Last week I introduced a catchy phrase “Moderate to Perpetuate“, the implication being that if more of us would moderate our consumption, we could perpetuate our planet, as we know it.
This week, another (I think) catchy phrase: Refuse and Reuse. This phrase I hope can address the overwhelming amount of plastics that are contaminating our planet. I first addressed this issue last year (see Single-Use Plastic) and listed some of the ways I planned to reduce my contribution to this problem including eliminating plastic water & soda bottles, grocery, vegetable, and garbage bags, milk and juice containers, and zip lock bags. These habits are now part of my routine. Later last year, I also outlined why recycling wasn’t working and actually, some would argue, recycling has been a “con” devised by manufactures to make us feel OK about buying plastic products, even though they know that only a small fraction of plastic products are actually recycled. Let me be clear: we should all recycle and follow guidelines about what and how to recycle, but it is clear that only of a fraction of what is put into recycle bins by consumers actually gets recycled. The short, 5-minute film, The Great Recycling Con makes this point extremely well.
Since then, many companies that have stepped up to address the plastic problem. Last year Norwegian Cruise Lines began providing “bottled water” in paper cartons to its cruise passengers. But many larger companies lag in moving away from plastic. A recent article that first appeared in the Chicago Tribune (Replacing Plastic Goes Mainstream) describes the challenges a new start-up company, Open Water, has encountered as it tried to get larger companies like Coca-Cola and PepsiCo to use aluminum cans in lieu of plastic for their beverages. It’s an uphill battle because companies like Coca-Cola produce a lot (approximately 117 billion per year) of plastic bottles and while companies like Open Water, are having an impact (e.g., Hyatt Hotels, is an Open Water customer), there’s so much more to be done.
Coca-Cola has found a way to reduce plastic in Australia by using recycled plastic for 70% of its products sold there, by the end of this year. While this is progress, it is a shame Coca-Cola’s programs aren’t making the same progress in the U.S. In fact, initiatives that would reduce plastic including a “bottle-bill” that would shift responsibility for dealing with the plastic pollution costs to the industry, has been vigorously opposed by Coca-Cola. And although I’ve singled out Coke, these sentiments are similar for other giant companies. And those “Keep America Beautiful” movements; they are supported by companies like Coke with the intent of shifting plastic responsibility from the companies that make the plastic bottles to the consumer purchasing those bottles.
But with some companies, more progress is being made. Starbucks last month announced that by 2030 it would reduce by 50 percent the amount of waste sent to landfills, part of a broader goal to reduce its environmental footprint. Starbucks stores produce 455,000 tons of packaging waste annually, mostly polypropylene plastic used in cold cups, lids and straws. Conagra, which recently announced a goal of making 100 percent of its plastic packaging renewable, recyclable or compostable by 2025, is exploring bio-plastics made from renewable sources, like plants. Mondelez, which set a similar goal, is working to see if the used film can be mixed back in with virgin plastic to make new plastic products. Chipotle found a way to address all the single-use gloves that are discarded at its restaurants. Every day, roughly 200 million single-use gloves end up in the landfill for one simple reason: no commercial program existed to recycle them. So, last year Chipotle partnered with Revolution Bag to develop an innovative process to do just that. Chipotle began sending gloves from restaurants in Portland, Oregon to a dedicated recycling facility in Salinas, California. There used gloves are turned into post-consumer recycled pellets that eventually become trash can liners.
It’s clear to me that major companies that produce plastic bottles, like Coke, have a lot invested in continuing to use plastic bottles. But at the same time, they want to be viewed as friendly to the environment or “green”. And as a result, we can expect to see publicly announced initiatives that may actually affect the amount of plastic going into the ocean – but maybe not.
That’s where “we-the-consumer” come in. We can REFUSE to purchase plastic containers – water bottles, sodas, juices, milk cartons, juice boxes, coffee containers, straws, plastic cups, plastic plates, plastic cutlery, shampoo, detergent, soap, zip-lock bags, plastic wrap, and many more items. To change our behavior requires a change in our mind-set – namely we have to start thinking about what we’re doing instead of continuing to follow the easy, or routine course. For example, when ordering water at a restaurant, we should say “water, no straw please.” When shopping, we can look for non-plastic options, and if needed, do a little on-line research. These are changes and choices, all of us can make. And remember, refusing plastic also includes free plastic products – e.g., water bottles – that are offered to us at hotels and other events.
Here’s some things I’ve found all of us can do, and they are not too hard:
- If you haven’t already, buy a reusable water bottle – and use it;
- Buy your sodas and juices in aluminum or glass containers;
- Buy milk and juice cartons in cardboard instead of plastic containers;
- Buy your coffee in bulk – and use paper containers;
- Buy shampoo, detergent, soap, and other household items packaged without plastic;
- And eliminate zip-lock bags and plastic wrap, substituting reusable containers.
One blog site I’ve been following for a while is “The Zero-Waste Chef“. The writer has been doing this a while and has many useful ideas on how to take your plastic consumption to zero or almost zero. So, if you want some more ideas, I encourage you to check this site.
And what about REUSE, the other part of the catchy phrase. REUSE comes into play when you end up with something plastic – say a take-out container. Instead of tossing it, hoping it will be recycled (which unfortunately, there is only a small chance it will be) save the container and reuse it. Plastic containers – after washing them, make great ways to store your vegetables, leftovers, cheeses, deli meats, or your lunch (if you take your lunch to work). In the past, I used a lot of zip-lock bags or covered a bowl with plastic wrap for leftovers and vegetables. I’m proud to say that since I started this blog (January 2019) I have yet to purchase any zip-lock bags or plastic wrap. My plan is to never buy these products again.
But if you end up getting a plastic bag at the grocery (it happens) – just keep it with your other bags and take it back to the grocery store and reuse it. And those plastic water bottles – well, the inventory I had last year, is still my inventory and any plastic water bottles I might acquire, I’ll save them to use in my cooler, in lieu of ice. Just fill up the bottle – almost to the top with water – put it in your freezer – and you’ll have a great source of “ice-cold” for your cooler. Bottom line, plastic is a problem only when it’s discarded, so reuse it.
These are some of the things we, as consumers can do. We can also contact our U.S. Representative and Senators and ask them to support recently introduced legislation to address the plastic problem. The bill, titled Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act of 2020 has been filed as H.R. 5845 and S. 3263. This comprehensive legislation, if enacted would:
- Require producers of packaging, containers, and food-service products to design, manage, and finance waste and recycling programs.
- Create a nationwide beverage container refund program.
- Ban certain single-use plastic products that are not recyclable and place a fee on remaining carryout bags.
- Spur massive investments in U.S. domestic recycling and composting infrastructure.
- Prohibit plastic waste from being shipped to developing countries.
- Place a temporary pause on new plastic facilities until EPA updates and creates important regulations on those facilities.
The Surfrider Foundation, whose mission is to “protect the oceans, waves, and beaches”, worked with members of congress to develop this legislation which currently has 29 co-sponsors in the House and 6 in the Senate. That’s not too many sponsors yet but it’s early and if more of us contact our representatives, that could change. But we should expect the plastic industry, and its commercial customers, to oppose anything that makes that industry responsible for the pollution plastic products are creating. But, one of the things all of us should have learned in kindergarten is that everyone should “clean up your own mess”. This legislation eliminates the free pass the plastic industry and its principle customers currently enjoy, at the planet’s expense!
And state and local governments will continue to play a role in plastics. This month New York state became the fourth state to ban plastic bags in grocery stores, joining Oregon, California, and Hawaii.
Bottom line: we consumers can make a dent in plastic pollution if we REFUSE to buy or use new plastic products and we REUSE the plastics we have. And relative to politics, we can REFUSE to support politicians that choose to allow industry to avoid responsibility for cleaning up the mess and damage created by its products. I’m not sure we can REUSE those ousted politicians, but we can hope they’ll change. Let’s REFUSE and REUSE.