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Thursday, June 23, 2011 12:13 am

New push for reusable bags

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At eight of Springfield’s largest grocery centers, between 80 and 92 percent of customers choose plastic bags at the checkout counter, according to a survey by Springfield’s Better Bag Project, an initiative sparked by the efforts of retired pathologist Joan Barenfanger and lawyer Jane Denes about 18 months ago as a way to encourage use of reusable bags.

At each of those stores, checkout clerks each week hand over between 10,000 and 15,000 plastic bags, only 1.5 percent of which end up in the recycling bin. The rest of them either end up scattered about as litter, or in the landfill, where each year the average Sangamon County resident sends upwards of 11 pounds of plastic shopping bags, according to a 2009 report by the Illinois Recycling Association.

It’s a situation that just shouldn’t be, Barenfanger says, taking just a brief moment to preach the perils of plastic bags. From their 1,000-year lifespan and usual petroleum-based composition to their tendency as litter to strangle birds and get tangled in trees, a tossed-out plastic bag is less than environmentally kind.

But most people already know this, and the alternative, reusable bags, is readily available, Barenfanger says. The challenge, then, is breaking the habit, and the best way to approach that is setting a good example, providing a little positive reinforcement and, of course, tapping into kids’ power of persuasion, she says.

Already, several community leaders, including firefighters and CEOs, have volunteered to tote and tout their own reusable bags, serving as living poster-children of the Better Bag movement. Others have allowed Barenfanger to speak to their organizations, some of which are working to add their own touch to the Better Bag Project.

Downtown Springfield Incorporated, for one, is developing a proposal to take to its members that could include incentives for both merchants and consumers who choose to distribute or use Downtown-branded bags, says Victoria Ringer, DSI executive director. Others, like Target and Bella, offer rebates or discounts for using reusable bags instead of plastic, Barenfanger says.

Meanwhile, Barenfanger is also taking the cause to the schools, including Capital College Preparatory Academy, where in August between 10 and 20 students will have the opportunity to gather data about household use of plastic bags, to present their research to other groups, and to track any difference their efforts make in plastic bag consumption.

“I think it goes back to having the worldly exposure, not only about the specific project to help the environment ... but also to familiarize them with the process of conducting research,” says CCPA principal Chris Colgren, whose school is geared toward sending 100 percent of its students to college.

Barenfanger says she’s also asking youngsters to take a two-pronged pledge. “The little kids can do a lot. Even when they take the pledge ‘I will always try to use reusable bags,’ how many times do they actually buy something? It’s their parents,” she says. Hence part two of their pledge: “‘I will always try to put the reusable bags back in a convenient place,’ like near Mom’s keys or back in the car, so it will be available for reuse. It gives them something to do.”

Besides continuing to recruit community leaders to serve as Better Bag examples and speaking to businesses and community groups, the Project’s next step is to ask the city council to establish a city-appointed task force that would study and report on the advantages and disadvantages to single-use plastic bags, decreasing their use in Springfield and whether a ban on plastic bags in Springfield would be feasible and beneficial to the city.

Ward 6 Alderman Cory Jobe says he’ll be approaching the city council about such a task force in the coming weeks but says doing so is not a commitment to supporting a plastic bag ban.

“If we really want to take plastic bags out of the equation, we’re going to have to look at some ways to regulate that at the city council level,” Jobe says. “If there’s going to be a need for some sort of ordinance ... I want to have the task force review all the positives and negatives of doing such an effort.”

He says he doesn’t think the city is ready to ban plastic bag use at this time. “I think a task force would be a wise move at this point.”

To schedule a presentation or share ideas for encouraging reusable bag use, call the Better Bag Project at 217-787-9405.

Contact Rachel Wells at rwells@illinoistimes.com

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