training is only a quick explanation from the senior cashier. That training may come from the employer or the customer, but until employees more universally recognize reusables, it can make the process a pain in the neck for the customer.

Another example came just yesterday as I flew back from San Francisco on United Airlines. The Green Miles travels with his handy
ACE/Daily Grind reusable coffee mug because:
- Conservationally, it saves me from having to use somewhere around five paper coffee cups and plastic water bottles per trip
- Conveniently, I don’t have to worry about tracking down a recycling bin for any plastic water bottles I would’ve used
- Socially, at events like the Society of Environmental Journalists conference it
Nuke LaLoosh-style announces my presence with authority as a green mack daddy
I got it filled with coffee at a shop in the airport, then on the plane, asked the flight attendant to fill it with soda. It had worked fine on the flight out, but just like the grocery bagger, this flight attendant was definitely unclear on the concept. She saw my mug and said, “Oh here, I’ll give you the cup of ice and the can of soda and you can fill it yourself.” She thought she was being helpful. Not so much.

At that point, any hope of conserving a plastic cup had been lost, so I dumped the ice into my mug and gave the cup back to her, which she threw out. So instead of the usual two containers (plastic cup and soda can), we used three (cup, can, mug). This is progress? At least I was able to recycle the can in the terminal thanks to
Dulles’ new recycling bins.

If a product is a pain to use, people will stop using it. (I know, I missed my true calling in marketing, didn’t I?) It’s something we well-meaning conservationists need to keep in mind as we push reusables like grocery bags, coffee mugs, and water bottles. The early adopters should be prepared for minor hassles like the ones described above. But really, they’re minor inconveniences when you know you’re breaking the resource-container-landfill cycle, don’t you think?
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