Decreasing the Use of Plastic Shopping Bags

February 29, 2016 / By: Karen Lally, SCP Intern

This J-Term, Dr. Angela Senander’s Christian Faith and the Management Professions (THEO 422) partnered with the Sustainable Communities Partnership (SCP) and the City of Elk River to research the effects that plastic bags have on the environment and possible approaches to reducing plastic bag use in the community.

As home to one of the state’s largest municipal solid waste landfills, Elk River has put a spotlight on the effects of plastic bags on employers and the landscape. Not only is containing the plastic bags within the landfill challenging, but when bags are inevitably carried away by the wind, they contaminate water, harm wildlife, and degrade the community’s aesthetics. In addition, plastic bags take up increasingly dwindling space in the landfill. Plastic bags also cause problems for the City’s waste to energy plant, as they often become stuck in the machinery.

This past fall, Elk River submitted to the SCP a project to examine decreasing the use of plastic shopping bags in Elk River. Their expectation is that the SCP project, researched by students, will generate a comprehensive report that addresses the effects that plastic bags have on the common good, considering such stakeholders as businesses that use plastic bags, people from different economic backgrounds, future generations, and the environment. According to Dr. Senander, the work begun during J-term will continue with another section of the class during the Spring semester.

So how was this project organized? The class started the semester by reading Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home, an encyclical letter written by Pope Francis, which calls for a shift in the relationship that humans have with the environment and offers a critique of  consumerism. With these themes in mind, the class broke into four groups to research different stakeholders and solutions. Dr. Senander then challenged the groups to collaborate with one another, compile their areas of research, and compose a report in just under one month. Several students noted that, at times, it was difficult to come to a consensus about which approach would be best suited to Elk River’s needs. Connor Nelson ’16 stated that this project provided him with an idea of how he best fits into a team and that “maintaining communication and staying organized” are essential in efficiently and effectively completing any project of this nature. 

Many of the students enrolled in the course were finance and business majors, so the research and proposal were interestingly rooted in a market and industry mindset. The first step in the project was to research incidences where plastic bag bans had been successful.  In most cases, implementing a ban was met with some resistance and also challenged the norm to cut costs in the short term. That being said, several classmates agreed that sustainability is becoming a corporate necessity, both environmentally and economically.  Lydia Swanson ‘16 added that this project opened her eyes to the "'throw-away' society that we are today" and that she felt the research was aimed more on "finding a solution that advanced the common good long-term instead of finding a temporary fix." This project also encouraged students to examine the issue from a systems perspective.  Aaron Rich ‘16 summed this up nicely when he noted, “It’s just a different way of thinking.  You cannot simply focus one dimensionally on profits.  You cannot focus on one stakeholder.  I believe one person can make a difference.  However, everyone needs to be proactive in order to fix something of this degree.”  

Kristin Mroz, environmental technician for Elk River and project lead, says she enjoyed working with Dr. Senander and her students. This was the first project to be completed as part of the SCP program and Mroz says that all of the students were “engaged, curious, and professional throughout the term and the final results exceeded [her] expectations.” Moving forward, the research will be shared with city staff, the Energy City Commission, and the City Council for discussion and implementation. The city staff will also open the discussion to community residents and businesses before making any final decisions.