Millions of pounds of plastic pollution make their way onto the beaches of the Great Lakes region each year, and plastic bags have rocketed onto the list of the top ten items found on beach cleanups over the last couple of decades. Plastic in the waterways poses serious threats to human safety, and plastic bags are a major contributor to the problem.
Jill Bartolotta and Scott Hardy – extension educators with Ohio Sea Grant – have been hard at work gathering information about what methods will help the most when encouraging people to reduce their plastic use. After everything from supplying people with reusable bags, to handing out promotional keychains, to collecting over 1,200 surveys, the evidence was clear: people want to reduce their plastic waste in theory, but in practice they make mistakes like forgetting their bags in the trunk of their car, and instead use the convenient, free bags at the store. Out of 1,600 reusable bags given to the public at Lake County farmers markets during Hardy and Bartolotta’s studies, only 188 were seen at the markets after they were handed out.
“We wondered how to get people to remember their darn bags, and what alternatives exist.”
“If a local government has money set aside for green issues, in this case reducing plastic pollution, spending it to buy more reusable bags is not an effective use of resources,” Hardy said. “Our studies suggest that we already have bags, you can get reusable bags anywhere, we just forget them. That encouraged us to look elsewhere to take next steps. We wondered how to get people to remember their darn bags, and what alternatives exist.”
Instead of handing out bags or supporting the purchase of reusable bags, Hardy and Bartolotta try to motivate the public to bring boxes from home, use produce boxes from the store, or simply carry a few items.
“The cost of creating reusable bags in terms of natural resources and fossil fuels is astronomical, really,” said Bartolotta. “We’re trying to encourage people to bring whatever they have from home.”
The entire public is not going to change their behavior overnight. Bartolotta and Hardy have used many methods of helping people to remember their bags in their studies, from reusable containers to magnets to window decals. The challenge of reaching as many people as possible is only a part of the issue, however. The even more complex side of the problem is being able to reach individual people, on a personal level.
“It’s a very complicated process to explain to someone that using a bag at a store could affect the water quality fifty years from now,” said Bartolotta. “It’s so far removed from their everyday life.”
Bartolotta and Hardy are both personally connected to the Great Lakes; they live in the Cleveland area and have witnessed the rise in plastic garbage polluting the streets and waterways. Bartolotta has been kayaking and paddleboarding on Lake Erie for over fifteen years and has seen the dramatic increase in pollution firsthand.
With their personal experiences influencing their outreach work, Bartolotta and Hardy encourage people to make easy, small changes to their everyday lives, and empower them to have open conversations with their friends and family. Often, separating people by age groups and interests helps the educators to determine their approach.
“We explain the issue and relate the issue to what matters to them, and give them simple solutions,” said Bartolotta. “What matters to a 14- to 20-year-old is not going to be the same as what matters to a 40- to 60-year-old.”
Though educational outreach is vital, it’s only a piece of the puzzle. Bartolotta and Hardy understand that change is slow, but note that there are actions the public can take in order to substantially reduce the plastic bag waste of their entire community. Their research indicates that there are far more effective strategies for reducing plastic pollution than handouts; there are even tactics more effective than individual-level outreach. Instead of convincing every person to imagine the future of plastics in the environment, which can be difficult to convey, Bartolotta and Hardy have used their findings to support bag ban legislation and monetary incentives.
“That’s part of why you do research, to try and prove yourself or the prevailing theory wrong,” Hardy said. “And if this is something we’re going to recommend to municipal officials, we have to make sure that it’s right.”
Media outlets can talk about bag bans and fees as if they are taboo, but many cities and states across the nation are adopting them into their local economies. Hardy and Bartolotta agree that it’s the most effective way to encourage change in the area of plastic bag pollution. Their surveys concluded that despite the politics, the public does not generally mind if a bag ban happens in their area. People would continue to buy the products they need, even if they have to pay a fee for plastic bags or bring their own carrying containers to the store.
“We’re told through media and decision makers that people are super against these policies and types of business strategies,” Bartolotta said. “There’s a misconception in their minds about how people will respond. Yes, some people are angry, but studies show that the majority of people just don’t care.”
“We’re told through media and decision makers that people are super against these policies and types of business strategies. There’s a misconception in their minds about how people will respond. Yes, some people are angry, but studies show that the majority of people just don’t care.”
While outreach and education are vital in this battle, bans and fees do a good job of jump-starting fairly quick change in a time-sensitive situation. In new research developing about plastics that break down into the water supply, researchers have discovered links between these microplastics and a variety of health issues, including cancer and endocrine disruption. With alarm rising about the issue, Bartolotta and Hardy continue to encourage people and local governments to adopt bag bans as a potential start to an overall solution.
More counties and municipalities are beginning to adopt these policies to fight a variety of environmental, public health, and social issues. Plastic bags often cause clogs in storm drains, leading to flooding in roads and homes. As well as the toxicity of microplastics being discovered in emerging research, studies show that there are a disproportionate amount of minority and low-income Americans living close to plastic factories, which have similar exposure risks.
“Plastics are booming in southern Ohio where all of these plants are being built, in low-income or minority communities,” Bartolotta said. “People in certain communities are just being more negatively affected than others because of the plastics industry.”
Despite the broader effects of their studies, Bartolotta and Hardy continue to encourage people to adopt small, everyday changes as well as to support bag bans. They also consistently empower individuals to make these changes by relating personal experiences, such as hiking and kayaking, to plastic issues. The nature of these hobbies, in which plastic pollution can be physically seen, is especially helpful to the educators because they are fairly common experiences.
There are a variety of ways that an individual can become more involved in reducing their plastic footprint, including writing letters of support to politicians about bag ban legislation, leaving reusable containers next to car keys as to not forget them—even something as small as going without a straw at a restaurant. Every action, no matter how small, contributes to the end goal of a healthier and happier future for the Great Lakes.