I’m a bag lady. I have bags stashed all over my house. The former shopping bag are in a cabinet under the kitchen counter: the innumerable Peapod bags (see my post on that one from last year) wadded up and awaiting re-purposing as garbage bags; an obscurely hip black paper bag with “See Artists” stenciled across it from the artists’ opening in London last summer, now empty of its weird assortment of freebies, including a ceramic tile with a stenciled fairy, and a handful of neo-Dada lapel buttons, some obscene; a shiny white bag from the Japanese Embassy, which came with a beautiful book on Japanese architecture; another black bag—clearly the color of hipness—from a trendy boutique in Chicago where under great peer pressure I bought an uncharacteristically fashionable dress (on sale); and of course, a selection of Ann Taylor and Comfort One bags, serviceable but quotidian.

In a drawer live the smaller bags that get re-purposed as lunch bags: two little Starbucks bags, each with instructions I am obviously following to save and re-use; a stiff pale blue plastic-y bag that swaddled a single lipstick from one of those specialized cosmetic stores; a stiff orange plastic-y bag from Misha’s in Old Town (coffee of the gods) which still gives a contact caffeine high; and a surprisingly robust, yet overly ornate for my taste, bag from a Thai carry-out.

Those are all technically “disposable” bags. Then there are the heaps of canvas, nylon, and other mystery fabric bags that are de rigueur at conferences and conventions. After years of a grant supporting student exchanges in North America I have a full set of Mexican, US and Canadian bags with the crests of their respective ministries of education; two handy drawstring backpacks from the Environmental Film Festival; dark blue and boxy canvas from some architectural metalwork supplier; dark blue and flat from the Graduate School at USDA and from Detail Magazine (not to be confused with Details magazine, a mistake made by one of our school librarians a few years ago who surely wondered why it was so essential that we have that subscription). The list goes on...

The most recent ones are of course in shades of green as if to signify that this isn’t just a bag to carry the product literature, free jump drive/laser pointer/ballpoint pen sets, and DVDs on drainage, no this is a Bag with which you will signify your resourcefulness. I fall for it every time. Hey, I think, that’ll come in handy. That’s why I’m so happy that the District has instituted the nickel-a-bag policy for food and drink. My bag-ness is vindicated. I’ve been lugging around the same one for a while now. It’s bright green and has nothing written on it, so only I know where it came from. If only I could remember. I also carry one of those self-storing singularities in my purse, as readers know already, and can snap it open with the speed and finesse of a geisha flipping a fan.

Five cents, though. Five. I was trying to be righteously bag-ful before and now, because I’m also cheap, I make sure I’m always prepared. But I’m what you might call highly-motivated to support such efforts. So I can’t help but wonder if a nickel is enough to change peoples’ behavior or if it will just become the new normal and cease to make any difference at all. Our entire tax structure, from the tax breaks to sin taxes is based on the assumption that each of us has an internal trigger that will change our behavior if the cost of continuing is sufficiently persuasive. Sin taxes are supposed to discourage socially questionable behavior, like smoking and drinking (watch for a fat tax soon), but is that what really keeps people from doing those things? I’ll be honest, I’ve never looked at my liquor store receipt and thought, my gosh look at the tax on wine! I better quit drinking.

On the other hand look at the price of gas. When it was at its peak—summer of 08, right when we were finalizing the Green Community text—people did cut back on driving. Yet, they have snapped back, even though it’s still high...I guess, I don’t actually pay attention, not being a driver and all...and the new normal has been reset higher. As I reflect on my own motivations and behavior, I wonder: are there penalties or taxes that would really push me to change? I’m already a bag lady, so not the nickel. Don’t own a car, so not a gas tax. General carbon tax? We keep our heat set just above where our refrigerator is set, and I’m already cheap, so, no. There are two things, though, where only my sense of green-ness currently keeps me at all focused on conservation: trash and water.

Our condo has a collective water bill, so it’s paid by our management company as a big lump sum. When one of our neighbors has a leaky pipe or faucet their only incentive to fix it is either their annoyance threshold or when the leak does sever damage to their downstairs neighbor, as has happened. Until that, the worth of water remains unknown. Same with the trash. We lug things to the dumpster and the recycling bins and every few days it all disappears and we fill them again. I would guess that no one in our building knows what it costs to dispose of our stuff, except for the officers on the board, and even they would have to look it up.

Does it really have to hurt? Are negative enforcements more powerful than positive? What if each of us who brought our own bag to the store got a nickel back, a little reward for being both resourceful and prepared? Wow, a nickel here, a nickel there...pretty soon you’re talking about a dollar. And last time I checked that was still, in fact, money.

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