Duluth stores will charge 5 cents for each plastic bag provided to shoppers starting April 1.
Local volunteer group Bag It Duluth has been working toward this for years, said coordinator Jamie Harvie. Asked how he felt now that the measure passed, Harvie questioned the concept of success.
“The idea of it being a victory feels strange to me,” he said. “What did we win over, who did we defeat? To me, it’s a step of healing. How do we heal and amend the relationships with this planet?
“In my mind, it wasn’t about plastics. It was about shifting culture and being mindful of what we use and how we use it.”
Harvie has been involved in pollution prevention, education and community health for decades.
He led an initiative that eliminated the sale and installation of mercury-containing equipment, which led to product legislation around the world. He launched the Duluth-based Institute for Sustainable Future.
The Minnesota Public Health Association awarded him the Paul and Sheila Wellstone Achievement Award. Oh, and he and Michelle Obama were among the “Top 20 Most Influential” food system leaders by Food Service Director Magazine. (No, he didn’t get to meet her.)
Sitting in the living room of his Lester Park home with his dog, Lucy, Harvie said this work feels like “a life journey.”
His father was a prisoner of war in a concentration camp. Growing up and asking questions about that era helped instill a curiosity about people in the world.
When he moved from Canada to New York in the ’80s, Harvie noticed a stark difference. He saw hundreds of homeless people in the subways and limousines in the street, nice houses in Brooklyn and people urinating out in the open a few blocks over.
“As a Canadian, we didn’t see those disparities in wealth; it was slapping you in the face,” he said.
He soon volunteered with the New York Nicaraguan Construction Brigade. He recalled feeling overwhelmed by impoverished communities.
“The money and the power and the murder, and innocent people. Suddenly, the story that people are all kind and loving and everyone does right, the mask was ripped off," he said. "I remember going outside and crying, and it was sort of an initiation.”
When he returned to the states, he was ready to make a difference. “The world was much bigger," he said, "and you either sit on the sidelines or you participate.”
He settled in Duluth and began working as the pollution prevention specialist at Western Lake Superior Sanitary District. He joined local volunteer group Trashbusters, doing work similar to Bag It, educating the community about recycling and solid waste.
When Bag It Duluth volunteers set out, their goals were to create ordinances for a fee on single-use plastic bags and to remove straws and Styrofoam to-go containers.
They found a city councilor to support the measure, educated on the issues, organized community members in advocacy. They hosted training about speaking at City Council, offering practical tips like "adhere to time limits" and "speak from the heart."
So many people have never called or emailed a city councilor before, or asked about recycling in the workplace — they just get scared, he said “That’s the juice of this work. It’s the people, feeling empowered,” he said.
The plastic-bag fee is three-and-a-half years in the making, said Gay Trachsel, another Bag It volunteer, and Harvie’s patience is what kept them going.
His passion, his vision and his willingness to see the other person’s point of view are assets. He likes to bring people together. “He takes the time, and he always follows through, which I find very important,” Trachsel said.
Changing how we think is hard work, Harvie said. People think climate change is “just solar panels and energy,” but it relates to our material economy, how we use energy — and what gives us joy.
We get tricked into thinking it’s about the things we have, but it’s the relationships. “How do we re-establish strength in our relationship to the planet," he asked, "to all the walkers and crawlers and swimmers and fliers.”
His tips for organizing are: talk about what you want to do and your passions; set attainable goals; agree on guidelines for operating with each other. And if you’d like to change things personally, eat less meat.
It can be difficult to figure out how to engage others in simple changes while curbing the feeling of being overwhelmed.
“You want to make people feel like they can make a difference, but it’s more than buying a 'green' item or a nicer brand. It’s working to change the system together.
“In the same way that the oceans can shift," he said, "we as a species can shift what we’re doing.”