On a tiny beach at Erie Basin Marina in Buffalo, N.Y., Nate Drag scans the sand and driftwood. He's part of the Alliance for the Great Lakes, and he helps organize beach clean ups.
"The closer you look, you can start seeing the plastic popping out," he says.
Last year, Drag says, hundreds of volunteers picked up thousands of pounds of trash. And lots of plastic bags.
"There you go," he said. "There's a garbage bag, and then there’s a shopping bag."
The alliance is one of many organizations advocating for reduced use of plastic bags. Around the Great Lakes, many environmentalists are concerned about the impact of plastics on wildlife.
Back in his office, Drag says the same things that make plastic bags so great for us, also make them bad for the ecosystem.
“The fact that they are relatively strong means they will last a long time," he said. "And they’re relatively light so they will blow in the breeze and move in the water.”
San Francisco became the first major city to ban plastics bags outright in 2007, and other cities have followed. But some local laws—like one that imposed a 5-cent bag fee in New York City—have been blocked at the state level.
Some coastal and Great Lakes communities have proposed bans or charging small fees for using plastic bags at the checkout counter in stores.
Some companies enforce their own bag rules.
Michaela Cultrara is the community relations supervisor for Hart's Grocer in Rochester, N.Y. She says they offer 10-cent credits to customers with reusable bags.
"Any time you're using a reusable bag, you're not wasting and you're not creating more waste for the environment," she said. "That's something that has always been part of our mission.”
Not everyone is moved to change. As a customer named Micah Hopkins checks out at a Hart’s register, he opts for a plastic bag. He says a small fee probably wouldn’t change that.
Though the fees might add up after a while, he says, "I don't think it would make me bring my own bag."
Opponents of bag bans say fees disproportionately impact low-income shoppers. Others say reusable and paper bags are rough on the ecosystem, too. And some companies argue that it’s inefficient to have regulations vary from city to city.
But the main argument against the bans, Drag says, is people just don’t like being told what to do.
“We’ve gotten really used to our conveniences,” he said. “And it’s really tough to switch from that but we did exist before those things, so I think we’ll be OK."
In some places, like Michigan and Wisconsin, the backlash against local bans has caused state lawmakers to ban local bans altogether.
To fight the backlash, Sherri Mason is taking a different approach. She's a professor of chemistry and chair of the department of geology and environmental sciences at SUNY Fredonia.
At a public forum in Buffalo, Mason regales her audience with plastic bag facts. But her outreach goes beyond trying to communicate the scope of the problem.
"If we can get people to understand the impact that that plastic bag has, then that can lead to a whole re-evaluation of our relationship with that material," she said.
Mason is involved in several studies to try to connect the use of plastic bags to human health. She says plastic bags break down in the water, become microplastics, and get into our bodies in different ways.
"We all use salt, and many of us drink beer, and we all drink drinking water, so we decided to do a study that was focused on those consumable products,” Mason said. “And we’re finding plastics in all of them."
Plastic can act as a perfect surface for chemicals to hitch a ride—including chemicals that cause problems in human hormone development. The studies are still underway, but Mason says if the plastic is in the water, it’s in us.