If you took a moment to look around you right now, how many items would you see made of plastic? As I sit in my office, I have counted at least 30 such items. Fortunately, nearly all them are recyclable. Did you find any items made of single-use plastic, only useful for a few hours, a few minutes, or maybe even a few seconds? These single-use plastics are becoming increasingly more common in our everyday lives, having catastrophic effects on our natural environments, the health of wildlife, and maybe even the health of humans. So the big question now is how did we get here? How did we become a throwaway society that embraces “throwaway living” as Life Magazine called it on their 1955 cover? Well, for one, throwaway plastics make our lives so much easier. But, are you still willing to take the easy way out when you know of the negative impact our everyday plastic decisions make on our natural resources?
To better understand the answer to this question, Scott Hardy, Ohio Sea Grant Extension Educator in Cuyahoga County, and I conducted a study in Northeast Ohio to understand how often people use single use plastics, the barriers to using reusable alternatives, and what reminders to encourage reuse people prefer for plastic bags, plastic water bottles, and plastic cigar tips. (For this blog, I will just focus on the plastic bags.)
We learned that people in northeast Ohio use reusable bags about 30% of the time and plastic bags about 28% of the time. The most common reason for not using reusable bags is people either forget them at home or in the car. So how do we remind people to bring their reusable bags? Most prefer an incentive, such as money off their purchase, to encourage them to use reusable. Seventy-five percent were also in favor of either a ban, fee, or both a ban and fee on plastic bags.
So how do you fit into the equation? Do you shop? Do you use bags to carry your things from the store? Do you throw those plastic bags away when you get home?
Fact Check! The average use-time of a plastic bag is 12 minutes. Yet, the lifespan of a bag in the environment is, well… a really long time. Plastic never degrades. It becomes smaller and smaller pieces of plastic that get eaten by our tiniest animal zooplankton making its way up the food web to the fish you like to eat like salmon and perch. “What can I do” you ask? Make it a habit to bring your own bags to the store. It takes 66 days to form a new habit.
Your challenge: For the next 66 days, use ONLY a reusable bag. Come May you will be a reusable bag-toting champion! If you forget your bag at home say “No thank you” to a plastic bag and hand carry it out. Lake Erie thanks you, the zooplankton thank you, and I thank you.
Jill Bartolotta is an Extension Educator with the Ohio Sea Grant College Program.
catastrophic effects: Bartolotta, J. 2016. You are the solution to the “Eww”. The Ohio State University Community Development Extension Blog.
1955 cover: 2016. The Macro Cost of Micro Contamination. Zero Waste in Action.
12 minutes: Save the Bay. Reducing Single-Use Plastic Bags in the Environment. Fact Sheet. Website: https://www.savesfbay.org/sites/default/files/news_release/Fact%20Sheet%20single%20use%20bags_MASTER%205-9-14.pdf
get eaten by our tiniest animal zooplankton: New Scientist Magazine. 2015. Plankton snacking on plastic caught on camera for the first time. Website: https://www.newscientist.com/article/dn27849-plankton-snacking-on-plastic-caught-on-camera-for-the-first-time/.
66 days: Lally, P. van Jaarsveld, C.H.M., Potts, H.W.W., and J. Wardle. 2009. How are habits formed: Modelling habit formation in the real world. European Journal of Social Psychology. 40:6, pp. 998-1009. Website: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/ejsp.674/abstract.