Story by Randolph Pfaff, live blue Service Corps volunteer
In November of last year, Boston joined more than sixty municipalities in Massachusetts by banning the distribution of plastic shopping bags. This significant step toward creating a zero-waste city was applauded by environmental and conservation groups, along with concerned citizens who had pushed the Boston City Council and Mayor Walsh to take action on this issue.
Any New England Aquarium volunteer who has participated in a cleanup effort knows firsthand how important it is to reduce our dependence on plastic bags and packaging. Despite their convenience and ubiquity, single-use plastic bags have long been a major contributor to litter and pollution. A 2016 estimate by the Environmental Protection Agency pegged annual plastic bag use at 380 billion; worldwide, that number jumps to over one trillion. Locally, the Conservation Law Foundation estimates that Boston residents alone use more than 350 million shopping bags each year.
This glut of bags creates environmental problems on multiple fronts: bags are produced using fossil fuels, requiring millions of barrels of oil each year; incinerating discarded bags produces air pollution; and only about 5% of bags are recycled, meaning that most end up in landfills or as litter on streets, in parks, and in drainage systems, waterways, and oceans. Plastic bags also endanger wildlife through entanglements and by ending up in the diets of turtles (who mistake bags for jellyfish), seabirds, and other animals.
The data from our volunteer cleanup efforts highlight the need to reduce our use of plastic products. In 2017 alone, hundreds of New England Aquarium volunteers spent almost 900 hours keeping local waterways and over 16 miles of coastline clean. Our efforts resulted in the removal of 750 lbs of trash from Revere Beach and four tons of large debris from the Neponset River. In just one cleanup on Grape Island in April, volunteers removed 200 plastic bags and more than 1,000 other plastic items.
These numbers make it clear that while volunteer cleanups provide an amazing service, no amount of work could capture every bag that ends up as litter. But, what if we could get closer to that goal? This is where efforts like plastic bag bans play an important role. Working to fight the problem at its source can significantly reduce the volume of bags and other plastic items that end up on beaches and in the ocean, while simultaneously helping to reduce the use of fossil fuels and lowering emissions. This type of community-level solution can create a huge positive impact and it only takes a few important steps by a committed group of people to get the process started.
Here are some basic guidelines for pursuing a plastic bag ban in your community:
- First, learn more about the problem and the potential benefits that come from solving it. Just by reading this article, you’ve already taken the first step!
- Connect with other people who might support your efforts, including friends, family, neighbors, local businesses, fellow Service Corps volunteers, and local chapters of environmental organizations, such as the Sierra Club of Massachusetts and 350.org.
- Review plastic bag bans and plastic reduction efforts in other communities. Seek out model ordinances like those in San Francisco and Boston so you know what has worked elsewhere. Do some research to find out who spearheaded efforts in those locations and ask them if they have strategies and communication materials you can reuse. These resources will come in handy for the next step.
- Contact your elected officials. Now that you have the knowledge, get your cause on the radar of your city councilor, mayor, or state representative/senator. Help them understand why plastic bags are harmful to our environment and tell them about the positive outcomes of a bag ban. You can get a full list of your national, state, and local officials by entering your address at Ballotpedia.
If you already live in a community with a bag ban, you can still be an advocate for reducing the use of other types of plastic and increasing the amount of plastic that gets recycled:
- Find out if your workplace has a waste reduction plan in place. If so, get involved and help expand it. If not, help start one and make it a part of your organization’s culture. Here’s a guide to getting started with waste reduction in the workplace and a list of 30 ways to go green in the office.
- If you are a college student, reach out to your school’s office of sustainability to find out how to get involved with efforts to reduce plastic waste. To learn more, check out this guide to campus sustainability for students and the Silent Spring Institute’s Healthy Green Campus initiative.
- If you volunteer with a nonprofit or community organization, encourage them to take steps to reduce plastic usage. You’ll be helping them to be more environmentally responsible and potentially cutting costs. There also may be ongoing efforts already underway in the organization’s area of focus. For example, the New England Aquarium is part of the Aquarium Conservation Partnership, which seeks to eliminate plastic straws, bags, and single-use beverage bottles, and educate visitors on alternatives to single-use plastic.
As New England Aquarium volunteers, you have a wealth of knowledge and experience with conservation and environmental stewardship. If you’ve been involved in an effort to reduce plastic usage and waste, or if you have additional strategies and tips for creating community-level change, we hope you’ll share them with us in a comment below.