Thursday, April 20, 2017

Save Those Bags, Help Save the Earth

Earth Day is coming up, again offering an opportunity to reflect on the role each of us can play in protecting and improving our environment.

The "Three R's"--Reduce, Reuse, Recycle--continue to be good general guides for positive things individuals can do. With spring and Earth Day coming on, I've been conducting a small, unscientific survey of one action that helps with two of the three R's. Bringing one's own shopping bags to the supermarket reduces reliance on plastic or paper bags, and fabric bags are reusable.

In my little survey I asked three veteran checkouts to estimate how many people bring their own
Reuse and Reduce
fabric bags. Somewhat surprisingly, the answers were identical--40 percent. That seems a poor performance considering widespread publicity for many years on problems with plastic waste in the environment and the often-repeated assertion that conserving paper saves trees. (Although the tree-saving idea is questionable, it is appealing).

Fabric shopping bags are easy to find. Both major supermarkets we visit display them prominently. One charges 99 cents for a bag, the other only 50 cents. In addition, one of the markets offers a 5 cent per bag discount every time you provide your own bags at checkout. In other parts of the country, some supermarkets provide free bags to promote use.

My checkout contacts offered two major reasons customers say they don't bring their own bags. They are (with my comments):

1. I tried using them, but forgot to bring them to the store so often I just gave up. Solution: Keep four or five extra bags in your vehicle's trunk. If you get all the way into the store before your light bulb flashes on, the brief round-trip back to the parking lot for bags will be just a bit of healthy exercise.

2. You have to wash them regularly. Not so: We have a few fabric bags we've used for more than 10 years and they still are clean. Items such as fresh meats and veggies that could cause sanitation problems will not if they are separately wrapped or bagged as you pick them up or you request extra wrapping at checkout.

Two of the three checkouts I contacted said they wished more customers would bring their own bags. Amen. Check here around next Earth Day to see if my follow-up survey shows any improvement.

Friday, April 14, 2017

New Attacks Target Newspapers


Just as President Trump seems somewhat distracted by world events from his war against news media, far right and alt-right Republicans are launching new assaults on the press, especially newspapers that serve small communities. My hometown newspaper in Wisconsin published an appeal to readers to "oppose proposals to eliminate legals from newspapers" by contacting elected officials.

Old-style progressive Republicans such as "Fighting Bob" LaFollette, once powers in the Badger State, must be turning over in their graves. As in many states, progressives led the way in pushing adoption of legislation requiring openness in local government operations and some private matters such as settling estates and debt collection. Some key features were requirements to print notices of bid invitations, election sites and hours, government employment opportunities, and proposed regulation changes in a "newspaper of public record." These "legals" or "legal ads" not only have long supported democracy by helping to make government activities transparent, they have been important sources of revenue for community newspapers.

I did a bit of calculating just how important legals can be to a small newspaper by measuring ads in my local weekly paper, a modest journal that usually publishes eight pages per issue. The number and sizes of ads seemed normal.  Of the 197 total column inches of advertising, 74 or 37.6 percent were legal ads. A small newspaper simply cannot survive if it loses a third of its advertising revenue.

Printed publication of legal notices shines light on democratic processes. Moves to rescind state legislation requiring publication of "legals" threaten many newspapers, especially small community publications.

Newspapers, generally, have taken heavy hits in the last two decades. Many closed, consolidated with others, or made moves into internet publication to stay in business. Advertising revenues plunged. In the U.S., print display advertising revenue dropped 45 percent. Revenue from classified ads went down 75 percent, with declines in real estate ads leading the way. Revenue from just two forms of advertising--paid obituaries and legal notices--stayed relatively stable.

Losing legal ad revenue would be a crushing blow to many community newspapers. Wisconsin is not the only state where moves are afoot to eliminate laws designating "newspapers of record" and requiring legal notices be placed in them. In New Jersey, where governor Christie has had numerous run-ins with the press, legislation to curtail legals has been introduced several times and is said to have a good chance of passing this year.

The reasoning of proponents is simple, and difficult to argue against. They claim cities, counties, and townships would save considerable costs. Legal announcements could be made available just as well through the internet. Opponents say there are undefined but substantial costs in setting up and maintaining web pages to post legals. They also decry a loss of openness in public affairs without state laws requiring traditional publication of legals.

Unfortunately, I think those who would strip newspapers of their monopoly on publishing legal notices will prevail eventually. Printed community newspapers are destined to succumb to financial pressures and be replaced by some form of internet news media. What the effect on democratic processes will be is unknown, and that is frightening.