Lori Robinson

One Word: Plastics

A plague is sweeping the planet as we speak. It cannot be stopped by medicine, nor quarantine, nor insecticides, and it holds the frightening status of an airborne disease; where the wind blows, it goes. This plague is plastic bags.

Lori Robinson of Santa Barbara travels twice yearly to eastern Africa to conduct volunteer work for the Jane Goodall Institute. For part of her stay, Robinson resides in the small town of Tenguru, Tanzania, where residents use and throw away thousands of plastic bags each day. The wind sweeps them into shrubbery and treetops, and they can be seen across the land in all directions. “They’re blowing in the wind,” said Robinson, “tangled in the trees, in fences. They’re everywhere. It’s a really big problem.”

Robinson estimates that nearly every person in rural Tanzania utilizes and discards into the wind one plastic bag per day. Grazing goats and cows eat the bags, and frequently perish as a result, a devastating loss to the family who rely on the animal for their daily milk. Moreover, stagnant water that collects in the folds of discarded bags is known to breed mosquitoes — and malaria.

But Robinson has hit upon the simple and perfect solution: canvas bags. However, canvas bags scarcely exist in Tanzania, so Robinson has taken on the task of importing and distributing them. In September 2005 she brought over her first shipment and set up a stand at the local marketplace. Everyone who came to Robinson with at least 20 old plastic bags was rewarded with a durable canvas bag. Local women responded enthusiastically, and Robinson’s collection of 300 canvas bags (totes) vanished in 40 minutes.

Robinson’s latest bag-distributing mission to Tenguru took place in February. This time Robinson distributed 1,100 canvas bags in two one-hour sessions at the market. “These women are ridding their entire community of plastic bags,” says Robinson. “The simplicity of this project is what makes it so effective. Totes that would otherwise end up in our garbage dumps are replacing plastic bags that would otherwise end up on the roadsides of Africa.” Robinson believes that the region of Tenguru could become a model of progressive, sustainable living for rural Africa. She calculates that just 5,000 more canvas bags will saturate Tenguru with the earth-friendly products. However, Robinson needs help in shipping the bags overseas before the project can advance on a large scale, and she is asking for support from anyone who may be traveling to eastern Africa. “Some plastic products are miracles, but plastic bags are awful and they’re not even necessary,” said Robinson.

Those who don’t believe it need only look toward the rural community of Tenguru, where the locals embrace an ideal of 21st-century progress, where canvas bags threaten to rule the earth and send plastic bags the way of the dodo.

4·1·1 To help transport bags to Africa, email Lori Robinson at Extra canvas bags may be dropped off at the nearest branch of Montecito Bank & Trust.

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