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Published on February 16th, 2017 | by GrowWNYAdmin

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Recap: What to Do With Bags?

On Wednesday, February 15th, the WNYEA hosted a community discussion that explored the challenges of plastic in our environment. We were joined by several distinguished speakers including:

  • Keynote speaker, Dr. Sherri Mason, Professor of Chemistry and Department Chair of Geology and Environmental Sciences at SUNY at Fredonia
  • Nate Drag, Water Program Manager with the Alliance for the Great Lakes
  • Bonnie Lawrence, Deputy Commissioner of the Erie County Department of Environment and Planning
  • Brian Smith, Associate Executive Director of the Citizens Campaign for the Environment

Ryan McPherson, chair of the board of the WNYEA, started the evening with an introduction to each of the speakers and the work that the Alliance is doing to combat plastic pollution in Western New York. He also shared the exciting news that the Alliance’s 2017 Strategic Plan is accessible on the About Page of the website. You can read more about the vision and planning that has been taking place here.

Starting the presentations off with an engaging exploration of the research being done on plastic pollution in the Great Lakes was Dr. Mason. She helped us understand how plastic is attractive from an industrial perspective due to its light, malleable, and durable properties. As a result of these properties, plastic is found in startling quantities in our waterways in a range of sizes and from a variety of sources. What is disturbing, is the fact that on average plastic bags are used for approximately 12 minutes and are estimated to take 500 years to degrade. Dr. Mason also made the point that, in order to reach audiences that are less concerned about plastic pollution, we need to understand that both people and the planet are made of 70% water; and at such high percentages, if we are finding plastic in our water, there is bound to be plastic getting into our bodies. Moving forward, the most important thing is educating the public about these startling facts.

Next, Bonnie Lawrence touched on the important ways that Erie County is increasing awareness about the contamination that is happening in our lakes and promoting the growth of reusable bags. The county is working hard to partner not only with the community, but with municipalities too. In order to encourage the shift towards using less plastic, the county is doing things like offering an Environmental Awards Program, and sharing annual recommendations reports to illustrate a commitment to making environmentally responsible choices. Finally, to better engage the community, Erie County has jumped on board with Twitter handles and is encouraging members to use the hashtag #ErieBYOBag to share information about cutting down on plastic.

Building on Bonnie’s work with the community, Nate Drag shed some light on how the Alliance for the Great Lakes is also working to educate the public on how they can make more sustainable choices in their daily lives to cut down on plastic entering the environment. They are focusing their efforts on citizen science projects that engage the community and in turn help scientists collect valuable date. Currently the Alliance for the Great Lakes hosts annual beach cleanups that serve us in two ways – one, litter is cleaned from beaches and two, that litter is categorized and reported on. Doing so helps scientists to evaluate what types of plastics are entering the water and in what quantities in order to develop plans of how to best react. A promising result of these beach cleanup data collections was legislature that received bipartisan support to ban microbeads in Erie County. A win for Western New York, no doubt!

Finally, Brian Smith spoke about recycling efforts and possible solutions to the prevalence of plastic bags. In his work with the Citizens Campaign for the Environment, Brian works to change consumer behavior. While consumers are seen making an effort to reduce plastic by opting for biodegradable paper bags at the grocery store, we must also consider the cost and efficiency of producing paper bags. At this time, the goal is to encourage a switch to reusable bags and recycling plastic before moving to impose a ban or a fee on the use of disposable bags. He also observed that we have a lot to learn from other countries that are successfully cutting down on their consumption of plastic. A reoccurring theme in these countries was an effort to discourage the culture of disposable products that grows from free giveaways, by levying a small fee.

The evening attracted a positive variety of interested community members and supportive Alliance members. Dr. Mason wrapped up the evening with an excellent answer to a challenging question; the question was to the effect of, at the end of the day everyone in this room knows what needs to be done to eliminate plastic. But how do we encourage others to make the switch? Dr. Mason made the point that what it comes down to is education. We need to keep having these meetings and keep talking to each other.

Stay tuned for details of our next community discussion!

If you were not able to join us for this event but would like to read more coverage, click here for an article from Rebecca Vogt of TWC News.

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