Fossil fuel-based plastics have been used in large quantities since just after the conclusion of World War II, only approximately a century. Plastics are made of long polymer chains the first of which was officially designed into plastics by John Wesley Hyatt in 1869. Since then, they have affected the average person most by revolutionizing the way we transport and consume goods. They have also allowed for advances in medicine and space exploration.
Plastics were initially thought to be environmental saviors that prevented us from overtaxing our natural resources because shipping would be lighter and we could now create our own material. Of course, the plastics need to be created from something though – most often fossil fuels, although cellulose and other plant-based materials are used on occasion. Few people at that time perceived that plastics would create a pervasive throw-away culture exhibited by much of the world today.
The world is increasingly dependent on plastic in a variety of ways. This issue has been growing in the media but also in urgency. Some of the largest proportions of plastics that become environmental pollutants include food wrappers and containers (31%) bottle and container caps (15%), and bags (11%). The units used to measure these percentages were a by unit count. There are few studies identifying the total weight of plastic pollution by category. The United States is the leading contributor to plastic waste in the world. In an effort to curb this, environmentalists (across the globe) have been encouraging no longer using single use plastics. Single use plastics make up 40% of all produced plastic, but often have a lifespan of no longer than a few minutes or hours. The plastic polymers then exist in the environment for hundreds of years. A large amount of the single use plastics are plastic bags often used at grocery stores. Plastic bag bans have been a popular legislative method as environmentalism enters voters’ priorities.
New York State passed the plastic bag ban which came into effect on October 19, 2020. This requires all retailers to no longer give out plastic bags and instead encourage the use of paper or reusable bags. In Tompkins County, there is a 5 cent charge for using a paper bag in an effort to further encourage people to use their reusable bags. While paper bags are less persistent as pollution, they still require significant energy to create and facilitate the timber industry. Therefore, the Tompkins County Recycling and Materials Management has been working to create an education campaign as well as a distribution system to give lower-income communities free reusable bags. Instead of simply discouraging the use of plastic and paper bags we hope to inspire the use of reusable bags with additional information.
Few other areas have attempted to really boost reusable bag usage and instead have just decreased easy usage of plastic and paper bags. We plan to communicate the benefits of reusable bags, effective ways to remember them, care and maintenance, and which options are best. We will also provide information about the benefits of reusable bags from a scientific standpoint. We hope to display our information throughout the community including through South Side Community Center, TCat Buses, around the Commons, and at grocery store checkouts such as Wegmans, P&C Fresh, Green Star, Aldi, and more. We will also distribute information through social media.
Our work understanding the amount of microplastics in Cayuga Lake Watershed is very helpful to understand the impacts of plastic waste but does little to combat it. Using this data as motivation to improve the beautiful Ithaca area is a rewarding endeavor. As we continue this we intend for it to be an intersectional holistic approach which includes the research as well as reduction in production and consumption, an increase in responsible disposal and removal, and education regarding alternatives to plastic and how we can better our community together.