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Paper bags in Jefferson Market in Athens, Feb. 17, 2024.

Plastic bag ban encouraging reusable bags

For nearly two months, Athens businesses have adapted to the city ordinance prohibiting businesses from handing out single-use plastic bags to customers, and some individuals are optimistic that the ordinance will create a continued decrease in plastic in Athens.  

According to Nancy Pierce, a member of Athens ReThink Plastics, research by Environment America released last month that found areas with bag bans can eliminate almost 300 single-use plastic bags per person per year. Bans in five locations across the country, with a combined population of 12 million people in those locations, have cut single-use plastic bag consumption by about six billion bags a year. 

Based on those figures, Pierce predicted that due to the ban, Athens will see a decrease of seven million plastic bags per year for its approximately 24,000 residents. 

The project was a citizen-led initiative by the local organization Athens ReThink Plastics. Councilmember Alan Swank, D-4th Ward, said he has worked with the organization to develop the legislation since his election in 2021.

“This is the best kind of legislation there is – legislation that is well vetted by the citizens,” Swank said.

According to a previous Post report, the Ohio Attorney General’s Office filed a lawsuit against the city Dec. 27, 2023, claiming the ban was unconstitutional according to the Ohio Revised Code and demanded the city stop enforcing the ban. Currently, many Athens businesses still no longer offer plastic bags in compliance with the ban.

Initially slated for Aug. 1, 2023, the ban’s start date was postponed to January due to financial considerations, allowing business to use up their existing stock of single-use bags, Swank said. 

He said the ordinance allocated $5,000 to aid businesses transitioning to alternative bag options. It allowed businesses to purchase bags from the Athens Community Center at half the cost compared to buying directly from a manufacturer, 

Athens Deputy Service-Safety Director Andrew Chiki said about 20 businesses inquired about purchasing bags from the program, but not many needed assistance. 

Chiki said he observed that most of Athens’ businesses could independently transition to paper or compostable bags by the time the ordinance went into effect with little trouble.

Pierce said the organization had visited approximately 90 businesses before enacting the ban, receiving positive feedback from almost all.

Athens ReThink Plastics creates reusable bags out of feed sacks and medical cloth that would otherwise be thrown away and distributes them throughout the community, Pierce said. She added that the group has given out almost 2,000 reusable bags since the ban was enacted.

“It’s a really nice way … feeling like (you’re) doing something worthwhile,” she said. 

Liliana Kijek, a graduate student in science and environmental studies, said plastic bags cause long-lasting harm to the environment because they can take hundreds if not thousands of years to break down in landfills. She said the problem gets worse because when plastic bags break down, they do not decompose. Instead, the bags break into smaller pieces that release microplastic particles into the soil, water and air.

According to the Center for Biological Diversity, 1.9 million grocery bags and other plastic bags were collected in the 2018 International Coastal Cleanup.

The center also reported that as of March 2018, 311 local bag ordinances were adopted in 24 states and 127 countries adopted legislation to regulate plastic bags, as of July 2018.

Swank said the ordinance aimed not just to swap single-use plastic bags for recyclable ones but to instill the habit of using reusable bags, which he has observed people doing regularly. 

“We have the capacity to greatly reduce the overall plastic pollution,” Kijek said. “Bring your own bags, reduce your own individual consumption of single-use plastic and spread the word.” 

Swank discussed potential initiatives to address plastic packaging in Athens, including single-use plastic water bottles. One approach includes advocating for alternative packaging in the vending machines, similar to what the city did with vendors at the Athens City Pool last year to provide recyclable or compostable materials instead of single-use plastic packaging.

“I wish as a country, as a nation, we could get together in a way to do that better,” Swank said. 

Janalee Stock, a member of Athens ReThink Plastics, has held multiple presentations for all age levels at schools in the area. Athens City School sixth-grade students watched the documentary Microplastic Madness last fall. In the past week, Stock held a review in eight sixth-grade classes, applying knowledge from the film to a bingo game, and handed out stainless steel water bottles to reduce microplastics in drinking water.

With the Athens community's continued compliance with the plastic bag ban, Swank is hopeful the city is in the right direction to limit the city’s plastic use. 

“I’ve been real pleased that the citizens of Athens have started bringing their own bags and would encourage them to continue to do it,” Swank said. “If everyone’s doing it and we can move in that direction, I think we’ve achieved what we set out to achieve.”


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