a peek inside the fishbowl

25 Apr, 2019

Normalizing environmentally-friendly behaviours

Posted by andrea tomkins in: Oh! Things!|Yaktivism

When I was 18 I visited family in the Czech Republic for the first time. It wasn’t long after the Berlin wall had come down. I never expected to be able to go there, back to the motherland, but I did. I stayed with my grandmother, my mother’s mother, who lived in Prague. I remember going grocery shopping together, shocked at the differences between here and there. Here we have nearly endless food choices: An aisle of condiments, for example, or twenty different types of bread, or a wall of fridges with an ocean of dairy products. Here we have almost any kind of fruit or vegetable you want. Not there. There, you were lucky if there were bananas. (BANANAS.) There, the milk was packaged in waxed cardboard boxes. There, you bought what was available and didn’t complain. No one cared. The other big difference was that you didn’t get a grocery bag when you checked out. I was really surprised by this. Isn’t this what was supposed to happen when bought something? Aren’t grocery bags practically a sacred right?

They are not. Not there. My grandma simply pulled out some netted bags from her purse. The bags were perfectly ordinary. The situation was perfectly ordinary. If you didn’t bring your own bag, well, tough bananas for you, dear shopper.

This was long before stores here in Ottawa started charging for grocery bags. Many people were incensed when that happend. They saw it as a way for stores to make more money off of them, instead of seeing it for what it was, a subtle way to change peoples’ habits. I see it as a very tiny fine or tax. You forget your bags? You pay the idiot tax. It’s small enough to be almost meaningless, large enough to be annoying and prompt you to grab those bags as you leave the house.

Somewhere along the way, the act of bringing our own bags became normal. What has helped this along is seeing other people bring their own bags. There comes a point in which the act of bringing your own bags reaches a critical mass and a tipping point happens. Suddenly the act of bringing bags isn’t seen as something crazy, but just… normal and ordinary.

I remember seeing a rough and tough middle-aged construction worker amble through the Farm Boy parking lot with a reusuable bag in hand. It struck me. If HE is doing it, this bag thing is catching on.

I can think of a lot of environmental behaviours that have changed over the last dozen years or so. And I think one of the big reason for this change in behaviours is that we talk about them and see others doing them, so we do them too.

– Composting is normal, whether it’s through the Ottawa green bin program or with backyard composters.
– Weedy lawns are normal. It’s no longer de rigeur to spray the crap out of our lawns with pesticides and herbicides. In fact, an increasing number of front lawns are being turned into flower and vegetable gardens.
– Recycling is normal. I see overflowing blue bins (plastic and glass) as well as black bins (for paper). As a kid we used to stuff our fallen leaves in giant orange garbage bags and put them out by the curb on garbage day. They are still in a landfill somewhere.
– Second-hand shops are normal. There used to be a stigma associated with anything second-hand, that is, unless it was deemed to be an antique.
– More people are choosing to ride their bikes for their work commute. I’ve never seen so many people riding their bikes in the winter and the off-season(s) here in Ottawa! I think this is pretty cool.
– I’m seeing more hybrid and electric vehicles.
– CSAs, farmers’ markets, local produce, home gardens, and preserving and pickling are more popular than ever before.

These things all have something in common: (a) they’re good for the environment (b) they used to be the domain of “crazy people,” or should I say, long-haired Birkenstock-wearing eco-nerds. I recall this vividly in the 1980s. The very idea of people bringing their own cloth grocery bags or tying up stacks of newspapers to bring to the recycling depot was seen as something weird, almost distasteful. Now those things are commonplace. It’s cool to care! Of course, we can’t honestly say that ALL people do the things I’ve listed above. There are still people out there who drive a Hummer, refuse to use their green bins, and happily douse their lawns with poison so that their grass remains pristine and dandelion-free, but those people are slowly going the way of the dodo. After all, we didn’t inherit the earth, we’re just borrowing it for awhile.

So when I handed Mark a bread bag to use when he was going on a bagel run this past weekend, I was already expecting the look he was going to give me, the THIS IS GOING TO BE WEIRD face.

I had just tried using this same bread bag at a local bakery and failed. I held the bag out to the person behind the counter and asked her to put the loaf I had requested into it. She obviously misunderstood, because before I knew it she was sliding my lovely country sourdough into a plastic bag and putting THAT into the bread bag. Sigh.

As for the bagels, Mark was successful. No plastic bags or slip-ups to report, and no weird looks, just a lot of fresh bagels. We had friends over for brunch so we ate most of them. The rest were sliced up and went into a resealable bag I keep in the freezer for this purpose.

So how do we normalize “greener” behaviours? We just do them, and keep doing them, and talk about them, and share them.


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My name is Andrea and I live in the Westboro area of Ottawa with my husband Mark. We have two daughters: Emma (19) and Sarah (17). I am the managing editor of our community newspaper, the Kitchissippi Times. I am a longtime Ottawa blogger and I've occupied this little corner of the WWW since 1999. The Fishbowl is my whiteboard, water cooler, and journal, all rolled into one. I'm passionate about healthy living, arts and culture, family travel, great gear, good food, and sharing the best of Ottawa for families. I also love vegetables, photography, gadgets, and great design.

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