Plastic Free DelawareNov 24, 2021 08:37AM ● By Tricia Hoadley
If you knew that a little change in your day could reap a big reward for the environment, would you be willing to try? Sometimes a small shift in habit can have a big effect, and that slight difference has the potential to grow into something much more significant. For New Castle County Councilwoman Dee Durham, her concern for the environment grew into a passion for creating considerable change in Delaware.
Years ago, Durham started a Roots & Shoots chapter for her children and searched for a simple environmental project for the group. Dee had recently read about people worldwide working to ban single-use plastic bags because of their ecological impact. This appeared to be an easy project, and the Roots and Shoots group spent a day handing out reusable bags to shoppers. Their goal was to persuade people to forgo the single-use plastic bags. It turns out that it was not a done-in-a-day project. Over ten years later, Durham is still working to improve the environment through her organization Plastic Free Delaware.
“There wasn’t a lot of momentum yet in the U.S.,” said Durham of a plastic bag ban. “Naive me thought, ‘who could be against that?’”
Durham quickly realized the complexity of the project and started working with the state legislature on the single-use plastics issue.
Single-use plastics wreak havoc on our environment and our ecosystems. Plastic finds its way into our municipal drain systems causing flooding, littering our landscape, tangling in power lines, and killing marine life and shorebirds. Only about 10 percent of plastics get correctly recycled, sending the remaining 90 percent into our environment or in the landfill. Recyclable plastic does not break down without the help of processing or composting. Plastic that cannot be recycled sits in a landfill, reducing to tiny pieces known as microplastics. Today, microplastics are found worldwide and are a dire threat to our wildlife that unknowingly ingests them. Humans, as well, are affected by microplastics. Studies have shown that the chemicals added to plastic can cause cancer, hormone imbalance, and reproductive problems.
Working under the Delaware Community Foundation umbrella, Plastic Free Delaware set out to change peoples’ thinking about waste. They inform through educational programming, seeking policy change, and bringing awareness to the problem through community outreach. Although her children had moved on from the Roots and Shoots group, Dee periodically recruited them to hand out reusable bags or man tables at environmental gatherings.
“The kids may have lost interest, but it was a bee in my bonnet, so I kept going,” said Durham. But more effort was needed to help stem the tide of plastic pollution. “Around the time the Universal Recycling Law was passed, we started having conversations with State Rep. Valerie Longhurst about single-use plastic bags,” said Durham. While she successfully passed the recycling bill, Longhurst also wanted a ban on single-use plastic bags. Plastic Free Delaware and Representative Longhurst worked together for ten years and were instrumental in passing a bill banning single-use plastic bags in the state of Delaware.
Through House Bill 130, Delaware became the fourth state nationwide to have a plastic bag ban. Passed in 2019 and effective January 1, 2021, this bill prohibits large retailers from providing single-use carry-out bags to customers.
“The bill had mixed results,” she said. “Lots of the large retailers stopped using plastic bags, and that was the goal. People were switching to reusable bags.”
But some of the grocery stores found a way around the ban.
“We did not close the loophole of an allowable bag, so they just switched to slightly thicker bags,” she explained.
Consumer complaints about these thicker plastic bags brought about the realization that the loophole in the law needed to be closed. To that end, Representatives Eric Morrison and Valerie Longhurst sponsored House Bill 212, which increases the thickness of plastic bags from 2.25 mils to 10 mils, requires a stitched handle and durability of 125 uses. HB212 was passed and recently signed by the governor. The bill changes the definition of a reusable bag and expands the law to all retailers.
“This bill will go into effect July 1, 2022. That’s huge,” said Durham. “HB212 was easier to pass than HB130 because of the growing awareness.”
From its inception, Plastic Free Delaware focused on plastic bag pollution. Building momentum, they branched out and founded YES! Delaware Youth Environmental Summit.
“With the bag bill, we had kids as advocates,” Durham said.
She found that teachers were using it as a learning experience. Kids of all ages, from grade school to college, wrote letters and spoke at Legislative Hall. “The kids are so powerful, and the legislators love to see them and listen to what they have to say.”
Supported by teachers and other nonprofit partners, the Youth Environmental Summit is for high school students and educates them on plastics issues as well as all environmental concerns. “YES! gives them the tools to be good advocates and engages them in environmental issues,” Durham said. In collaboration with area teachers and other nonprofit partners, the first summit was held in Dover in 2020 and offered workshops, presentations, and advocacy opportunities. Due to the pandemic, this years’ YES! Summit was virtual, and the 2022 summit format has yet to be determined.
Building on Plastic Free Delaware’s achievements, Durham would love to see more people get involved. The organization offers monthly webinars on various environmental topics and a newsletter, available through their website or Facebook page.
“We invite everyone to join us in exploring zero-waste, but one step at a time,” she said. “Don’t let the zero-waste journey overwhelm you.”
Durham suggests picking one thing a month to address. An excellent place to start is with a reusable water bottle rather than a plastic bottle or follow in Durham’s footsteps and switch to reusable bags. Upcoming areas of concern for Plastic Free Delaware include food waste and e-waste.
“We need to get more longevity from the things we use,” said Durham. Consumers need to balance the use of disposable goods with the environmental impact. Understanding the five Rs of waste management is helpful to keep us focused on a positive ecological lifestyle. Refuse, reduce, reuse, and repurpose should always be considered before the final R of recycle.
“Ideally, we’d like to put ourselves out of business,” said Durham.
But landfill waste is increasing, not decreasing. We are heading in the wrong direction.
“Action needs to be taken,” said Durham. “We are past the stage of wait and see.”
You can find more information on Plastic Free Delaware at https://plasticfreedelaware.org.
Check out Delaware Youth Environmental Summit at https://delawareyes.org.