By Joshua Blanco
Take the weight of the Empire State Building and multiply that by 35,000, and you’ll get an idea for the amount of plastic estimated to be sitting in landfills across the globe by 2050, according to a recent study published in Science Advances. If you think that’s bad, imagine an ocean with more plastic than fish.
Unfortunately, this is an accurate depiction of the future of our planet: a dismal projection that calls for immediate changes in our way of life. In an attempt to mitigate the negative effects associated with unrecycled plastic, cities across the country are focusing their attention on plastic bags, calling on residents to take action in one of two ways: by enacting policies to deincentivize customers from using them, or by issuing bans that prohibit their use altogether.
In North Carolina, however, the trend seems to be moving in the opposite direction. In 2017, government officials repealed legislation that effectively banned plastic bags in the Outer Banks—a bold move in light of the climate crisis the planet is currently up against.
The Voluntary Bag Ban in Biltmore Village
In an effort to get the state back on track, Asheville GreenWorks launched a Plastic Reduction Task Force last year, calling on volunteers to create a plan that would help businesses in Biltmore Village reduce their use of plastic. Approximately 30 businesses joined the new Voluntary Bag Ban, contributing to nearly 7,000 pounds of plastic being diverted from landfills.
“We’re a part of the business community in Biltmore Village and we definitely wanted to be a part of that,” says Ginger Milner, a staff member at Village Antiques which took part in the ban. “We think it’s an important thing.” Though Village Antiques had already been using paper bags exclusively, steering clear of plastic altogether, they looked at other ways they could be more environmentally friendly. “We think that it goes way beyond plastic bags,” Milner says. “We took it as an opportunity to look at day-to-day things, such as getting rid of things that we might have used and just trying to be more vigilant about reusing in general.”
The Cost of Quitting Plastic
That’s not to say the voluntary ban doesn’t come without some disadvantages. Switching to paper can be costly. Eric Bradford, director of operations at Asheville GreenWorks, says paper bags are roughly ten times more expensive than their plastic counterparts. However, making the switch can result in a more satisfied customer base that he believes will likely offset the costs associated with the transition.
Bradford cites Green Sage as an admirable local example of environmental business practices. While their commitment to running a sustainable business comes with a high price tag, they inform their customers that the expense is for a good purpose. “It is something that we crave as a society these days,” Bradford says. “We want that. We want to use our money correctly and know that it’s supporting that sort of thing.”
Will It Work?
Still, many doubt the efficacy of going plastic-free. Some claim such a move could actually be worse for the environment. Manufacturing paper bags is an environmentally taxing process that involves heavy tree removal and greenhouse gas emissions. But unlike plastic bags, paper bags can be composted. Even when paper bags are not properly recycled, they break down much faster than plastic and cause less harm to the ecosystem.
In a 2019 study, economist Rebecca Taylor found a massive uptick in 4- and 8-gallon garbage bag sales in a number of cities where plastic bag bans were instituted. Bradford feels this won’t be an issue in Asheville as long as people are informed about sustainable alternatives. “As humans, we’re bound to our convenience,” he says. “We’re hoping to break that sort of habit [of using plastic bags] and look at it a different way. If we keep giving people information, if we keep giving them alternatives and we make it easy and affordable, then folks are going to make the switch and they’ll break that cycle.” With this in mind, some plastic bag alternatives are better than others. For example, a cotton bag would have to be used 20,000 times to offset the damaging effects of one plastic bag.
“I know that we can do this,” Bradford says. “We are a very smart people and we can do this. We can make this move. We really have no choice.”
For more information about the Plastic Reduction Task Force, visit AshevilleGreenWorks.org/Plastics- Reduction-Task-Force.