Student Spotlight: Tiffany Eberhard

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November 28, 2012

UGA student wages war on plastic bags

Tiffany Eberhard’s nemesis isn’t that imposing.

But it is lightweight, durable and ubiquitous. And to hear Eberhard tell it, it’s a threat to the environment and its beauty, as well as the product of poorly spent resources.

The nemesis in question is the common plastic grocery bag — that hard-to-recycle, oil-based product that takes centuries to degrade.

“Plastic bags are being produced at a very quick rate, and most are just being thrown away,” Eberhard said.

To stem plastic bag production and use, Eberhard helped start an organization at the University of Georgia that officially took form this month with its aim laid out in its namesake: Bag the Bag.

She and club members have been making appearances at the Saturday farmers market at Bishop Park to educate and hand out reusable bags. Eberhard, who also is interning at the county recycling department, is taking the initiative to area elementary schools as well, where she tries for a bottom-up cultural shift by encouraging children — and by extension, their parents — to use reusable bags instead of the plastic ones.

“It’s so ingrained in our culture that you go to the grocery store and take as many plastic bags as you want,” she said. “I wouldn’t say it’s something that’s wrong with our culture; it’s just something that could be better.”

It’s an issue the Athens-Clarke Commission started to tackle some years ago, Commissioner Kelly Girtz said. While serving as the co-chairman of the solid waste task force, Girtz said the idea of a surcharge on plastic bags used in Athens-Clarke County was floated, but it ultimately was shot down before any details were finalized. It would have been the first of its kind in Georgia, he said, and blazing that path could have led to litigation and a questionable payout, given the proximity to retailers and grocers in Oconee County.

Instead, they opted to encourage education efforts, like those Eberhard is undertaking, with the hopes of a behavioral shift toward what Girtz called one of the most littered items in the country.

“You can find them tangled in branches of trees and floating down the Oconee River,” he said.

Product Policy Institute Executive Director Bill Sheehan, whose organization promotes changing from a “throw-away” society to a sustainable one, commends the club for promoting reusable bags instead of trying to get more folks to recycle them, saying that increasing those efforts wouldn’t do much to keep the bags out of the environment. But he’s skeptical of what he calls a “relatively ineffectual” education-only approach. He argues that governmental policy — ideally a full-on ban or a plastic bag surcharge — is the best way to combat the bags.

“We are behind other places in the world. Whole countries have already implemented plastic bag bans, so now is a good time,” he said. “Now would be the perfect time for Athens to get out ahead of Georgia. I think that’s our role, to be the leaders, not the laggards.”

He said braving things such as litigation comes down to asking whether a ban on the bags by local governments is the right thing to do. In his mind, it clearly is.

The bags eventually break down into smaller and smaller bits, with much of it that reaches the sea coming to resemble plankton, a primary food source for many ocean creatures.

“These billions and billions of little bits, they don’t degrade; they just get smaller and smaller,” he said. “And the damage this does has been best documented in the ocean.”

However, he said that the educational effort is better than nothing.

“If you can push (reusable bag use from) 5 percent up to 10 percent, or 10 percent up to 15 percent, it’s good,” he said. “It’s better than nothing, except if it gives people the sense that they are really making a difference in solving the problem in this relatively ineffectual voluntary approach.”

He and Eberhard both noted that the bags, while recyclable, aren’t recycled very often. Finding a location to do so can be difficult, Eberhard said, and they can’t be tossed in the single-stream bins because they could get tangled in the sorting equipment and damage the costly machines.

Eberhard said she hopes the commission eventually takes the lead on fighting plastic waste, though she understands that educating the public is a necessary step before looking for legislative solutions.

Girtz stood fast that he believes the culture shift will work best, but if legislation were to become necessary, it would be handled at the state or national level.

He cited Ireland as one example of national legislation proving fruitful in the war on the bags: After it instituted a surcharge of about 20 U.S. cents in March 2002, there was a more than 90 percent reduction in their use.

Tiffany is a bachelor of science student in Environmental Health Science.

 

 

AJ Reynolds/Staff