Is It Ever Possible to Suggest People Change?

Peter was buying tomatoes on the vine at the Ashland Food Co-op. He stuffed them in a plastic bag and deftly twisted it shut.

“You know, you don’t really need a bag for those,” I suggested with a smile.

“Oh Yes I Do.” Peter was categorical. A friend of my husband’s and foodie from the north of England, Peter seemed like the kind of Gen Y guy who would be open to critiquing American culture, which is the only reason I was brave enough to say something.

It drives me crazy how Americans, even the hippie progressive types who shop at the Co-op, shove one banana or a half dozen grapefruit in a plastic produce bag.

The bags aren’t necessary.

They fill up the landfills.

The ones conventionally made off-gas.

But we don’t think twice about wrapping our food in “throw-away” (this is a misnomer since it doesn’t actually go anyway anywhere) endocrine-disrupting plastic.

Do I sound shrill? I don’t mean to. But honestly it’s just as easy NOT to use the bags. You can put your fruits and vegetables directly into your cart. I’ve even bought Brussels sprouts that way.

“I use them for sandwiches,” Peter snipped.

He sounded miffed.

I felt guilty. It’s none of my business how he shops and I have no right to make suggestions. I usually hold my tongue. I had only mentioned it to Peter because I thought he would be receptive. I spent the next hour obsessing over our exchange, worrying that I had hurt his feelings, wondering if I had overstepped.

I could write Peter a note of apology and buy him one of those nifty washable stainless steel sandwich containers. I could have James deliver it to his work since he’ll be less snippy with James. I could–

“When I was at St John’s I always took a disposable cup of coffee from the dining hall,” James said when I told him about talking to Peter and how bad I felt about the exchange. “I grew up that way. I never thought about it.” James poured boiling water in the French press as he spoke.

“Then one day Oliver and another friend cornered me in the cafeteria and asked me why I always used a disposable cup.”

“Did you get mad?”

“Ut uh. I thought it was a good question and it stumped me. Why did I do that? So I went out and got this.” He rummaged around on the shelf and pulled out a handleless black glazed Japanese mug. “I used it for the rest of college. It’s still my favorite cup for coffee.”

James appreciated the criticism, examined what he had not realized was a bad habit, and changed. When our friend Brian told us about the dangers of microwaves six years ago and all the reasons not to use them, James and I both researched it and we decided to give our microwave away. When I read about how conventional cleaning products can poison small children ten years ago, I gave three buckets full to our neighbor (it’s amazing to me that I ever owned three buckets worth of cleaning products) and started using vinegar and baking soda.

When someone tells me something that I have a knee jerk negative reaction to (like lotus birth or eating calf brains), I try to think about why I’m responding with emotion and I try to open my mind to finding out more about it.

It’s really hard to do that and I fear I’m as defensive as the next person. Or I just react negatively and push the idea out of my mind, ignoring it instead of learning more.

Emory University professor Mark Bauerlein, to inspire his students to write more thoughtfully and carefully, used to remind them that writing is a habit and a habit is something you do without thinking.

We all have a lot of bad habits.

But some–like the overuse of plastic produce bags or idling the car–make such a quantifiable and negative impact on the environment on a daily basis and are so easy and simple to change.

Even if Peter doesn’t think so.

Do you think I was wrong in talking to Peter about using plastic produce bags? Do you ever make gentle (or strident) suggestions to friends or family about ways they can change? Are you open to others suggesting ways you can be more environmentally conscious in how you live your life? Do you think I’m a shrill bitch or do you think we really do need to stop our bad habits to reverse global warming before it’s too late? Am I asking you too many questions? I can’t wait to read your thoughts!

Related Post: What Descartes Taught Me About Froot Loops

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18 thoughts on “Is It Ever Possible to Suggest People Change?”

  1. On the one hand, it’s related to how the message is delivered. On the other hand, it’s related to where the person is, receptivity-wise, when they hear what you have to say. Perhaps you could have said, “That’s funny, I don’t use plastic bags for my tomatoes, or bananas, but lots of people do!” and then see where the conversation goes. It could still end up not resulting in the desired outcome. You never know.

    Also, I wonder if the Co-op could think more about how they want to encourage customers to carry produce to the register. Maybe it could put up some signs reminding people to think it through–do they really need that bag?

    I just got a tester product in called Flip and Tumble bags. They’re reusable, very fine mesh. Your friend could use them both for his tomatoes AND his sandwiches. Want me to send you one?


  2. I don’t necessarily think you were wrong, you might have just gone about it in a different way. Maybe say something to the effect of, “I’m glad I just saw you grab those tomatoes. You reminded me that I saw these great washable, zippered net bags the other day. They’d be great to use instead of plastic. I think I’m going to start bringing those along to the store.”

    I’m always open to new ideas, but I’m not always pleased with how people present them to me. When presented as a negative criticism, I tend to roll my eyes. I may still consider the suggestion, but I wouldn’t give the suggester the satisfaction of knowing I changed my behavior based on h/her suggestion.

    I find it’s easier to get people to change their behaviors when I consistently demonstrate what I want to see from them. Takes a little longer, but the decision to change comes more from their personal evolution than my suggestions/badgering/embarrassing them into changing.

    JMO – Enjoyed the piece.

    .-= Diane´s last blog ..Write the right words- and make them real =-.

  3. I’m one of those knuckleheads who puts a single tomato in a plastic bag… it never even occurred to me that I could just put in the cart. I guess I’ll have to start rethinking how I shop…

  4. I think a lot of it depends on your relationship with the person and the tone in which you make the suggestion.

    For example, my sister-in-law and I are both moderately crunchy moms trying to live more crunchy lives, within the confines of a small city that doesn’t offer a ton of options (no health food store, no public transportation etc)

    Because I know she is learning and doing her best and she knows the same about me, if I made a suggestion like that “Did you know you can…” or “Did you know you don’t have to…” she would take it in the spirit it was suggested. Maybe she’d feel differently if her perception of me was this eco-goddess who never screwed up, or if she was less interested in being environmentally friendly. But since we are so equal in that way and know each other so well, it would be fine.

    But I can think of other friends who wouldn’t take it the same way–they would think I was judging; or they just wouldn’t care, in which case I guess I would be judging a little. Either way it wouldn’t go well.

    The plastic bag for produce thing is a great example though of how conditioned we can be. I just recently started not putting my produce into plastic bags. The first few times I really didn’t know if I COULD do that. I wondered if the cashier would be able to weigh several loose pears at once, or if the produce would roll all over the inside of the cart or fall off the conveyor belt or….

    Shopping at the farmer’s market or farm stands help allay those fears as everything is pre-weighed and we can just dump it in my own canvas bag.

    Still, I’m far, far from perfect. I still wrap (yes, disposable) diapers into those plastic bags sometimes, so I need to have a few on hand, and too often I forget my huge pile of cloth grocery bags at home when I shop. I opt for paper in that case, not really knowing if it’s a better choice…maybe it is only in that fewer people use paper these days, so at least it’s not adding to the over-abundance of plastic. I keep taking little steps and I believe that the general, not-so-crunchy public doing exactly that is what’s going to get us “there”.

  5. Candace, I would love one of those tester bags. If you send it, I will give it to Peter (oh god, he might never talk to me again. Okay, I’ll give it to James to give to Peter). Maybe he’ll even weigh in on what he thinks of it and I can report back on the blog? That would be a lot of fun!
    .-= Jennifer Margulis´s last blog ..Shakespeare- and Good Eats in Ashland- Oregon =-.

  6. AAARG! You unwittingly stumbled on an ongoing argument between my husband and I. I DETEST those plastic produce bags and simply will not use them. DH always used to come home with them because he was worried the produce would “get dirty”. (No, of COURSE that makes no sense. It’s a DH-thing I guess).

    These reusable bags are wonderful. Jennifer, maybe you could gift your British friend with something similar?

  7. Are you my husband writing under a nom de plume? If so, please pick up the dry cleaning on the way home! 🙂

  8. You may not have convinced Peter, but you convinced me — I’ve never used those bags for things like bananas and grapefruit, but with produce items that have edible skin, I have. Now I’ll definitely be mindful of it!

  9. I’ve been thinking of sewing some produce bags from some old net curtains I took down as soon as we moved into this house. I should really get on that.
    .-= Melanie´s last blog ..Dalek Compost Bin =-.

  10. I’m trying to remember to bring my old plastic produce bags with me when I shop. To remember, I put them in my basket. I’ve gotten pretty good at bringing the basket. People always admire it. I tell them where they can find one too, cheap.

    I understand why you approached Peter. I often bite my tongue in similar occasions. Actually, I have taken to suggesting to store clerks that they ask whether I want a bag in the hope they will ask others. Now many do when they see me. So, I say, “Thank you for asking if I want a plastic bag. I don’t because they are bad for the environment. Have you seen those photos of the poor seagulls who swallow plastic and their tummies are full of it?” It’s a way of spreading the word without being obnoxious.
    .-= Alexandra´s last blog ..T-Shirts- Anyone =-.

  11. I saw those mesh produce bags mentioned in the first comment in a magazine and am going to buy them. It is silly to use reusable grocery bags and then fill them with plastic produce bags!

  12. This is a bit off topic but here is my question:

    I’m wondering why you gave your microwave away and why you gave your cleaning products away to someone else if they are so bad?

    Shouldn’t you try to protect others and NOT give those away? 🙂


  13. Rachel,

    You are so right, of course. We gave the cleaning products to a single friend. We mentioned all the reasons why we didn’t want them in the house and why we didn’t think they were good and he said he’d be glad to take them anyway. I was worried, too, about how to dispose of them in an environmentally friendly way. I did feel guilty about giving them to David but he insisted he was happy to take them and he would just go buy them if we didn’t give them ours.

    The microwave also went to a neighbor with no children. Hers had just broke and she was planning to buy a new one. Again, I wondered how to dispose of it (ours was very new and it seemed like a waste to throw it away) and Rabbit was glad to take it off our hands.

    I still don’t know of the best way to dispose of hazardous cleaning products or a big piece of electronic equipment like a microwave. Maybe someone else has advice about that?
    .-= Jennifer Margulis´s last blog ..An Exclusive Interview with Frugal Kiwi =-.

  14. No, I think you should have said something! Because you know what? Sometimes people do things out of habit, without thinking of the consequences. By mentioning it to him, you may have at least made him think about the possibilities!
    .-= Kris Bordessa´s last blog ..Being Party to a Chant =-.

  15. 🙂 Yea, that’s good to recycle the equipment especially if someone is just going to buy it anyways.

    I’m also interested how to properly dispose of chemicals. I have no idea what the “best” method is.

  16. We have heavy canvas bags that we use for shopping, but it’s true, we often don’t remember to take them out of the closet. And they get dirty too, and then washing them and waiting for them to dry adds to their not getting used. And yes, the plastic produce bags are so convenient, it’s hard to stop using them! One of your readers above suggested reusable mesh bags, and I just ordered some — they look great and seem like they’ll be quick to wash and dry, and don’t look like they’ll add a lot of weight when they’re weighing our produce at the checkout. Thanks for the suggestion — looking forward to using them!

    As for getting people to stop using those plastic produce bags, would the co-op be open to putting a little sign up next to the bags, saying something like, “Do you really need this bag? You’re welcome to put produce directly into your cart.” Or maybe they could be convinced to get rid of the bags completely (although they might fear that people who like them might stop shopping there if they are not available?). If I saw a sign next to the bags, I would likely think twice and opt not to use them.

    As for your comment to your friend, I think it’s OK to make the suggestion and just know that some people will be open to it and some people won’t be…. Another way to approach it may be to put the “action” on someone else — for example, maybe, “I’ve found that the checkout people here are really good about weighing loose produce, so I’ve been skipping the plastic produce bags!” Then he gets the hint that you’re saying, “You don’t need that bag” without actually putting the “You” in the sentence….

  17. Often if you buy a 5lb bag of onions or some fruits they come in a mesh bag. I save these bags and use them for my produce – reusing instead of buying something new!

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