Seven graduate students at the University of Delaware’s College of Earth, Ocean and Environment truly believe it only takes a small group to change the world.
The students recently created Businesses for Better Bags, an initiative to rid the city of Lewes of single-use plastic bags. Beginning July 10, 15 Lewes businesses began offering Lewes-specific reusable plastic bags. Made from recycled plastic bottles, the eco-friendly bags are available for $10 in each participating business or $20 online through the Lewes Chamber of Commerce. There will be a sticker in the window of each store participating in the program.
Andrea Spuck, owner of Puzzles and Lewes Gourmet on Front Street, said she was more than happy to join the initiative. Growing up in Oregon, the first state to have a bottle refund bill, Spuck said, she’s pleased to see UD students try to improve the environment.
“It’s exciting, as the parents of two current Blue Hens, to be supporting a University of Delaware initiative that has resulted in Lewes, the First Town in the First State, to be on the cusp – at least a whole lot closer – of being plastic bag-free,” she said.
Lewes Gourmet is also participating in the nationwide effort to eliminate plastic straws, offering reusable straws.
The project comes from Dr. Danielle Dixson’s class, Debating Marine Conservation. She said the goal was to have students engage and communicate science with different people. The final project was to do something in the community that would promote conservation of marine creatures and impact the community through science.
Plastic bags are the second-most-common litter found on the beach behind cigarette butts. The average American family uses nearly 1,500 single-use plastic bags each year. Many of those bags end up in the environment, resulting in 100,000 marine animal deaths annually.
Delaware Sea Grant jumpstarted the project with a $10,000 grant. The students then worked with the university’s fashion and apparel class to design the bags before teaming with St. Peter’s Episcopal Church’s Green Team to recruit businesses.
“It far exceeded my expectations,” she said. “They all got As.”
The project was featured in Parade magazine as one of the top 50 initiatives in the country to help the Earth get better. Dixson, who was doing research in the field in Florida when the magazine came out, said she was flooded with hundreds of emails.
She said it costs $5 to make each bag. By charging $10 per bag in stores, she said, she hopes to raise enough money to expand the program next year.
“We hope they look nice enough that people are willing to pay the extra money,” she said.
The bags are much more durable than cloth bags used for groceries. And although they’re white, she said, the recycled plastic material they’re made of prevents staining.
“Try to make a plastic bottle dirty,” she said. “It’s actually pretty hard. Someone’s already gotten barbecue sauce on it, and it wiped right off.”
Dixson is hoping for the best with this initial run in Lewes. She said the plan is to evaluate the program with her next class and, if possible, expand it.
“The next class will use Lewes as a case study and interview the businesses that sell them,” she said. “We want to use the Lewes businesses to show that their business didn’t suffer and that they may have gained money or something like that.”
The ultimate goal, she said, is to make Delaware the first plastic bag-free state.