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Kicking Plastic Bag Habit

May 6, 2007
By JOEL LANG, Courant Staff Writer

Connecticut residents are taking global warming personally, suggests a new poll conducted for The Courant.

By wide margins, residents said they favor three conservation measures that can help reduce greenhouse gas emissions: getting rid of energy-wasting incandescent light bulbs, banning plastic grocery bags and paying a $5 recycling surcharge when they buy any computer or television.

The most lopsided poll result, however, was the overall finding that 72 percent of residents believe it is "possible for you as an individual to do anything about global warming." Only 20 percent said they did not think it possible.

"Residents do feel they can make a difference, which is important when you consider these are lifestyle decisions," said Monika McDermott, research director at the University of Connecticut's Center for Survey Research and Analysis, which conducted the poll.

"These days global warming is such a, excuse the pun, hot topic that for most people it's automatic to connect a question about the environment with global warming because that's the frame of reference we have right now," she said.

One of the poll respondents, Helene Lebel of Watertown, said she has absorbed the scientific climate-change message that "it's getting scary out there" and has been influenced by calls to conserve or recycle.

She described those calls as "this `going green' thing. Everybody gives up a napkin a day. You don't buy bottles of water; you get a bottle with a filter and refill it."

Sen. Bill Finch, D-Bridgeport, co-chairman of the legislature's environment committee, said the poll shows the public is ahead of lawmakers in recognizing global warming as a "grave" problem that requires lifestyle change.

As legislators, "we've got to show leadership in that change," said Finch, who vowed to keep a provision phasing out incandescent light bulbs in a global warming bill pending in the General Assembly.

The poll found that 72 percent of residents already have replaced some of their incandescent bulbs with compact fluorescent bulbs, and that 24 percent have switched over entirely.

Wal-Mart reported recently that its Connecticut stores lead the nation in sales of the fluorescent bulbs.

Christopher Phelps, director of Environment Connecticut, the state affiliate of the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, said the poll results were encouraging.

"Over the last couple of years the conversation, or debate, around global warming has shifted from `Is it real or not real?' to `What can we do?'" Phelps said. "It is the fact that it's the actions we take as individuals straight up to the state level that are exactly what's necessary to reduce global warming."

Another poll respondent, Suzanna Bernheim of New Haven, said she felt that there's "little debate about the science" of global warming and that she and her husband get along with just one car. "It's a conscious decision that it's better," she said.

A physician and researcher at the Yale School of Medicine, Bernheim carefully considered her response to poll questions about eliminating incandescent bulbs and recycling.

"What I don't know is will these individual actions make a real difference," she said. "Is this where we should expend our political energy? What's more important compared to something done on a larger level by business or government?"

McDermott said the poll was in line with national surveys that have found the public increasingly worried about global warming and the need to act. A Yale University survey in March found 83 percent of Americans now consider global warming a "serious" problem, up from 70 percent in 2004. It found that 81 percent agreed they have a responsibility to reduce the impacts of global warming.

McDermott also said the Connecticut results were noteworthy for their consistency across all questions. Asked if they would favor or oppose phasing out incandescent bulbs, 47 percent of residents said they were strongly in favor and 21 percent said they were somewhat in favor. By comparison 28 percent were either strongly or somewhat opposed to the phase-out. Banning non-recyclable plastic grocery bags drew 63 percent overall support, compared with 33 percent opposed.

The recycling surcharge on electronic equipment was favored 58 percent to 41 percent. "The support is lowest with the surcharge, but it's still solid," McDermott said.

The Courant/CSRA poll consisted of telephone interviews with 501 randomly selected adult state residents April 17-23. Its margin of error was 4.4 percentage points.

The poll questions reflected conservation measures being considered in the Connecticut legislature or in other parts of the country.

All three measures have been subject to criticism in some way.

The compact fluorescent bulbs consume two-thirds less energy than incandescent bulbs, but they also contain small amounts of potentially toxic mercury. That means they must be recycled when burned out, rather than thrown in the trash.

Yet the federal government's Energy Star program, designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, favors the fluorescent bulbs. According to its website, coal-fired power plants are the main source of mercury pollution, and fluorescent bulbs consume so much less electricity their use would result in a net reduction in mercury emissions.

The Connecticut Recycling Coalition does not favor making consumers pay a surcharge when they buy a computer or television, said Kim O'Rourke, recycling coordinator for Middletown. Rather, it favors regulations that would require manufacturers to make appliances more suitable to recycling.

On balance though, O'Rourke said the Connecticut poll confirmed what she sees in her work.

"People care about the environment," she said. "On Earth Day [last month] the question I got most often after global warming was, `What can I do? Can you give me five things I can do to help?'"

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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