I had the delight of attending UC Davis Professor Ann Savageau’s talk about her Bags Across the Globe project at the exhibit opening on Sunday. The talk was well-attended and there was a lively question and answer session afterwards with both Prof. Savageau and Assemblywoman Julia Brownley, the legislator who authored Assembly Bill 1998 to ban single-use plastic bags. Rep. Brownley told the audience how the bill had a wide support base until a heavy lobbying effort, funded by the American Chemistry Council, halted passage in the California Senate, and she discussed current policy and legislative efforts to restrict single-use plastic bags, from local levels to international efforts.
Here are a few things I was struck by from Prof. Savageau’s talk and installation:
Bags are “invented extensions of ourselves; a pouch for us since we don’t have one on our bodies.” As soon as she said that, I thought, oh, yes, and how interesting! Bags are external to our bodies, which makes it easier for us to be detached from consequences associated with their use. Similarly, pollution is frequently external, and even hidden, to our daily lives.
Economics describes externalities as aspects of production or consumption that are not accounted for in the prices of goods because those costs or benefits are shifted from the direct producers and consumers. (A classic example of an externality is air pollution emitted from a coal-burning utility plant, which shifts the burden of air pollution costs to society-at-large.). Many of our processes and designs result in externalities and unintended consequences. The single-use plastic bag is riddled with these issues, as Savageau described in her talk.
Savageau noted that bags have been part of our survival, especially in hunter-gatherer societies. It’s an unpleasant truth that single-use plastic bags, one of the “major players in global trash,” are detrimental to the survival of other species, such as marine turtles or Arabian desert wildlife that eat them. An affecting sight in the exhibit is a bezoar of calcified plastic debris from the stomach of a camel killed by the bezoar.
As Savageau explained, the plastic bag is really quite new: In the mid-1970s, the filmy no-handle plastic bag so commonly used for veggies at the supermarket was introduced, and in the mid-1980s, the “T-shirt” style bag with handles that is ubiquitous (an estimated 1 trillion used globally every year; 19 billion in California) was introduced. It seems that the combination of “free” and convenient made the spread of the plastic bag an irresistible force.
Savageau walks the philosophical path of others like architect William McDonough in pointing out that we have designed ourselves into these situations with “dumb design” and we can design ourselves back out of them. We start with acknowledging how we are each implicated in the “tiny, incremental harm” we commit when we externalize the negative aspects of our actions. And we find the benefits and pleasures in taking more sustainable actions. So it was a joy to see all the kinds of beautiful and interesting reusable bags, made from repurposed and reused materials, which have been created as a result of Prof. Savageau’s project.
The exhibit shows us how to take action, lets us pledge to take action, and even provides the crafters among us with a pattern to make a shopping bag! For those who aren’t nimble with a thimble, you can buy a one-of-a-kind bag from Design students who make and sell them as a fundraiser for their Runway Designers Club (email them at email@example.com).
With clever, beautiful bags like those made by the Runway Designers Club students, maybe there will be another rapid adoption of convenient bags, but this time they’ll be reusable, unique and work towards eliminating the externalized pollution of the single-use plastic bag.
Enjoy the exhibit through March 11 at the Design Museum, 145 Walker Hall. Hours are noon-4:00 p.m. Monday-Friday and 2:00-4:00 p.m. Sunday.
Captions, beginning with top photo: Attendees at BAG exhibit opening, January 23, UC Davis Design Museum. Middle: Attendee looking at bezoar of plastic debris from camel’s stomach, BAG exhibit opening.