Trash Talk series continues with presentation on dangers of plastic bags

Story by Cori Picard, Freelancer

A city council member and a UW-Eau Claire professor spoke on the damage plastic bags do to the environment and a potential citywide ban on them during the second Trash Talk presentation March 7.

City Council member Andrew Werthmann and Douglas Faulkner, the chair of the UW-Eau Claire geography and anthropology department, were joined by student researchers for the presentation.

Faulkner began the presentation with a brief history of plastic bags, called “The Plastic Bag — an Odyssey (Polymers are Forever).” In it, he addressed how plastic bags are made and where they end up if they do not get recycled properly.

“It’s not just the utter waste, but the utter lack of necessity,” Faulkner said. “There’s no reason for plastic bags. There are plastics in our life that are good, but when it comes to plastic bags, there are other alternatives that avoid the negative impacts. They end up in our oceans and landfills, where they sit and accumulate.”

Junior Becky Zellmer said she learned more about the history of plastic, of which she previously was not aware.

Senior Rachel Smith said she was shocked with how many things are made out of the non-biodegradable material.

“The presentation was really eye opening, especially because I never really think about all of the things that are made of plastic,” she said.

Smith, Zellmer and Brianna Nicolet attended the lecture for a sustainable studies honors class and even got to present their own research at the end of the presentation. The three students visited five major grocery stores in the Eau Claire area: Gordy’s, Walmart, Target, Mega Foods and Festival Foods. They counted the number of bags being used within a half-hour period.

Plastic bags were used the most at all five stores, and Walmart, where paper bags are not offered to shoppers, accounted for 39 percent of all plastic bag usage in their study.

Werthmann followed Faulkner’s presentation with an introduction of the overuse of plastic bags. According to the Federal Trade Commission, it is estimated the average American uses 330 plastic bags each year.

Werthmann also introduced his proposal for a citywide bag ban. He came up with this solution after several Eau Claire citizens brought the plastic bag problem to his attention.

The proposal recommends a slow transition from using plastic and paper bags in grocery stores to banning them altogether. A 10-cents-per-bag fee would be in place in all of Eau Claire’s major grocery store chains. After two years, plastic and paper bags would no longer be an option.

Werthmann thinks it’s a necessary change that will have a big impact on the entire community, including students on and off campus.

“Students are as much a part of this community as anyone; they shop and get bags and just like the rest of us, they contribute to the waste,” Werthmann said. “I think things will look very different when a student goes over to Shopko or down to the mall and by next year, they might not be using plastic or paper bags. That’s a pretty big change.”

Werthmann formed a resolution to create a Sustainable Bag Committee, comprised of 12 representatives. The committee will work towards the bag ban and other measures to fix the plastic bag problem in Eau Claire. The vote took place March 12 and the resolution passed unanimously.

“I’m very excited about the proposal,” Faulkner said. “I’ve been thinking about ways to remove plastic bags from campus for many years, so when I heard this solution being considered at the city level, I thought it was a great way to start to change our relationship with the environment.”

Smith, Zellmer and Nicolet said they know a lot of responsibility rests on the young people in the community, and especially on Eau Claire students.

“We all go grocery shopping at Target or Walmart so we go through a ton of plastic bags,” Zellmer said. “It’s so easy for us to all recycle it and as a college, it would be a huge recycling effort. I think we can definitely help stop the problem and make a big impact.”