Plastic carryout bags will be sacked in town if two Oberlin High School students have their way.
Plastic bags take between 20 and 500 years to decompose. They clog beaches and oceans and increase global warming through carbon emissions from the oil used to produce them.
The damage led students Iris Arbogast and Steven Mentzerer to propose banning Oberlin businesses from providing plastic carryout bags,
The proposal, which was the students senior project, is modeled after a 2013 ban in Sunnyvale, Calif. It restricts the use of plastic bags and requires businesses to charge at least 1o cents for paper or reusable bags to encourage customers to carry reusable bags.
Arbogast, who is planning to major in biology or environmental studies at Carleton College in Minnesota, said the fees could go to an environmental sustainability fund and are designed to change consumer behavior.
“If you don’t charge a fine, people will just use paper bags instead and that’s almost as bad,” she said.
People using food stamps wouldn’t be charged for reusable bags, according to a proposal draft. Reusable bags are defined in the proposal as those designed for multiple usage, are machine washable, and can be cleaned and disinfected.
The ban includes $100 fines for first-time violators, $200 for a second offense, and $500 for all subsequent violations. By changing behavior and reducing pollution, Arbogast and Mentzer said the ban matches the goals of Oberlin’s Climate Action Plan and Zero Waste Plan, which are designed to reduce carbon emissions and waste.
The students said they spoke with a few business owners who expressed support for the ban.
They also surveyed about 320 people during the annual Illuminate night celebration. They said 86 percent supported the ban and 85 percent they’d be willing to pay at least 10 cents for a paper or reusable bag.
Bags are part of the 32 million tons of plastic waste generated annually in the U.S., according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
Nonetheless, they have their supporters. Novolex, a manufacturer of recycled plastic bags, said on its “Bag the Ban” website that the plastic bag industry employs some 30,000 workers and there are thousands more who supply products related to the bags.
Novolex said bans are “misguided” and increase costs for businesses and consumers. It said plastic bags are 100 percent recyclable and reused by 90 percent of customers.
However, the EPA said of the approximately 3.9 million tons of plastic bags, sacks, and wraps produced annually, about 3.5 million tons are discarded compared to about 1.2 million tons discarded in 1980. Arbogast said plastic bags have to be recycled at plants with machinery specifically designed for them but usually end up at conventional recycling facilities where they clog up machinery.
“It takes a lot of money and time to remove them,” she said.
Mentzer, who plans to major in environmental studies at Oberlin College, said the initial goal of the two-week project was to research a ban. But science teacher Donna Parrish suggested proposing it to city council through the resource conservation and recovery commission.
The students met May 24 with commission members.
Mentzer said they were supportive of the idea and he hopes it will be proposed to council in the late summer or early fall. “Doing this project was really a fun jumping off point because it’s something I didn’t think we’d be able to do, proposing something to a council and maybe actually getting it passed in the future,” he said.
Councilwoman Sharon Pearson said she needs to see proposal specifics but supports the concept of banning bags.
“They’re dangerous to birds and animals and they fly all over the place,” said Pearson, who stressed she wasn’t speaking for other council members. “I know some people reuse them for garbage and things like that but I find them to be a nuisance.”
Pearson, program coordinator for the Oberlin Project, a city and Oberlin College environmental and economic development initiative, said the ban is consistent with Oberlin’s efforts to be an environmental leader in Ohio.
“It could be set up as something other cities might want to adopt,” she said.
Evan Goodenow can be reached at 440-775-1611 or @GoodenowNews on Twitter.
Evan Goodenow | Oberlin News-Tribune Oberlin High School students Iris Arbogast and Steven Mentz are hoping to get use of plastic bags by businesses in Oberlin banned to reduce pollution. As part of their senior project, they conducted a survey about the issue.