year in the United States, 12 million barrels of oil are used to make
380 billion single-use plastic shopping bags. On average, these bags are
used for 12 minutes, but they take 500 years to break down.
Students in the University of Delaware master’s seminar called
Debating Marine Conservation this fall discovered single-use plastic
bags are a local problem as well. Plastic bags are the second most
common beach litter in Delaware (after cigarette butts). In a survey
that the students conducted in Lewes, Delaware, two-thirds of people
said they sometimes or always take plastic bags when shopping, but only
38 percent return them to large retailers for recycling.
In addition to being unsightly, the plastic bags can kill marine life
that mistake them for food or get entangled in them, and students
initially wanted to advocate for a ban on businesses giving the bags out
at all, as has been done in places around the country, most recently in
Boston. As they surveyed the Lewes community, the students realized
that it wouldn’t be practical to start with a ban, and they adapted
their approach to something that ended up generating a great deal of
interest when the students presented their ideas to Lewes community
members who attended a presentation at UD’s Hugh R. Sharp campus in
Lewes on Dec. 7.
Students proposed a coalition called Business for Better Bags.
“We live in Lewes. We’re members of
the community. We shop in your stores, and we really care about the
future of this town,” graduate student Emily Ruhl said to business
owners at the presentation, which she conducted with fellow student Paul
Leingang. “We need your help. What we are proposing is to form a
voluntary coalition of businesses in downtown Lewes who are committed to
reducing their plastic bag usage.”
Danielle Dixson, an assistant professor of marine science and policy in UD's College of Earth, Ocean, and Environment, taught the master’s level course at the Lewes campus.
By committing to move along a continuum from a bag with every
purchase to no bags at all, business owners could join such a coalition,
which the students proposed calling Businesses for Better Bags, or B3.
For some businesses, it might mean only providing bags when customers
buy a certain number of items, while others could choose to ask every
customer whether they want a bag or not. And for everyone, the goal
would be to change behavior and end up giving out as few plastic bags as
Business owner Jen Mason of Biblion Used Books & Rare Finds was
initially resistant to the idea, pointing out plastic bags serve a real
purpose in protecting her customers’ purchases on rainy days. But she
always asks customers if they need a bag, sells Biblion reusable bags,
and would like to see Lewes make progress in reducing plastic bag use.
She was happy to hear that the students listened to concerns she and
other business owners expressed.
“Most of us want to see something like this,” Mason said. “It could be powerful and a positive idea for our town.”
The students’ research seemed to bear that out: 62 percent of survey
respondents said they would be more likely to shop at stores working to
reduce plastic bag use. Students in the class thought there might also
be value for B3 businesses if they all had a reusable bag to sell that
promoted the town and catered to Lewes pride.
The Marine Studies students shared their survey results and talked
about the potential for a branded reusable bag with students in UD’s
Department of Fashion and Apparel Studies, which is part of the College of
Arts and Sciences. The fashion students were taking a class called
Interdisciplinary Approaches to Creative Problem Solving, and they
embraced the chance to work on a real-world project.
“My students are very interested in sustainability and social responsibility,” Professor Belinda Orzada
said. “All semester we’ve been looking at different critical issues
within the industry, with environmental sustainability being one of
Her students created four possible reusable bags that Lewes
businesses could sell, offering options ranging from shopping bags made
of a eucalyptus-based fabric that would decompose after six months to a
canvas bag that converts to a backpack and features an outline of the
state with the word “Lewes” written along the western edge and a star on
A lively question-and-answer session following the presentation
included questions around practicality, cost and the potential for
voluntary success in Lewes to lead to bigger successes against plastic
bags statewide, where attempts to ban them have failed in past years.
Michael Alushin, a member of the green team at St. Peter’s Episcopal
Church in downtown Lewes, whose perspective the students had enlisted
early on in their project, said that his group will work to move the
idea forward, possibly raising money to help pay for an initial order of
reusable bags. And while he was excited about the project’s potential
to impact sustainability in Lewes, Alushin was most impressed by how
well the students engaged the community, adapted their thinking and
communicated both their research findings and their ideas for action.
“It’s important for scientists to learn to communicate with the
public,” Alushin said. “We as a society need our scientists to help us
inform public policy and be active citizens.”
Dixson said the point of the Debating Marine Conservation course is
to teach students how to communicate science to the public in a succinct
and understandable way. Adding a project-based learning component this
semester, Dixson said, allowed the students to go beyond talking “and do
For Ashley Barnett, a senior from Bear, Delaware, and the lone
undergraduate in the class, the opportunity to take action was a big
motivation to take the class. Like those at the presentation hoping a
successful Lewes project could inspire change statewide, Barnett is
excited for the possibility and thinking about how to do her part.
“I’m taking this as my responsibility, to take this back to Newark,
in my personal actions. It’s important to start small and grow larger,”
she said. “This town is so eco-friendly. This is a good town to get
started in. There is a lot of promise in Lewes.”
Article by Mark Jolly-Van Bodegraven; photo by Michael Graw