There are approximately 16,000 residents of Clayton. If each of them throws away eighteen plastic bags a year, they would collectively generate enough oil to drive a car around the equator 17.8 times. Why anybody would want to do that is a complete mystery, but this factoid, generated by a group of eighth graders at Wydown Middle School neatly illustrates the sheer wastefulness of one-time-use plastic bags.
It's also inspired them to launch a campaign to ban plastic bags from the city of Clayton. Similar programs are already in place in many towns and cities the states that you would mostly like suspect: California, Colorado, Washington State.
"But there are bans nowhere in Missouri," says Ben Schneider, who, along with his cohorts Claire Millett, Victor Xie and Elise Yang, is working on the Clayton Plastic Bag Campaign. "We would be a pioneer in Missouri. And also one of the first in the Midwest."
(Student leaders at Wydown's neighbor, Washington University, though, approved a plastic bag ban, though, which will go into effect this fall, pending approval from the administration.)
The Wydown group met a few weeks ago with Clayton mayor Linda Goldstein and city manager Craig Owens to discuss instituting a ban on plastic bags. Goldstein suggested that the students appeal to the Board of Aldermen. Last week the board agreed to print stickers for businesses to put on their windows which read "This business supports the Clayton Plastic Bag Campaign" and also to foot the bill for 1,000 canvas shopping bags bearing the campaign's logo.
As soon as the stickers come in, the students plan to start approaching local business owners. Their ultimate goal is to convert Walgreen's and Straub's, the two biggest suppliers of plastic bags in Clayton, but they've agreed to start with businesses they already know don't depend on plastic, such as Jennifer's Pharmacy and LagoonaMagoo Toys, and hope the message spreads. If, by chance, you run into a kid with a clipboard at the Clayton Farmer's Market this spring, it's likely it'll be a member of the group from Wydown.
The students became concerned about the damage to the environment done by plastic bags when they began researching the oceans for a Future Problem Solvers project back in sixth grade and watched a documentary called Bag It, lent to them by a friend of their adviser, Linda Gwyn. (Last spring, they made sure that every seventh grader at Wydown, and some of the eighth graders, too, go to see it. One of their dreams is to set up a showing for the general public.)
"Plastic bags don't biodegrade," explains Millett. "They just get to be smaller and smaller pieces that are still toxic. And because they're so light and parachute-like, they easily fly away. Ten percent of plastic bags end up in the ocean. There are so many plastic bags in the ocean that the ratio of plastic to plankton is six to one."
The plastic ends up poisoning and killing marine life, including plants that are the planet's main source of oxygen. And then there's the Great Pacific Plastic Patch. It's roughly size of the continental U.S., says Millett, and is comprised of plastic carried by currents from China, Japan, the Philippines and the U.S., some of the biggest plastic users (or abusers) in the world.
Closer to home, plastic bags land in the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers, and plastic dust from landfills gets ingested by animals who, in turn, pass them on to the humans who eat them. Plastic particles are toxic and have been known to cause brain and breast cancer.
Even plastic bags that get recycled are eventually converted into non-recyclable materials, such as Styrofoam.
Maybe it goes without saying, but none of the members of the campaign use plastic bags anymore. Neither do their parents. Instead they use paper or canvas bags for shopping and bags made from ethanol to clean up after their dogs.
"The stats and information are so powerful," says Schneider, "that it makes you inclined to start thinking about waste. It's been relatively easy to convince people, once they're open to thinking about it."
"A lot of people aren't open, though," Millett says sadly. "But we're in it for the long haul."