“There is no difference between an environmental health problem and a human health problem,” ChicoBag founder Andy Keller writes on his blog. He’s writing about the impact plastic pollution has on the planet—and all of us. He adds that cutting down on the volume of plastic bags consumed is a critical step to environmental restoration. “It’s all connected.”
California-based ChicoBag upcycles recycled plastic into reusable bags for groceries, produce, and snacks, as well as handbags and travel bags. The company highlights its advocacy with a mascot it has dubbed the “trash monster,” a costumed volunteer that provides and eye-catching depiction of how many plastic bags the average American uses in a year.
According to EPA expert Marcia Anderson, that number is staggering.
“Worldwide, as many as one trillion plastic bags are used each year. In the United States, according to the EPA, we use over 380 billion plastic bags and wraps yearly,” she wrote in a 2016 blog post.
That’s 5,700 Empire State Buildings worth of plastic bags.
To make matters worse, a study published in ScienceAdvances last year found that only 9% of plastics are recycled. That means that over 90% of plastics, plus the resources used to produce them—generally non-renewable, petroleum-derived raw materials—find their way into landfills and waters, and along shorelines, where they pose a hazard to wildlife.
New York-based Eco-Bags Products has been hard at work trying to prevent the plastic bag overload for nearly three decades. The company has been selling the kinds of lightweight cotton mesh bags and canvas totes that were used long before plastic bags were available since 1989. They continue to produce ethically and sustainably sourced, durable reusable bags.
Eco-Bags Products and ChicoBag stand with other environmentally-minded entrepreneurs, like Austin, Texas-based Blue Avocado, which recycles plastic (generally bottles) into sturdy, reusable zip-top baggies and insulated lunch totes, who are trying to help consumers bag the bag habit.
Lawmakers, too, have joined the charge to promote reusable and eco-friendly alternatives. In Italy, a new law that expands on the 2015 European Union directive and went into effect January 1 bans plastic bags in favor of biodegradable or compostable alternatives, and requires retailers to charge shoppers a nominal fee for each bag.
The required fee—roughly equivalent to a few cents per bag—has prompted lively debate on social media since it took effect Jan. 1. Some Italian politicians criticized it as an unnecessary burden on shoppers, whiles others countered that the amount, although small, would raise awareness and promote more mindful bag consumption.
Even the Church of England has moved against plastic pollution. According to the New York Times, it added plastics to the list of items those observing Lent are asked to forsake. The Church went so far as to produce a plastics-free Lent calendar with tips and eco-minded bible verses.
In the United States, where a national referendum on single-use plastic bags is unlikely, local and regional policymakers have taken steps in their jurisdictions to cut down on plastic bag pollution. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, a number of major cities like San Francisco and Seattle have implemented plastic bag bans, and a host of others—including New York City and Washington, D.C.—have plastic bag fees. Between 2015 and 2016, the group said 23 states had proposed rules around their use.
While this may seem like too little too late, companies are tackling current ocean pollution, too. The Spanish lifestyle brand ECOALF not only creates clothing using waste materials like decommissioned fishing nets, coffee grounds, plastic waste, used tires, and cotton waste, but also collects some of the trash itself. Through their “Upcycling the Oceans” initiative, the company works with fishermen in Spain and Thailand to retrieve waste from the ocean which they then use to make high quality, high fashion clothing.
Philadelphia-based outdoor and camping goods shop United By Blue removes one pound of trash from waterways for every item purchased. The company has organized countless community cleanups and removed more than a million pounds of trash since its launch in 2010.
And according to United By Blue founder and CEO Brian Linton, things are looking up: “Each year, we return to the site of our first-ever cleanup, Bartram’s Garden in West Philadelphia, to kick off our cleanup season… It’s rewarding to see the space get a little cleaner and to watch more volunteers come out each year.”