Resolve to Be Green in 2012: Plastic Bags, John Stott, and the Reign of God

Resolve to Be Green in 2012: Plastic Bags, John Stott, and the Reign of God January 2, 2012
photo © 2007 Zainub Razvi , Flickr |

Recently in Seattle Washington a city ordinance was passed which bans the use of single use plastic bags.  In other words, if you go to the grocery store to purchase food in Seattle (and other cities) you will not be given a plastic bag to carry it out.  Plastic bags are banned.  I personally think that this is a great law and a wonderful idea.  This is something that Christ-followers ought to applaud and take to the next level in their personal choices.  Consider these stats:

  • 500 billion: Number of plastic bags consumed worldwide every year (1 million per minute)
  • 500: Years it takes a plastic bag to decay in landfill
  • 4.175 million: “Average” person’s plastic-bag legacy, in years (Source: USA Today)

So why is this a good idea?  According to NPR, the new law (which goes into effect place in July 2012) will have some great results:

The ban is expected to reduce pollution, free up landfill space and improve the environment. Seattle’s residents use 292 million plastic bags and 68 million paper bags a year. About 82 percent of paper bags are recycled, while only 13 percent of plastic bags are recycled.

In my own life, I’ve chosen to use cloth bags when shopping.  On the days when I forget, I carry my stuff out to the car without a bag… and sometimes this can be quite the juggling act!  But, if we are going to treat this world, God’s good world, in a way that reflects the intentions of the Creator, then we ought to be willing to make small gestures of this sort.  Small acts can  become a drastic movement for change.

In his final book called The Radical Disciple, the late John Stott says this:

The [Biblical] assertions that “the earth is the Lord’s” and that “the earth he has given to humankind” complement rather than contradict each other.  For the earth belongs to God by creation and to us by delegation. (51)

Following this statement, Stott goes on to demonstrate that the proper relationship between human image-bearers and the earth is one of cooperation with God.  Christians are charged with taking care of creation, reflecting God’s stewarding love to all things.  This doesn’t mean that we deify nature, but it equally doesn’t mean that we can trash it.  We partner with God to cultivate the cosmos into a place that reflects God’s reigning activities.  When we fail in this vocation, we fail to image God into the world.  This world is not disposable, it is groaning toward its redemption (Romans 8.18-28).

Stott continues his exploration of the importance of christian creation care by listing four areas of “The Ecological Crisis.”  These include the following:

  1. Accelerating Population Growth – We’ve gone from 1 billion people (1804) to 6.8 billion (2000).  By 2050 we are on target to be a global family of 9.5 billion.  He asks: “How will it be possible to feed so many people, especially when approximately one-fifth of them lack the basic necessities for survival?” (55).
  2. Depletion of the Earth’s Resources – “For example, fossil fuels are capital; once they are consumed they cannot be replaced.  The appalling processes called deforestation and desertification are examples…  Others include the degradation or pollution of the plankton of the oceans, the green surface of the earth, living species and the habitats on which they depend for clean air and water (ibid).”
  3. Waste Disposal – “The average person in the UK throws out his or her body weight in rubbish every three months” (56).  Just think of all of the wasted plastic bags that contribute to our waste and landfill problems!
  4. Climate Change – “Of all the global threats that face our planet, this is the most serious” (ibid).  The plastic bags that are produced and wasted (and often burned into the atmosphere) contribute to global warming significantly.

So, next time you go to the store and make a purchase, what if you resolved to refuse to use a plastic bag?  Often the person at the check-stand begins to bag something and I awkwardly interrupt the process and invite them to please “save the bag for the next person.”  The first time felt weird.  Now I feel like I’m doing something small to reflect our Creator’s love for humanity and the world.

Certainly some folks don’t believe that taking these sorts of action matter for Christian discipleship.  I couldn’t disagree more – and the same could be said for the late great John Stott.  He closes his chapter on Creation Care with this quote from Christopher JH Wright:

It seems quite inexplicable to me that there are some Christians who claim to love and worship God, to be disciples of Jesus and yet have no concern for the earth that bears his stamp of ownership.  They do not care about the abuse of the earth, and indeed by their wasteful and over-consumptive lifestyles they contribute to it. (59, as quoted from: Chris Wright, The Mission of God, 416)

I pray that more and more Christians (especially those who grew up in the evangelical church) will catch the way in which our actions toward the earth reflect our God for either good or for ill.  Maybe refusing that plastic bag, like the city of Seattle, could be the first step in a journey of creation care!  As we resolve to be green in 2012, the reign of God might show up in small and surprising ways.

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  • JoJo

    Love this article. I see people in the stores buying 1 thing and getting a plastic bag. It is all I can do not to say, couldn’t you just carry that out in your hand and save the earth? Of course I haven’t done that yet but the day may be coming that I do…Thanks for this article. I am definitely going to share. Blessings and Peace and Dream Green for the new year!

  • Katie Sturm

    Another thought to consider is the externalization of the cost of those plastic bags. Ireland (and many other EU countries) had a levy on the cost of the bag 22c in order to encourage people to remember that there is a cost to make, use and recycle them. When you add in all the factors such as fair labor, and ethical trade, these simple items that we throw away become significantly dangerous things. I think it’s important to at least *try* to trace whatever we use and bring into our lives/homes.

  • Erin

    I was raised by a godly pair of green freaks, so this is something I am totally on board with. Creation care is not only our mandate as stewards, but awakens something in us spiritually by connecting us with the world God created ‘good’… the world that is groaning for her Creator to return (Romans 8).

    My question for you is: how would you address leaders, teachers and other believers who preach a doctrine that any focus on the environment is “outside of the Gospel”, or is a misuse of God’s time? I ask not out of ignorance, but out of the sense of being at a loss as to how to respond. To be fair, these leaders claim that any form of social justice is a false gospel, but I need to be cautious in my attitude: living such a lifestyle of care for human and environment demands transformative love. I cannot uphold that lifestyle without it, yet I sense greater resentment and frustration in me towards those who would not only look down on it, but purpose to destroy it as ‘false’.

    • Great article, Kurt!  And Erin, my suggestion (I preach on this a great deal, and often to conservatives and skeptics) is to gently guide people to one very important Bible passage: Colossians 1:15-20.  Here Paul, speaking of Jesus, tells us that he created all things, holds all things together, and *by his blood* is reconciling all things to himself.  The gospel culminates in the reconciliation/restoration of all of creation.  John Stott, Chris Wright, N.T. Wright and many others understand that creation care is a ‘gospel issue’.

      Two things follow from this assertion:  1)Christians MUST involve themselves in creation care because of Colossians 1 – there is simply no other way to read this passage; and 2)creation cannot be cared for (eg. the environmental crisis cannot be solved) apart from the gospel.  “Environmental problems are sin problems” and there is only one solution to sin.

      Interested in more?  Check out my book (!) – .

      Ed Brown, Director
      Care of Creation Inc.

      • @twitter-14559411:disqus … thanks so much for your thoughtful comment and for coming to the site! I hope to stay connected!!!! Thanks for your work for the care of God’s good earth!

  • Adam Young

    Totally agree. Although I have been a quasi-creation care Christian for my whole life, I became a full-blown one after reading Brian McLaren’s A Generous Orthodoxy.

  • Revdebvaughn

    Yup. Here in Montgomery County the law took effect on Jan 2012. Not a bad thing!!

  • I agree with you. But please can you quote up to date statistics, about the situation here in the UK. The figure “167: Bags used annually by the average British consumer” is from a 2007 newspaper report, but you quote it as if it were current. In the nearly five years since then there has been a dramatic change in the situation – indeed the report chronicles the start of that change. Major stores give bonus points for reusing bags, or else charge for them. Some have stopped providing them at all. Also many offer bags which decompose in a year or two rather than 500. This means that there has been a dramatic drop from that figure of 167, as reported in this article, although the latest small rise is of course worrying. So it is not for you Americans to call us Brits black on this one. I was shocked, when in the USA recently, at how at Walmart we were given separate bags for almost every item. So I applaud the Seattle initiative.

    • @789c41354d57d6d37a7837a5ba883ec4:disqus … a bit reactionary aren’t you???? Whats the deal with that tone?  Anyway… I was simply quoting the stat from the chapter in the book I gave an overview of “The Radical Disciple” by John Stott.  He used a UK Stat as he was from the UK…. I simply gave the info from the chapter (if you refer to the quote in point #3).  I am sure the USA stats are just as bad if not worse… and if the stats have changed… thats good news.  Not something to get offended over my friend.  I applaud the good change in the UK and only wish that American culture cared enough to imitate such a direction.  I agree with you and was in NO WAY calling out the UK as you claim “So it is not for you Americans to call us Brits black on this one.”  The US is the worst polluter in the world… I constantly critique the usa culture….  The article with the 2007 stats was linked to by the NPR article… that was the connection I think. Again… I have no desire to point the finger at the UK when the USA is by far the worst.

      • Thanks for the clarification and for removing the misleading figure, and sorry for sounding so offended. But you quoted the statistic from an old USA Today article, unlikely to have been Stott’s source, and before you mentioned Stott. If you were in fact quoting Stott at this point, you should have said so (the word “plagiarism” comes to mind). Well, I’m glad we went some way to cleaning up our act on this (very likely Stott had some small part in this, at least in stopping Christians opposing it!), and I’m glad that at least some Americans are doing the same.

        • @789c41354d57d6d37a7837a5ba883ec4:disqus … when I skimmed your comment the first time I thought you were refering to this stat “The average person in the UK throws out his or her body weight in rubbish every three months”which is from Stott and marked by quotes (come on… plagiarism… really?… another jab my friend).  The USA today stat is back source to the NPR article.  I simply copied and pasted a bulleted list.  Hope that clears everything up.  Not sure how I offended you but I hope that we are good now.

    • Also, I went ahead and remove the annual plastic bag usage stat that pertained to the UK in particular.  Not a major point in my article that if it is indeed outdated… it should be removed…

  • Great post!

  • Rather than ban them I’d have preferred a mandate to make recycling the suckers easier.  Years ago the Ralphs grocery where we shopped in Glendale, CA. had big recycling boxes for their bags, so we’d just save them up in (guess what?) one of the bags and take ’em in when we had a bagful.  Allowed us the convenience of a strong, lightweight bag without sending them to the landfill.  Even as a semi-environmentalist I get tired of the proliferation of “thou shalt nots” in those circles.

    • You know @dwmtractor:disqus … you wouldn’t have many to recycle if you used a cloth bag 🙂  I keep mine in the trunk so I know to use them when I go into a store.  I agree recylcing them is better than throwin them out but this also creates emissions that are unneeded if we take a simple step of caution.  Anyway… my thought.  Have a good day friend!

      • Mike Ward

        You know, you can always come up with better way for other people to do the things they do. The point, I think, is how many “thou shalt”/”thou shalt nots” do we really want to create.

        I don’t know, maybe this ban is a good thing. It certainly, seems to be the way of the future. But Dan brings up a  good point.

      • Precisely. Recycling is better than sending something to a landfill, but not using it in the first place is a far better option. 

        I used to live in Seattle, so I was excited to read this story. Some of my libertarian friends had a different reaction – e.g. “I’m all for not using plastic bags, just not for the government mandating it.”

        But if that plastic bag – something we use for maybe a few minutes before throwing away – is going to spend 500 years NOT decomposing in a landfill, then that’s a burden we’ve passed off to our kids, their kids, etc. How is it fair to leave our mess for other generations to clean up? 

        • Point recognized.  But be aware of one little detail regarding the time it takes things to decompose.  I used to work for a heavy equipment dealership that sold (among other things) really massive (like over 100 ton) compactors to landfills.  Modern landfill practice involves compacting the trash so tightly that all air and water are squeezed out.  The microorganisms that are necessary to decompose even bio-degradable waste require oxygen and water, and they cannot subsist in the compacted landfill.  Result: just because something is bio-degradable in a lab does not mean it decomposes in a landfill.  Composting requires aeration, which is the exact opposite of landfill management.

          Maybe more info. than you wanted, but my intent is to point out that many “green” decisions are based on woefully incomplete information.

          Applying this to the current question…the thin plastic bag takes up less landfill space than the thick paper bag if you throw both away.  And under compaction there may well be a lot of heavier burdens than just the bags in your waste consumption.  Bags may be a start, but if it’s roughly the equivalent of driving a hybrid Hummer, it’s going to gain much respect in my book.

          • I appreciate the info on decomposition in landfills. I had suspected that to be the case, but didn’t fully understand the details behind it. But that being the case, I’d say it’s all the more reason to keep plastic bags out of the landfill. 

  • I’m more green than average in my area I’d guess (composting, recycling a good bit, etc) but I’m a bit concerned for the real far-edge of this movement that pushes the effort past “smart stewardship” and carries it to a legalistic demand — looking down and shoving shame on those that aren’t as “perfect” as they are at the effort.

    One day we’ll stand before God, and He probably won’t ask about our recycling habits.  That final quote by Wright is too much (or at least is phrased way too strong for me).  I’m not going to judge someone’s love for God around the fact the Wal-Mart check out guy gave them 4 extra bags they don’t need.  Although Wally World is horrible at handing out the bags.

    Educate, speak out, and improve ideas and recycling efforts — but I don’t want to make it an issue that suggests someone falls short of God’s favor.  That’s extreme and legalism.  We should educate & encourage, but avoid being “Green Pharisees”.  That’s too much.  🙂

  • Mike Ward

    I hope I don’t sound nitpicky (or stupid), but when I read the explantion you give when you say, “a city ordinance was passed which bans the use of single use plastic bags. In other words, if you go to the grocery store to purchase a gallon of milk in Seattle (and other cities) you will not be given a plastic bag to carry it out.” it suggested that the ban only prevented you from using a bag for just one item but that you could still get a plastic bag if you put two things in it.

    • @671e3eae3e90ae08c3a2f1bd39e8dc7d:disqus … I actually see your point.  I will tweak a couple of words.  Thanks.

  • They have been doing that around here and I hate it.  I reuse the plastic bags and if I hate to buy them at the store.  What I do is use cloth bags for the store that gives me 10 cents back each time I use their bags, I get paper bags when I need some for recycling or to take things to other places;  great for dropping food off for people and the plastic bags get used again for trash bags and to pick up after the dogs. 

  • Let’s be mindful here of hidden costs.
    First, production of reusable bags is likely more consumptive than production of thin disposable bags.
    Second, when the reusable bags get worn out they use up a good bit of landfill space.
    Third, there is no shortage of landfill space.
    Fourth, reusing bags wastes time.  Every time I get in line behind someone with reusable bags I switch lines.  That waste of time is a waste of the most precious resource.  It is a real cost, but because it does not contain something tangible we tend to discount it.  But for people who earn $20/hr every minute is worth $0.33, and if it takes an extra minute to load a reusable bag when a disposable bag likely costs less than a penny, there is a real waste.
    Fifth… which is all to say that prices matter, prices work, prices tell us the truth about what is wasteful and what is not.  The fact that re-usable bags are sold, and disposable bags are free should tell us that disposable bags are more efficient, and that includes being more efficient for the environment.

    I usually agree with most of what you post here, Kurt, but recycling is a lost cause, and a waste of our time.  We should certainly be frugal, probably by filling fewer bags in the first place!, but that recycling which is worth doing does not require moral encouragement, tax subsidization, or grocery counter penalties.

    Nathanael Snow

    • Erin

      First… good stewardship and business ethic using compostable and renewable material can create needed jobs, but also the capacity for people to make their own bags/mend their own bags. Before saying ‘that’s not for everyone’, think carefully of available patterns, & with a little digging, it becomes part of lifestyle. Old backpacks, large purses, even used laptop cases. Get creative.

      Second, renewable bags (especially undyed, untreated ones) are compostable will decay naturally. Yes they are bulkier, but they are not composed of synthetics that are poisonous to the natural state of local habitats.

      Third, yes there is indeed a shortage of landfill space AND proper landfill maintenance. I live in Canada, in the heart of oil country. Everyone wants the land for more drilling, more dumping, or more disposing… except… it’s sacred tribal land for aboriginals, delicate watersheds that cannot be reproduced in other areas, or residential areas just low-income enough that our space can be used for garbage because “it’s available”.

      Fourth, I won’t get into paychecks with you because to me you sound like a millionaire. I agree time is precious, but when you start nicking off these small steps the average Me and You can take (that are effective), you might as well leave environmental care to the rich… again. Recycling certainly does not address the whole problem, but it is one step that, in tandem with other steps, can make a difference environmentally and relationally. Please don’t throw low income wage/on-the-clock-time in our faces when people who live like this are seeking ways to honour God this way. I really don’t see how plastic v. cloth is an issue. Pressed for time? Bag your groceries yourself if you aren’t already. 

      Fifth, worried about costs? Go back to Number 1. Take care of your bags well like you take care of your shoes, and the costs drop dramatically, even if they were that high to begin with. Where I live, there’s been no legislation of bags, but there are fees. $00.05/bag. 2 parents, 6 children (common around here) on a bi-monthly grocery trip and that’s an expense they can’t afford (if we’re going to be nickel and diming here). 

      If you do not wish to recycle, that’s your choice. Have you any productive or useful alternatives that we all can engage in that would meet your criteria?

    • Mike Ward

      I think you made good points which deserve consideration, but I don’t think that cost proves that plastic bags are more efficient. Plastic bags aren’t free. You aren’t charged for them when you are buying something else because the cost is so small its easier to simply take them out of overhead cost which you wind up paying in the cost of the products. But if you just want to buy a box of bags you will charged for them. Also, the cost of resuable bags is very small when you figure there cost PER USE.

      Secondly, just because something is more effiecient does not mean it has less environmental impact.

  • Cherri Megasko

    Kurt – What a great article! Please check out our Facebook community on ridding the world of single-use plastic bags. It’s called Right Bag at Ya. 

  • Ian

    Good post Kurt. I stumbled into creation care thinking on my own even before I had heard the term. It only makes sense to preserve the beauty of something that shows the glory of God.

  • excellent article. thanks Kurt. I preached at my church in Dallas on Earth day on the idea that G-d is green. We showed this video, which is my buddy and I hiking in a local nature area. Last year, my wife and I quit using plastic grocery bags, and keep cloth and vinyl bags in our car. I now only use reusable coffee cups and refuse to use plastic water bottles. These are small habits, but make a difference I think. I also keep a garbage bag in my day hike and pick up trash any time I’m hiking. It’s really an act of worship. Love the blog. 

    • Hi @billholston:disqus … Glad that you came by the blog.  I hope that we can connect more! If you haven’t yet, I hope you connect on FB.

      That said, I really like your thoughts.  Its been interesting to me that folks on both the “right and left” have had extreme views on the so-called small things.  On the Right they think the small things don’t matter because God will blow the planet up in the end or because they don’t believe climate change matters.  On the Left they say that the small things are not enough (which I agree to a point) but they fail to see that both small and large contribute.  Picking up trash, avoiding over consumption, and honoring God’s world can be a beautiful anthem of praise to the Creator.  Thanks!

  • This is one effort that I have to applaud.  In the UK, we’ve been forced to endure “Bio degradable” bags, which are in effect the largest cop-out of the Government possible in this supposed Green climate we live in.  The reason for this is they only degrade in the “right” environment, ergo one where aerobic digestion can occur.  In landfill, waste is decomposed via anerobic digestion, so they take decades to degrade.  same goes for the sea, where turtles mistake them for jelly fish….

  • I’d comment on the Seattle link connected here through the “Bag guide” image, but I don’t see how. Still, I feel the need to point out at least one erroneous bit of information on that page. It says that Los Angeles county banned plastic bags in November 2010. That’s extremely misleading. While there was a resolution to do so, and while I think it actually did pass, I don’t think it ever went into effect. I can’t recall whether it was court-repealed, or if something else happened, but we in LA county still have access to plastic bags to this day. (FYI, I do keep a supply of reusables on hand, and although I won’t claim 100% reliability on using them, I get pretty close)

    • @NicodemusLegend:disqus … thanks for your comment and for the clarification about LA and the new laws.  shalom!

  • Anonymous