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We need a tax on plastic bags

Posted on September 30th 2009 by Arthur in Environment, Life in America

I’ve been living here now for just over a year, and I can’t believe the amount of plastic that is being used, especially at grocery stores. We usually bring our own reusable bags when we go shopping, but 99 out of 100 other people don’t, at least not where we shop. Even gallons of milk, with a perfectly fine handle to carry, are often double-bagged (or triple!) because the cashier or bagger thinks the milk is too heavy for just one bag. It doesn’t even occur to them that the customer could just as well carry the jug by its handle. The other day we went to K-Mart to buy a six-pack of half liter bottles of Coke for our road trip. The pack had a beautiful strong handle to carry them, but the cashier still tried to double-bag them before we stopped her. What a waste!

Sometimes it’s even impossible to not use the plastic bags. Many grocery stores have baggers at the end of every register that start bagging your stuff before you have a chance to hand them your reusable bag. And places like K-Mart and Walmart often have one of those carousels full of plastic bags at every register that cashiers drop the stuff in, making it impractical to use your own reusable bag because there’s simply no space to put it.

Pile of plastic bags

According to, the people of this planet use over 500,000,000,000 (500 billion) plastic bags annually, or almost 1 million per minute! One million new bags a minute?! That’s hard too imagine. According to the Wall Street Journal, the United States alone uses 100 billion annually, which cost the country an estimated 12 million barrels of oil to produce.

When we lived in Holland we would occasionally drive down to France to do some grocery shopping for things we couldn’t normally get, at mega supermarkets like E. Leclerc or Carrefour. Until a few years ago they were using plastic bags everywhere. They would give you a hundred for free if you wanted to, packing just a few items in each bag. Every family was leaving their local supermarché‎ with their purchased goods in a ton of plastic bags. Then all of a sudden the government passed a law to tax plastic bags. The next time we visited the country every single French shopper was carrying their re-usable bags into the store. It was an amazing transformation, but it was like it had never been any different. It is that easy!

Back in 2001, Ireland was the first nation to tax plastic bags as a way to stop them from littering the countryside. Before the tax, every Irish man, woman and child would use an average of 300 bags per year, a total of 1.2 billion per year for the country. Besides generating more than $175m for the government, the 7-year-old tax has reduced the country’s use of disposable bags by 90%. Apparently that is not yet enough, because this week the Irish government announced it is doubling its tax from 22 euro cents to 44 cents per bag.

France and Ireland are not the only countries that are taking measures to push consumers to use more eco-friendly products. Belgium enacted a “picnic” tax in 2007, which includes saran wrap and aluminum foil. Earlier this year, even China banned stores from giving out free plastic bags!

Obama promised change and the environment is among his to priorities. So what about a federal tax on plastic bags, or at least encourage states to implement one? Sure, in the beginning people will be outraged, but before they realize they’ll be walking from their car to their local Piggly Wiggly with a nice reusable shopping bag. We’ll save millions of barrels of oil each year and 100,000s of sea turtles too.

Grass police

Posted on September 29th 2009 by Arthur in Life in America

The house across the street from us has been empty since we moved in here. Every two weeks or so a landscaping company, hired by the owner, comes by to mow the grass. We noticed that the last few times they forgot to remove some weeds in front of the garage, and those are now a couple of feet tall. No big deal, you hardly notice it.

This morning there was a white truck, with the text “Code Department” on the side, parked in front of the house. The driver was straining his neck looking at the house while taking notes. The man stepped out of his truck with a measuring stick and walked around taking pictures of the weeds while holding the stick next to them.

1832 lawnmower

I like a nicely manicured and landscaped lawn, it looks beautiful, but is it any business of the city to tell people how long their grass should be? Now, if my neighbor had piles of garbage on his lawn, was playing loud music late at night or had a hemp farm in his backyard, those are things the police should write a ticket for … but grass that is a few inches too long? Come on!

When we moved here in February we went to the City Hall to ask if there was any information they had for us, about garbage pick-up and things like that. There was nothing. Actually, all they gave us was a newsletter from 2007. I had no idea there was a grass ordinance like this. I just checked their website and indeed grass in our community may not be taller than 8 inches (20 cm).

A couple of weeks ago our neighbor came to borrow our lawnmower because his had just broken down and he claimed that the ‘police’ had told him that morning to mow his lawn or get a fine the next day. I didn’t believe him about the police until today. The neighbor’s grass didn’t seem that long at all! Maybe some patches were slightly over 8 inches, but to fine him for that? Come on!

Slightly longer grass is actually better for the environment. Besides the obvious reason that using your gas-powered lawnmower less often saves gas, longer grass also requires less watering as moisture is reserved in the leafs and it provides a natural habitat for insects, worms and other food for birds.

I understand people want to live in a neat Wisteria Lane-type neighborhood with perfect lawns, but it seems a bit ridiculous to give out fines for having grass that is a bit too long.

First American Summer

Posted on August 30th 2009 by Arthur in Life in America

I can’t believe we’ve almost lived here for a whole year already. Last year at this time our house in Leiden was almost empty and we were just a few weeks away from our big move across the Atlantic. The last 11 months have gone so fast! I am really enjoying our first year here in Illinois. The winter was the coldest I’ve ever experienced, and this summer is the warmest and sunniest summer I’ve ever had.

You wouldn’t think so from the weather reports, though … when you watch the news all they do is complain about what a crappy summer we’re having. Last night the weatherman said that it’s been “chilly for the last three months”. Okay, July may have been the coldest July in 67 years, with an average temperature of 68.9°F (20.5°C), but I wouldn’t call it chilly.

For someone who is used to the cloudier, wetter and cooler weather in the Netherlands, this summer has been great so far. What I love most is all the sunshine! Chicago gets about 2,500 hours of sunshine each year, compared to 1,500 in Holland. Unfortunately the days are much shorter here (sunset is about 90 minutes earlier here in summer), but in those shorter days you get much more sunshine. Whole weeks go by here without seeing a single cloud, and when there are clouds they seem much higher up in the sky than in Europe. I guess it has something to do with the higher elevation here. In any case, less rain and less clouds is great.

Another thing I like about the weather here is that it is so predictable. Don’t laugh, I’m serious! Meteorologists can see low-pressure systems coming from thousands of miles away as they approach Chicago, usually from the west. As a result, rain forecasts can be very accurate. I’m used to much more unpredictable weather in the Netherlands, due to the effect of the sea on the climate there. It’s so nice to know when it’s going to rain! For instance, they’ll say that it will rain from 1pm to 3pm, and sure enough at 3pm the skies clear and out comes the sun. They don’t always get it right, of course, but most of the time they do.

We had a lot of bugs in our small backyard in Leiden, spiders and slugs mostly. I’m not a big fan of bugs – actually I hate bugs – but there’s a few here that I think are pretty cool. First of all there’s the crickets. I can’t believe how loud they are! We live in a suburb north of Chicago, but sitting here with my window open and the chorus of crickets outside you’d think we’re somewhere in the Amazonian jungle. It’s incredible these little guys can make such loud sounds, but I haven’t minded so far. I think they’re pretty funny actually. Whenever we stop talking and hear the crickets outside I have the feeling that one of us just told a bad joke. We started watching season 9 of Frasier this week and there was one episode where Martin brings a cricket into Frasier’s apartment, which drives him mad. I never heard of such a thing, but apparently it happens and I can imagine now how annoying that would be. I hope our crickets will stay outside.

We’ve also had some lightning bugs (aka fireflies) in our yard a few times. I haven’t seen any lately, but around dusk they light up like fireworks, it’s very neat. I saw my first firefly in June when we were in Alabama driving back from NASA. There were thousands of them on the side of the road, it was gorgeous. They’re now my favorite bug!

We’ve been doing a lot of outside activities this summer, walking, canoeing and biking, enjoying the extra sun, warmer temperatures and less rain than we’d been used to. It has been a bit cooler the last few days, but the forecast this week is sunny every day with temperatures of about 70°F (21°C) to 75°F (24°C). That’s perfect weather if you ask me! I hope we’ll still have a few nice months before the cold winter starts and it’s time to get out the shovels and skis. These extreme seasons sure are fun! 🙂

Comcast billing is SO hinky!

Posted on August 6th 2009 by Arthur in Life in America, Television

It seems that I only write about bad things on this blog, but I have another rant about Comcast I just have to write here. A few days ago I signed up for another 12-month promotion to get Comcast TV and Internet for $85 per month. If I hadn’t called Comcast, our monthly cable costs would have gone up to $135, which is the regular price.

Today I received my statement for the next period and the total amount due is $135. Obviously, I thought that this was the regular price and the promotion hadn’t kicked in yet, but upon closer inspection it does have the promotion price, but there is a mysterious $50 surcharge for internet installation. Why are they charging me $50 for installation when 1. we’ve had internet at this address for six months and 2. installation is free; we didn’t pay anything for installation six months ago! It’s like they ‘accidentally’ put in the $50 to bring the total amount to what I would have paid if I hadn’t signed up for the new promotion, just to see if I was paying attention. The exact same thing happened a few months ago when my bill was completely wrong. I had paid too much the month before, but to level it out in the next bill they put in a bogus deposit amount just to make the total amount be exactly like the previous amount’s balance. Talk about creative accounting!

I just called Comcast and they acknowledged the mistake and I only need to pay $85 this month. Will I get a new statement? No, they can’t do that.

You really have to pay attention with these guys. I signed up for automatic payments for all our other monthly bills, but Comcast is the only company I don’t trust and I continue to pay them manually each month. If you have Comcast, check your bills and make sure they are not screwing you too!

Six months of Comcast

Posted on August 3rd 2009 by Arthur in Life in America, Television

We’ve had Comcast cable TV and internet now for six months. When we moved here in February earlier this year, I signed up for Comcast’s 6-month promotion for their cheapest TV package and 16 mbps internet speed for $69 per month. There are actually some surcharges to that and the total costs are around $90 per month ($9 for the HD box, $3 for the cable modem, etc).

I find that Comcast can be very unclear about their pricing structure. I’ve called them a couple of times asking what the regular price will be after these first six months and got different answers. The monthly bills I receive are just hilariously complicated; the first one in February was completely wrong and even the Comcast person on the phone did not understand what was meant with the different figures and charges listed. Unlike Dish Network, which clearly states in their ads what the promotional price and regular price is, with Comcast you really need to dig and read fine print to find out what the regular price will be after your promotion ends. It’s all very sneaky. It turns out that starting this month our monthly Comcast bill would go up to about $135.

That’s really too much. We hardly watch any TV besides the basic local channels (ABC, CBS, NBC, etc) which are free with antenna (and in crystal clear HD too). We get about 100 channels in our Comcast TV package and only watch a handful of them. In fact, there are some I’d really like to have but those are not included. I’d like to have SyFy Channel and NASA TV, but those are in the next package up, with 70 more channels. I really wish one could just pick the channels you wanted and pay for those. I refuse to pay an additional $20 per month just to get SyFy and NASA. NASA TV especially should be included; it’s a public channel paid for by taxpapers and you can even watch it for free online!

I’ve read a few times that you can call Comcast and negotiate about the price. I can’t believe this is common practice here in the United States. I’ve haggled on the price of souvenirs in Egypt and India, but never on that of my cable television bill. But apparently it’s quite normal to call your TV provider here, tell them you will leave if they don’t lower your monthly costs and they’ll give you an offer. I called them this morning and told them that I wanted to cancel my TV package and just have internet. Immediately they had another promotion to offer that I could take advantage of. For just $69 per month I can continue to have the same TV and internet service for the next 12 months. With surcharges this comes down to the same price I’ve been paying per month. It’s not really an option to cancel TV and keep internet, because that would be about the same price. It’s really a ‘buy one get one free’ deal. *sigh*

So now we’ll have Comcast for another 12 months and I’ll have to watch my SyFy shows online. Not all shows are available online for free, but I’ve figured that buying those that are not free is still cheaper than paying for the next package at Comcast. Comcast really needs get their act together. More and more people are canceling their cable TV since websites like Hulu are offering TV shows online. I would pay Comcast the same for less channels if I could pick which ones I wanted. I know it should be possible technically, they’re just trying to hang on to the old ways for as long as they can.

Biking to our local forest preserve

Posted on June 1st 2009 by Amy in Forest Preserves, Life in America

Last Saturday was a beautiful day. In the afternoon we decided to try and bike to Rollins Savanna from our house here in Round Lake Beach.

First I checked Google Maps to see how we could cycle and avoid busy roads. The Google Streetview feature works for a lot of our area, so I could follow parts of the route online. I was surprised to see that there was actually bike path along one of the main roads we’d take!

The Drury Lane entrance to Rollins is closest to us, so that’s where we normally drive. On Google Maps I saw that there was a spur to the main trail from a small city park, so we wouldn’t have to cycle all the way to our usual parking lot, which was good news. The bad news was that Drury Lane is a torn up muddy mudville from construction.


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Our 18th Backyard Bird: a Northern Flicker!

Posted on May 25th 2009 by Arthur in Birds, Illinois, Life in America, Nature

We moved here in early February 2009 and our first bird to visit our feeders was an American Goldfinch on February 22nd. Today, just over 3 months later, we saw our 18th species: a Northern Flicker! So far we’d only seen these beautiful large woodpeckers in woods and nature reserves; it was the last bird we’d expected to see in our suburban backyard! She was sitting on the ground under our feeders, probably eating the ants that we’ve been seeing there since we put up a bowl of grape jelly for our Baltimore Orioles. She was only there for a few minutes and this was the best picture I could get:

Northern Flickr

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Received in Damaged Condition

Posted on May 12th 2009 by Arthur in Funny, Life in America

Today I received a piece of mail from the Belastingdienst (Dutch IRS). Nothing special about that, except that it looks like it was attacked by bears! The envelope has a 3-inch rip and a large corner is missing. How did that happen? I can understand a rip, but what happened to the corner? Did it go through a plane engine on its way here? There are two stamps on it: “Received unsealed” and “Received in damaged condition” … Reeeaaalllly? I hadn’t noticed! I wonder when the rest arrives.

Damaged mail

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Netflix is Great

Posted on April 14th 2009 by Arthur in Life in America, Movies

We’ve been subscribed to Netflix since November last year and we still like it a lot. We have the cheapest plan, called “1 at-a-time”, which allows us to have one DVD at a time, but we are able to watch about two movies per week this way, which is a pretty good deal for $8.99 per month. And the best thing is that we don’t even have to leave the house for it. Each DVD we receive in the mail comes in its own return envelope, which we can put back in the mailbox so the next day the mailman will take it back. It’s pretty neat. More »

USPS’ Backwards Forwarding Service

Posted on March 28th 2009 by Arthur in Illinois, Life in America

The United States Postal Service has a great change-of-address service … in theory that is. When you move they’ll forward your mail for a full year, for FREE! I couldn’t believe this when I heard it, because in Holland you pay €2.25 per week (after the first month) to have your mail forwarded, and that’s just inside Holland; if you move outside Europe it’ll set you back €9.25 per week. That’s quite expensive if you consider that USPS will forward regular mail and packages for a year, and newspapers and magazines for 2 months, totally free. When Amy moved to Holland her mail all got forwarded across the pond, it was great. Well, this time it is not exactly working out for us. More »