A group of University of Delaware students are trying to encourage businesses in Lewes’ historic district to hand out plastic bags to customers less often.
Delaware doesn’t have a ban on plastic bags — but a UD class is trying to get something started at the city level, though they're not looking for a city ban on plastic bags just yet.
“We came up with one solution where we could start to reduce our use of plastic bags — a commitment to reduction and how businesses and consumers can change their behavior,” said Jennifer Joseph, a graduate student who took a class called “Debating Marine Conservation” this semester.
At a presentation Thursday at UD's College of Earth, Ocean and Environment in Lewes, students told local businesses how plastic bags threaten marine life and what they can do to help customers cut back on their use. UD marine science professor Danielle Dixson taught the course.
“Animals like sea turtles can mistake the plastic bags for a jellyfish, or whales can eat them quite often. Animals can get entangled in them,” Dixson said.
Plastic bags can also break down into tiny pieces of plastic called microplastics, which marine life could swallow unknowingly.
Students originally wanted to go for a statewide ban on plastic bags, but decided to start smaller — with the City of Lewes. They want businesses to form a voluntary coalition showing customers they’re on board with a greener society and safer ocean. Some stores could choose to ban plastic bags, while others could have a policy on how many items you need to buy to get a bag.
Businesses part of the coalition, called "Businesses For Better Bags", would put stickers in their windows so people can see they're making an effort to reduce plastic bag use.
"It was really nice to talk to some business owners and see that they were already on board and trying to make a change at their level," Joseph said. "When you go to the grocery store, sometimes you buy one item and they immediately put it in a plastic bag when you can easily carry it. Things like where you start to make people think 'do I really need a bag?' and you think 'oh I probably don't. I can carry this'," Joseph said.
Students polled businesses and people about their plastic bag use. Of the 91 people surveyed, 42 people said they would be more likely to shop at a store if it were part of a coalition supporting a more environmentally friendly society. Fifty-seven of the survey responders said they did not recycle their plastic bags, and 31 said they always use a reusable bag.
A class from UD’s Department of Fashion & Apparel Studies contributed by designing four prototypes for reusable bags, made from different fabrics, environmentally-friendly substances and plants, like eucalyptus.
Some Lewes businesses have already been working to cut down on plastic bag use. Jen Mason, the owner of Biblion Used Books & Rare Finds at 205 2nd St. in Lewes, said her shop distributes paper bags to customers and sells reusable bags to those interested.
They occasionally give out plastic bags to customers on rainy days so customers don’t immediately damage their books when they walk outside.
“We usually ask people if they need a bag. Not everybody wants to have a bag, it’s one more thing to deal with for a lot of folks,” Mason said.
Mason said she found the presentation interesting, and even found herself questioning the kinds of choices she has made with plastic and paper bags.
“You can’t live in a coastal community and not start to think about these kinds of things, because you see the effects,” Mason said.
The Lewes Chamber of Commerce was at the presentation. Executive Director Betsy Reamer says she’ll bring some of the ideas on how to cut down on plastic bags to the chamber board.
“I think it would benefit the community, the environment, and that enhances what it’s like to live and have businesses here,” Reamer said.
State lawmakers introduced a bill in 2015 that would require customers to pay 5 cents per plastic bag at stores that are part of the state’s recycling program. The bill made it out of committee in May 2016.
The bill followed a statewide law since 2009 mandating retail stores to have a recycling program for plastic bags. The law applies to stores at least 7,000 square feet, and to companies with at least three stores of 3,000 square feet.
California has banned plastic bags. Boston passed a citywide ban in the end of November.