Saturday, November 21, 2015

On Making Change

For decades, I've been bringing cloth bags to the grocery store to avoid using plastic bags and bringing home superfluous garbage. But for decades, it's been an annoyance for the poor cashier who had to figure out what to do with my pile of assorted sacks, and who, more often than not, would just leave all the groceries for me to sort and stuff.

In the last 3-5 years, all that has changed. Ever since they started charging for plastic bags and offering store-logo'd bags for sale at the check-out, cashiers now ASK if I have my own bags. They welcome my thread-bare sacks without hesitation. That change is nearing completion: a state in which bringing containers for groceries is the norm, and accepting plastic bags for a price is deviant. Of course we're understanding when people forget their bags; we all do it from time to time. But I can't imagine people having that same pitying reaction to "I'll need some bags too" just five years ago.

Similarly, I've avoided most paper in my classroom for years. I have a website with all my handouts and assignments, and I collect and mark all work online. I don't just do that for the environment: my course notes are clearly organized and easier for students to find than a bunch of handouts at the bottom of their knapsack. It's also much faster to mark online, and all student work is automatically organized for me. I avoid marking programs in favour of simple, straightforward Gmail, which I've been using since 2002 when I worked on a teacher's guide and was introduced to online editing. I've been using that "Review" option on word documents ever since. Now I can just search a name in my mailbox to find a list of all the work a student's submitted with my comments and rubrics attached.

With google docs available for free, some students don't see the point in buying a word program, so I accommodate that too, reluctantly. Students aren't yet adept at sharing with the right settings that enable an easy communication, and it adds an extra step of checking dates when a document is "live." But it's still easier than collecting paper copies.

And, like the shift away from plastic bags, the hard copy advocates are becoming the deviants, which makes my life so much easier. It used to be the case that I had to also provide paper copies of assignments in case students didn't like using computers, and I had to accept hard-copies of work. Now that our school board is trying to cut back paper use by 75% in the next four years (75/5 started a year ago), it's acceptable to have all work online, and students have resigned themselves to the change. Some students even complain when teachers give handouts. They used to lament having to type up their work, but now they're up in arms if they're asked to print an assignment. The shift is almost complete. Some teachers are going further to make all their tests online, but then they have to watch all the screens like a hawk for googlers (with no LanSchool for chromebooks on wifi). Paper does still have its benefits, and so far I don't feel too guilty about one paper test each unit.

This shift is handy for me. It's good for the board's bottom line (money). And it saves trees. I'm surprised there aren't pulp and paper lobby groups all over this; maybe they've had to recognize times are changing and they won't be able to stop this kind of shift. Maybe.

How I feel when I talk about reducing paper,
and how I think other people feel: Oh bother.
So it is possible to change behaviours to the extent that people are appalled or embarrassed to be asked to do something that was commonplace just a few years back. It seems to have to involve business concerns over the financial costs of wastefulness. The change in paper use wouldn't have happened without the board being concerned with the cost and amount of paper being used. One person (me) jumping up and down about it, showing off my marked essays, and putting boxes for good-on-one-side paper in every room does absolute squat to change behaviours. Now can we apply the model to other issues?

Tim Horton's sort of charges for a cup, but they do it backwards with a discount if you bring your own mug. If they reversed that and decreased their prices by ten cents, but then charged a dime for the cost of a cup, AND encouraged people to buy a mug at the checkout, I think single-use cups could be dramatically reduced.

But those are really small potatoes. Can we reduce cars (single-use vehicles) and meat consumption the same way? That's the real challenge.

Stickers on gas pumps might help. I've long suggested stickers of child slaves on free trade chocolate bars to remind us to buy fair trade*, so maybe we can get some squished animals for meat packs from factory farms (even though we can't get GMO labelling here). But all the stickers might have the effect they did on cigarette packets, which is nil.

To follow this demonstrably effective model, we need the government to put in place a firm and dramatic limit on consumption of gas and factory farmed meat; I think that 75/5 target for typical residential use might help make a change, and it could be do-able. And they'd need to offer easy alternatives to use, like increase taxes enough to obliterate bus fares, or have promotions on other ways to get protein with recipes to help people make the transition to meat only on Mondays. Except that Big Oil and Monsanto might have something to say about it all. That's a bugger.

With political will, it could be done. It would mean a couple years of grumbling, but then we might get to a place where people complain if they're actually asked to do something that requires serving meat, like the boss is coming over and expects a steak, or that requires a vehicle, like moving across town.

It could happen.


* John Oliver on Last Week Tonight also had a bit in which people could get labels to stick on food products to tell the truth about the products. I posted the video on facebook, but it has since been deleted. And all other videos with the same name have edited out the ending with the citizen re-labelling suggestion. It makes me wonder if their legal department canned it not necessarily on "copyright grounds" as he just provided downloadable stickers his staff had created, but because it inspired an effective citizen backlash.


Lorne said...

Excellent work there, Marie. Your post shows that with sufficient commitment and consistency, habits can be changed. You and your board are to be commended. As well, you should consider sending the post to either a newspaper or a teacher publication to help spread the word.

Anonymous said...

Wikis are also handy for creating and managing content. If you're a DIY sort, then setting one up is not too difficult. Certainly saves on paper print out waste. Also, if your students don't want to pay the 'Microsoft Tax', is a good alternative (and free) office suite which is compatible with Microsoft formats.

Marie Snyder said...

Thanks Lorne and Anon.