JOHNSON COUNTY– They billow on tree branches and tumble rampantly across otherwise pastoral terrain. Their creation consumes 12 million barrels of the country’s oil supply annually, only to be used once and stuffed en masse under kitchen sinks everywhere. They account for the deaths of 100,000 marine animals worldwide each year, according to the Surfrider Foundation. Each one will remain on earth for the next 200 to 1,000 years.
They are single-use plastic bags, and a growing coalition of Johnson County residents are working to eliminate them from the landfills and the landscape of everyday life.
But it’s a big hill to climb.
Representatives of 100 Grannies Uniting for a Livable Future approached the North Liberty City Council on March 25 to assess the city’s interest in banning the use of plastic bags. They were met with a reaction similar to those of other municipal governments in the area, as expressed by North Liberty councilor Gerry Kuhl.
“I don’t support a reduction by a ban,” Kuhl said. “I think that gets people too excited. I think a more positive aspect is to support a massive educational effort, and that we work with our partners, chamber, businesses, and our own staff to provide education in this area so we can reduce the use.”
Education efforts have been a good start for the 100 Grannies, a grassroots group with a mission of promoting renewable energy sources, reducing carbon footprints and encouraging sustainable practices. The group was organized by Iowa City residents Barbara Schlachter and Ann Christenson, after the two environmental advocates went to Washington, D.C., to protest the proposed expansion of the Keystone XL pipeline in 2011. Schlachter described on the group’s website the inspiration she gained from the impending birth of her new grandchild.
“This is our purpose the rest of our lives– to guard the earth, the source of all life,” Schlachter wrote, “and to do it with perseverance, love, humor, and hope, that our grandchildren and all children may live in a reawakened, regenerated world.”
It’s a bit of a juxtaposition to have ladies of a certain age– not all of who are biological grandmothers, incidentally– enlighten others on the importance of solar, wind and geothermal energy sources and their ever-advancing technologies.
But members Becky Ross and Maureen Arensdorf reiterated the benefits afforded by age and experience.
“When you retire, you’re not so busy,” said Arensdorf. “Many families with young children don’t have as much time to think about this. We love them, we love their children, and we want what’s best for them. We can see that the climate is changing, and it’s going to keep changing unless we make improvements in our activities. We may be at a place in our lives that we can spend significant time doing things to get the ball rolling and help people understand how important this is.”
“Many of us are retired. We are older and bolder,” said Ross. “We have nothing to lose by pursuing change. We don’t hold jobs where we could get fired by speaking out.”
These sexa- and septagenarians are not just full of talk, though. The Grannies launched their coalition in 2012 by hosting a booth at the Iowa City Arts Festival to introduce people to the impact of global warming on the earth’s Arctic regions. Later that fall, they staged a rally on the Iowa City Ped Mall, encouraging passers-by to exchange their plastic single-use bags for reusable ones the Grannies had garnered from local businesses. They continue to provide workshops and presentations to all types of audiences, from seniors to lobbyists and legislators in an attempt to affect change.
After meeting with the Metropolitan Planning Organization of Johnson County (MPOJC) in November 2013, they felt encouraged in their efforts.
“They were the ones who said yes, let’s pursue this,” said Ross. MPOJC ‘s Urban Area Policy Board (UAPB), comprised of local elected officials, suggested the 100 Grannies form a subcommittee to further explore a ban on single-use plastic bags, with the support of MPOJC staff and UAPB members. The MPOJC subcommittee suggested a three-step process, beginning with educating people about the harmful effects of the widespread use of single-use plastic bags.
That led the subcommittee to address the issue with first the Iowa City council and later Coralville and North Liberty’s governing bodies as well.
“They weren’t quite as encouraging,” Ross said.
As with the other metro-area councils, Ross and Arensdorf shared a pile of facts with North Liberty’s elected officials in March.
“There is no doubt this is a difficult issue,” said Arensdorf. She noted that the counter-arguments typically come from plastic bag manufacturers, including the Progressive Bag Alliance, and the suppliers of the chemicals and materials that go into making them, such as oil companies. “There are arguments from both sides of the issue. We’d like to present ours.”
The 100 Grannies members offered several points, including the staying power of plastic. Even when it breaks down into smaller pieces, those fragments leach harmful chemicals into the ground and waterways. Plastic manufacturers use an enormous amount of fossil fuels, Arensdorf said, and even though plastic bags are often used a second time, they still end up in the landfill or as litter in farm fields that can damage farm machinery.
While community leaders have expressed understanding of the group’s environmental concerns and appreciation for their efforts, none have been willing to take formal action, citing the potential for retailers to lose customers if they don’t provide the expected plastic.
To offset that unintended effect, the Grannies are redoubling efforts to educate the county’s community leaders in the hopes of bringing them together in a concerted movement.
“We feel that by making the phase-out of single-use plastic bags a county-wide initiative, we are not putting individuals stores or communities at a disadvantage,” Arensdorf said. “It’s difficult to imagine that a potential Fareway shopper would drive to Cedar Rapids merely because they have to bring their own bags to Fareway. Costco and Aldi’s have been quite successful without providing plastic bags. New Pioneer Co-op has continued to grow and gain recognition in the community, and they charge five cents for bags and credit five cents when shoppers bring their own. This will be a new way of doing things, but people adapt. It’s a small way each of us can make our earth a little healthier.”
However, North Liberty council members made their own cases for bagging a ban, at least for now.
“When you talk about banning anything, that is almost immediately zero for me that I will pay attention to it,” said councilor Brian Wayson. He said often people think replacing plastic bags with paper is a better environmental choice. “Paper bags are worse for the environment than plastic in terms of resource utilization.” Wayson said he would support a public push for reducing plastic bag use, as did council member Coleen Chipman.
“If we have cloth bags that are free and plastic bags cost 25 cents that will change people’s opinion, but I don’t think we are ready for a complete ban. I think there are things we can do in the community to remind people to use their cloth bags instead,” said Chipman. “Using the signs on banks, utilizing our NLTV station; a daily reminder does help a lot.”
Mayor Tom Salm suggested a legislative change would likely have to begin at the state level.
“We all agree there is some education that has to happen, but at some point it’s going to have to come from a higher level to have to move it along,” said Salm.
Strongest support came from council member Chris Hoffman, who disagreed that state government should instigate the change.
“If we expect someone at the state or federal level to do something it’s never going to happen. We need to be doing it locally,” Hoffman said. However, he also was against instituting a ban at this time.
“The word ‘banning’ creates fear and terror out there. Let’s just replace the word with ‘elimination.’ I don’t want to continue with the education effort indefinitely. I think it’s a matter of including folks who are serious about wanting to eliminate plastic bags and coming up with a solution the entire county can embrace. The state will figure it out after that.”
The council took no official action on the topic, but Hoffman and Kuhl agreed to work with the 100 Grannies coalition to create a timeframe for the MPOJC’s recommended three-step process: education and encouragement;, charging a fee for plastic bags; and a plastic bag ban, over the course of six to 12 months.. Hoffman said he would like to include county officials and business owners in the planning, and report back to the MPOJC.
“I would support any educational period as long as it we had a definition of what we are going to achieve and within a specific timeframe,” Hoffman concluded.
Meanwhile, the grannies’ group will climb the plastic refuse pile one baby step at a time, understanding they are up against attitudes and behaviors difficult to change.
“Talking about global change is so overwhelming, we can feel hopeless,” said Arensdorf. “People are scared.”
“There are people who just don’t want to believe it, and there are many reasons why.” Ross added. “Much of it is people think they can’t do anything, or have no idea how to start.”
And certainly, incentives exist for some to maintain the status quo.
“There is a lot of money and power behind keeping things the way they’ve always been,” Arensdorf said. That’s why grassroots work is so important, she said. “We don’t have money but we do have numbers, if we can get people organized. If people don’t start believing personally that they can take steps to make things change, it’s not going to happen.”
Ross said it’s easier to take the first step than some people think, though.
“By setting an example, you affect other people too,” Ross said, and she tries to set good examples in many ways. She belongs to a sewing group who makes cloth bags to donate, she recently encouraged fellow church members to give up plastic bags for Lent, and she hands out reusable bags whenever she has the chance.
“Doing something is better than doing nothing,” said Ross. “This is not just about plastic bags in North Liberty or Johnson County. It’s about taking a first step in helping our citizens realize that plastic never goes away.”