Hi, my name is Doug.
I write little essays about faith and life.
I also laugh at my own jokes and correct other people's grammar.
I'm far from perfect.
This is my blog.

The moral urgency of “plastic or paper?”

Here’s my August column for the Holland Sentinel:

“Paper or plastic?” the person at the grocery cash register asked, without looking up (or saying hello).

“I brought my own bags,” I said, proudly, holding them up for her to see. And with that, of course, she looked up—to get a good look at the tree-hugging Green Panther standing in front of her.

I’ll never know if I fit her image of an environmentalist, because she quickly looked down again and began to scan my items before placing them in my reusable bags.

The problem with our use of plastic is not hard to describe. Every year eight million tons of plastic enter our oceans in the form of trash. The “Great Pacific Garbage Patch,” also known as “the Pacific trash vortex,” which contains mostly plastic but other trash as well, covers a vast area—with estimates ranging from 270,000 square miles (the size of Texas) to 5,800,000 square miles (the size of Russia). “Alarming” is not the word I would choose to describe this situation, but it’s a good start.

So, I wonder, wouldn’t a ban on the use of plastic bags at grocery stores be a good first step to take, in the same category, I suppose, as banning plastic straws in restaurants? Why are we not doing this?

As it turns out—and I was surprised to learn this—enough states have already banned the use of plastic grocery bags, including California and New York, that the result of taking this action is now more or less known. Studies show that in cities and states where bans have been enacted, there was an unintended consequence—namely, that the sale of plastic trash bags increased dramatically. The sale of the four-gallon trash bag, for example, increased 120 percent after the bans were enacted.

Why? Turns out that people who used plastic grocery bags to line their garbage cans or to pick up after their dogs still needed bags. And—get this— trash bags are significantly thicker than grocery bags, so about 30 percent of the plastic that was eliminated by the ban comes back in the form of thicker garbage bags, which are even worse for the environment.

Then, what about paper bags? Once again, the reality is a bit more complicated. The studies just cited show that paper bags can be even worse for the environment than plastic bags. They require the cutting down and processing of trees, for example, which involves lots of water, toxic chemicals, fuel, and heavy machinery. While paper is biodegradable and avoids some of the problems of plastic, the huge increase in paper use, plus the uptick in use of plastic trash bags, actually results in an increase in greenhouse gas emissions.

You can imagine how discouraged I was at this point in my reading, but I decided that I might be on to something by taking my own reusable bags to the grocery store. I lived in Europe for a few years, and I quickly learned that I needed to furnish my own bags when I reached the check-out line with my cartful of groceries. The bags I bought then are the bags I’m using today. One of them even has a nice Swiss flag on the side. Certainly, I thought, this would be a possible solution to our plastic bag problem.

But sadly, no. Still another study, this time by the government in the U.K., determined that I would have to use my beloved cloth bags 131 times to reduce its global–warming potential below that of plastic grocery bags used only once. To have less impact on climate than plastic grocery bags which are used a second time—to line the garbage can or pick up after the dog—I would need to use my cloth bag 327 times.

All of this is discouraging, as you can imagine. I try to do the right thing. I love the planet and want to do all I can to preserve it for my children and grandchildren. Switzerland, the country where I once lived, makes the care of its mountains, lakes, and forests a national priority, and the result is obvious to anyone who visits. With one of the world’s highest per capita GDPs, it’s hard to argue that this priority is holding Switzerland back economically. I wish my own country would do something similar.

Beyond that, my faith compels me to be a good steward of what God has created. The command is found as early as the second chapter of the Bible. The human, we read, is told to “keep” the garden, a command that’s hard to ignore. But figuring out how to keep the garden, I’ve discovered, isn’t always clear.

Frankly, I wish that the “paper or plastic” question would have more of a moral urgency than it does, that more of us realized how our choices have consequences. I can’t be the only one who is concerned.

Comments { 2 }

Living with meaning and purpose

Here is my July column for the Holland Sentinel…

I’m still not sure how it happened, but one day I woke up and, curiously, I was retired. Of course I had planned for it, as much as it’s possible to plan for something like retirement. And I recognize that not everyone gets to choose the actual date and get ready for it. So, I am grateful for that.

Continue Reading →
Comments { 1 }

Not going to church anymore

Here’s my Holland Sentinel column for June:

I don’t go to church much anymore, and haven’t attended regularly since 1980, when I stopped being a church member altogether.

I have mostly good memories of going to church, with my parents and my sisters, but for most of my adult life I have worked on Sundays.

Continue Reading →
Comments { 6 }

Dachau and the Result of Hatred, Racism and Bigotry

Here’s my May column for the Holland Sentinel:

Before leaving Europe and moving back to the United States, my wife and I had in mind one last tourist destination. We had visited all of the cathedrals, museums and battle fields it was humanly possible to see during the four years we lived in Switzerland, but there was still something more I felt I needed to see—namely, the concentration camp at Dachau.

Continue Reading →
Comments { 2 }

My Camino de Santiago

Here’s my April column for the Holland Sentinel:

A spiritual pilgrimage, so the thinking goes, consists of both an outward journey and an inward journey.

Last week I returned from my first Camino de Santiago, a spiritual pilgrimage dating back to the 11th century. I walked from Saint Jean Pied de Port (on the French side of the Pyrenees) to Santiago de Compostela (a university town in northwest Spain with a famous cathedral), a distance of 500 miles, which I walked in 29 days.

Continue Reading →
Comments { 4 }

Reflections on the “Dead Beat”

Here’s my March column for the Holland Sentinel, which could use an overhaul of its obituary page:

My name has appeared in dozens, maybe hundreds, of obituaries over the years, usually in the last paragraph.

After the date, time and location of the memorial service, my name would be given as the pastor who would be officiating. I think this is the reason I started reading obituaries. Not to make sure my name had been spelled correctly, but because the obituaries would often be revealing.

Continue Reading →
Comments { 7 }

A triumph of hope over experience

The lastest from the Holland Sentinel’s community columnist:

Oscar Wilde famously wrote that second marriages are “a triumph of hope over experience.” I feel the same way about exercise.

Sometimes I’m not sure why I bother.

Continue Reading →
Comments { 6 }

Called To Be a Loser

Here’s the latest from the Holland Sentinel‘s community columnist:

Several years ago I was invited to give the baccalaureate address at the Presbyterian-related school, Hanover College, in southern Indiana.

As far as I knew, the school’s main claim to fame, other than having me as a speaker, was having Woody Harrelson as a student. He received his degree in English and theatre in 1983, more than 20 years before I set foot on campus.

I titled my address “Called To Be a Loser” and sent that information, along with a publicity photo, to the college president a few weeks before graduation weekend. Within a few days, the president telephoned with concern in his voice, though I couldn’t quite figure out why. Finally, he said, “That’s quite a title you chose for your address.”

Continue Reading →
Comments { 6 }

My Annual Christmas Letter

Christmas 2018

Dear family and friends,

On January 28 I preached what will probably be my last sermon at the Eglise réformée française in Zürich, Switzerland, where the International Protestant Church offers Sunday morning worship and where we shared space with a French-speaking congregation.

I retired that day after nearly 40 years of ministry. Continue Reading →

Comments { 10 }

Crazy Poor Dutch People


Here’s the latest from the Holland Sentinel‘s “community columnist”:

I wanted to call my new book “Crazy Poor Dutch People Who Immigrated to the U.S. and Became Rich, Republican and (Ironically) Anti-immigration,” but my publisher thought that title was too long and unnecessarily provocative. Plus, the allusion to “Crazy Rich Asians” is already dated.

Instead, I went with “The Truth About Who We Are,” which is not nearly as clever. It is available from the publisher and will soon be available through Amazon. Continue Reading →

Comments { 2 }