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Plastic pollution becoming problem in Northeast Ohio waterways

Posted: 6:43 PM, Sep 18, 2019
Updated: 2019-09-19 18:24:03-04
Plastic bags

CUYAHOGA COUNTY, Ohio — Starting in January 2020, a ban on single-use plastic bags will take effect in Cuyahoga County. Months in advance, a local store is taking on the challenge of reducing plastic waste by switching to a no-bag policy.

At Revolve Kids and Tweens, a clothing resale store in Lyndhurst, owner Felice Mueller Pierce is passionate about being green. By buying back and reselling gently used clothes at a discount, Pierce hopes to help families with growing children save money, while extending the life of clothing before it’s recycled.

“There is so much garbage coming out of America that’s clothing,” Mueller Pierce said. “There are rag industries all over the world. We ship our used clothing all over the world, and they make rags and recycle a lot of it.”

That’s not the only way Mueller Pierce, who owns a total of three resale stores, tries to run a green business. For the past six months, she and her staff have stuck to a no-bag policy at Revolve Kids, letting customers know they’ll no longer receive a plastic bag with their purchases. It’s an initiative Mueller Pierce has wanted to try for years, after trying it briefly when she started her second resale store in 2012.

“I was really fed up,” Mueller Pierce said. “There’s been so much publicity about plastics in our waterways and the straw in the turtle’s nose.”

Mueller Pierce brought in Jill Bartolotta, an extension educator from Ohio Sea Grant, to educate her staff to be able to explain to customers why they were doing this.

“We got the staff on board and told all of our customers, ‘This is happening March 1,’ and really, I’ve had very little blowback from it,” Mueller Pierce said. “Most customers are all on board with it. They thank us. I have some customers who get really upset and say, ‘Well, that means you’re giving me a discount, right?’ And I said, ‘No, you’re supporting the environment. What more discount do you need?’”

How big the problem is

Bartolotta said 96% of the debris found in beach cleanups along the Great Lakes is plastic. Single-use plastic bags aren’t one of the more common items found in beach cleanups, according to Bartolotta, because many of them get stuck in storm drains or trees before ever making it to the beach. However, Bartolotta said, bags that do make it to the lake sink in the water.

“Plastic never truly goes away,” Bartolotta said. “It does not become a useful nutrient in the water environment.”

Bartolotta said “tens to hundreds of pounds” of plastic are removed in each beach cleanup.

“With these high water levels that have been caused by lots of rain, we’re seeing a lot more garbage on the beaches, and also rain brings a lot of stuff from the land to the beaches,” Bartolotta said. “So we’re getting it from both ends of the system.”

Plastic debris in waterways is a problem not just in northeast Ohio, but worldwide.

“It leaches chemicals that are harmful to the endocrine system,” Bartolotta said. “They can also be cancer-causing. Animals are starting to eat plastic and it’s giving them the false sense that they’re full and this is leading to starvation. Animals can also get entangled in plastics, whether they be fishing nets or fishing line or any type of circular plastic container. And then it’s also starting to contaminate our drinking water. They’re finding plastics in tap water, in bottled water. It’s in the air we breathe, they’re in the food that we eat. And so we don’t really know the harms to human health yet. That research is being done right now.”

Funding came from a federal grant

Ohio Sea Grant, which is part of The Ohio State University, received a grant through the City of Cleveland Mayor’s Office of Sustainability, as part of the NOAA Marine Debris Program, to study the issue of plastics in Northeast Ohio. Dr. Cathi Lehn, Sustainable Cleveland Manager, said the campaign, Don’t Break the Lake, included a social marketing effort, aimed at getting people to bring reusable bags to the grocery store and bring refillable water bottles everywhere.

The Mayor’s Office of Sustainability in Cleveland emphasized that regardless of what happens with Cuyahoga County’s bag ban, the ultimate goal is to “reduce the amount of single-use disposable plastics entering our environment” and that plastic bags and straws serve as “icons of the bigger issue of plastic pollution.”

Ohio Sea Grant conducted a survey and found out that many people have reusable bags but forget to bring them. The survey also found that 75% of respondents were in favor of some type of levy or fee or ban to limit the ability to get plastic bags from a grocery store.

“We’ve decided we don’t need to keep giving people reusable bags,” Bartolotta said. “They have them. We need to remind them to use them.”

Customer feedback mostly positive

Among the retailers with which Ohio Sea Grant partnered was Revolve Kids. Mueller Pierce said as part of the grant money, she was able to purchase reusable bags made of recycled plastic bottles that she now sells to her customers, after finding biodegradable cotton bags to be too expensive.

“My decision was let’s help create the market for these recyclable products,” Mueller Pierce said.

Most of the feedback on the no-bag policy has been positive, according to Mueller Pierce.

“I think it’s great,” customer Melissa Coffey said. “They’re definitely a problem. We see it on the news all the time. So I think if anyone makes the decision to go plastic-less, that’s great, cause every little bit helps.”

Dereese Cunningham of Cleveland Heights also agreed the no-bag policy was good.

“I don’t use the reusable bags, I just won’t use a bag at all,” Cunningham said.

Lake County tries giving out reusable bags

Giving customers reusable bags hasn’t worked quite so well everywhere. Ohio Sea Grant partnered with the Lake County Solid Waste District earlier this summer to hand out 1,600 reusable bags.

“We gave those away at the local farmers markets, so that people would be able to take those and use them and reuse them, rather than having them receive their vegetables and things in a plastic bag that they would just throw out,” said Tim Gourley, superintendent of the Lake County Solid Waste Division.

However, Ohio Sea Grant said when it returned to the markets in August to check on progress, not many people were reusing the bags at the farmers markets specifically.

Still, with plastic bags ending up in the trash to be taken to landfills, Gourley said it’s important to educate people about good recycling habits.

“We’d rather reduce as much waste as we can from the landfill,” Gourley said. “So there’s no sense in throwing perfectly good resources away. If you can use something instead of it or if you can use it again, we’d prefer that.”

How you can make a difference

Gourley said people at the farmers markets did come up and talk about recycling with representatives from the Solid Waste District. He advised anyone who is interested in recycling at home to get a list from a local municipality.

“Don’t put things in that you would like to see recycled or you think might be recycled,” Gourley said. “Just make sure that it is recyclable, because if it’s not something that can be recycled, then they look at as a contamination and that is a problem also. As the amount of contamination goes up in the loads of recycling, it gets to the point where it may not be easy to remove it, and then they just end up throwing it away.”

Changing behavior can be hard, but Felice Mueller Pierce believes it’s possible.

“It’s not scary,” Mueller Pierce said. “You just have to say, ‘I’m doing it, cause it’s the right thing to do for the environment and for our waterways.’”

Mueller Pierce added that “it’s going to take some gumption to stand up to customers who don’t get it. But the more of us who do it, customers are saying this is awesome.”