How to Be a Plastic-Free Great Lakes Champion

A conversation with leading advocates

November 8, 2018

Today, the Alliance teamed up with partners at Access Living and Shedd Aquarium on a live webinar to talk about plastic pollution in the Great Lakes and how people around the region can make a difference. We released our new Plastic-Free Great Lakes toolkit, shared perspectives on the issue, and took questions in real time from people around the region.

In case you missed it, find a recording of today’s webinar here. Or, read the recap below.

Taking A Hard Look at Our Plastic Pollution Problem

Joel Brammeier, Alliance President & CEO, kicked off the lunch hour webinar by offering a look at the scale and scope of the plastic pollution problem in the Great Lakes.

An estimated 22 million pounds of plastic enter the Great Lakes every year, according to a recent study but the Rochester Institute of Technology,” Brammeier shared.

“To put that in perspective, we at the Alliance run an Adopt-a-Beach volunteer program in which 15,000 volunteers spend hours cleaning up beaches around the region every year,” said Brammeier, “They pick up about 40,000 pounds of trash — which is great — but a drop in the bucket when you look at the scale of the problem.”

He went on to explain that plastic pollution in the Great Lakes is a complex problem. Generally, we see very small pieces of plastic, some that even gets into our drinking water. And, there’s not nearly as much research on Great Lakes plastic pollution compared to ocean plastic. Not to mention, plastic pollution in the Great Lakes comes from a vast range of sources.

“Individual behavior change or cleanups alone won’t solve the problem. We need layers of actions and policy solutions to effectively address this complex and persistent problem,” said Brammeier.  

Lessons Learned from Policy Solutions at All Scales

The toolkit takes a deeper look at several solutions communities are pursuing in the fight against plastic pollution. On today’s webinar, Nate Drag, Water Project Manager at the Alliance, shared two of those examples: 1) Chicago’s path away from single-use plastic bags; and 2) the national ban on microbeads, which started in towns and counties around the region and grew to state and eventually federal-level action.

“There are a few lessons in these examples that are important to consider. First, small scale actions can add up to a huge victory. Second, good policy is nuanced and thoughtful,” said Drag.

Drag also noted that policy-making and policy advocacy is a learning process that can include missteps. He offered the current discussion around banning plastic straws as an example.

“As the movement to ban plastic straws has charged ahead, it has often done so without consideration for the impacts that these policies have on people with disabilities who may rely on straws,” Drag shared. “Now, we’re in a position where we need to learn from these critiques and work together with people directly impacted to come up with better solutions.”

Thoughtful, Inclusive Policy Advocacy, “Nothing About Us Without Us”  

We’ve seen straw bans pick up momentum across the country and world. But, may of those efforts have charged ahead without consideration for the impact on people with disabilities.

“We at Access Living believe in the proverb, ‘nothing about us without us.’ If a policy is going to have an impact on us, we need to be at the table,” said Adam Ballard, about the problem with an outright ban on straws. Ballard is a policy analyst with Access Living, Chicago’s independent living center and disability advocacy organization. “Within the disability community, many people rely on straws. We’re aware of alternative materials, but our needs range and there is no one-size-fits-all alternative that works for everyone.”

Ballard made the point that if someone needs a straw to be able to drink, or drink with dignity, they should be able to get it. He emphasized that not all disabilities are visible, so no one should have to play twenty questions to get their needs met. Just as some people with disabilities rely on straws, there are other single-use plastics that people depend on, so it’s important to engage communities that are directly impacted when developing policy solutions.

“Every city and town, should have a center for independent living. Find those people, find advocates within the disability community, and engage early on,” Ballard said.

Leveraging Collective Impact: From Consumer Education to Lasting Change

“The past year has shown us the amazing impact that collective impact can have on even a seemingly intractable problem like plastic pollution,” said Densham, director of policy and advocacy at Shedd Aquarium.

Not only did the federal ban on microbeads take full effect, but consumers’ momentum around single-use plastics has been impressive. This momentum has created leverage and excitement that the Shedd is using to work with businesses and government to change their procurement strategies and other practices to be more sustainable.

“Listening is important. We know that it’s important to learn from people directly impacted by the issues we seek to address,” Densham shared. “Working with Access Living has informed how we address policy, how we work with our businesses partners to make change.”

“We know that individuals and families can make a difference, and we can empower people around the region with tools to raise their voices,” Densham said.

Tools To Make a Difference In Your Community

The Alliance’s new Plastic-Free Great Lakes toolkit offers lessons from all levels of government across the Great Lakes region, and sample policies designed to reduce plastic pollution. We also provide you with the tools you need to make an impact in your community.

As you push for solutions in your own community, remember that the strongest policies are formed when people who are impacted by an issue are driving solutions.

“If you look around and realize that people impacted by the issue you’re working on are not at the table, do something to change it,” said Brammeier.

Plastic-Free Great Lakes: An Advocacy Toolkit to Make a Difference In Your Community

Researchers estimate that nearly 22 million pounds of plastic pollution enter the Great Lakes each year. Learn how you can make a difference in the fight against plastic pollution in the Great Lakes.

Get the Toolkit