Tuesday, May 10, 2005 | One of my favorite quotes from Mohandas Gandhi is posted on my computer: “Whatever you do may seem very small, but it is very important that you do it.”

Do you have cloth or canvas shopping bags sitting around in your garage or pantry? Did you buy them when you felt like it would make a difference to the environment if everyone used them, and now you’ve given up? Do you find yourself feeling helpless, as I sometimes do, watching the destruction of our habitat, exploitation of our natural resources, man-made extinction of species and global climate change? It’s time to pull out your canvas shopping bags and start using them at the grocery store. It seems very small, but it is very important that you do it.

Shoppers in other countries have been providing their own bags for years. When I lived in rural Oaxaca, Mexico, as a little girl I remember the ladies taking their plastic bolsas to the open air markets to carry home their fruits and vegetables.

The city of San Francisco recently proposed a 17-cent tax per plastic grocery bag. The Republic of Ireland saw a greater than 90 percent decrease in the use of plastic bags in five months when they started taxing shoppers 15 cents per bag, according to the British Broadcasting Corp. They estimated Ireland alone was using more than one billion plastic bags per year.

I believe it would be a much more positive incentive to offer a 5-cent discount per canvas bag you provide, as Henry’s Marketplace, Whole Foods Market and other grocery stores do (Henry’s also honors reused paper or plastic bags). If your grocery store doesn’t offer a discount, ask them for one, and ask them to sell reusable canvas bags.

Each plastic bag costs them one cent, and each paper bag 4 cents. Henry’s parent company, Wild Oats Markets, gives a “wooden nickel” for each bag provided, and shoppers can donate their wooden nickels to various nonprofit organizations. E-mail Wild Oats Markets and encourage them to implement this practice at Henry’s markets also.

We already know there are good environmental reasons why canvas or jute bags are better than plastic or paper. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, 11 barrels of oil are used per ton of plastic bags, and 13 to 17 trees are cut down to produce one ton of paper bags. In 1997, we used almost one million tons of paper bags in the U.S. We have all seen plastic bags cluttering up the environment. Even if we are conscientious and don’t litter, they still get loose.

Plastic bags are the new “flowers of Africa” because African shoppers use thin bags that tear easily and cannot be reused, so they toss them to the ground.

Plastic bags have become a worldwide problem. Bangladesh has banned polythene bags. Taiwan, Singapore, England, Australia and Thailand are all considering or have implemented taxes or bans on plastic bags. The United States could start to improve its tarnished image overseas if we acted responsibly on this environmental issue. San Diego could lead the way and set an example for other cities by voluntarily cutting down on plastic and paper bag consumption without needing to be taxed to do it.

Only about 1 percent of U.S. shoppers use canvas or reusable bags. Imagine if even 10 percent of us did. What a simple way to feel empowered to do something for the environment and to cut down on our selfish consumption of resources.

The EPA claims that one less grocery bag per person per year in New York City alone would eliminate five million pounds of waste. This would also help San Diego meet California garbage mandates, avoid fines and extend the life of the Miramar Landfill by reducing the number of plastic and paper bags that go into the landfill because they are not reused or recycled.

If you don’t have canvas bags already, you can buy them at some grocery stores like Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods Market, get one free when you join some environmental organizations or buy them online. Imagine product lines of fashionable shopping bags, with colors or emblems to match your car, or brightly colored, personalized or monogrammed bags. This would be an opportunity for local San Diego environmental organizations to get free advertising on reusable canvas bags as well.

We could even start our own organizations to show our concern for the environment by using canvas shopping bags, and add other worthwhile activities like driving fuel-efficient cars, cleaning up our beaches and recycling. Instead of the ladies with the red hats or the Minutemen, we could be the “Bag Ladies (and men, of course).”

I think Gandhi would be very pleased.

Judith Vacquier is a biologist and biotechnology consultant.

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