If the Superbowl Can Go Plastic-Free, Can We?

Even though the Patriots aren’t playing, I do plan on being one of the ~100M people watching the Superbowl. My version of watching involves chatting with people in the kitchen, eating fistfuls of nachos, glancing at the TV anytime the room breaks into applause, and watching the commercials. This year, I’m going to be watching hard to see if I can catch sight of the cups. Nearly 50,000 recyclable aluminum cups are replacing 500,000 disposable plastic cups. In total, they will have cut 2.8M single-use plastic items, ranging from cups to stirrers, bottles, cutlery and packaging, going 99.4% plastic-free.

This push to dramatically cut back single-use disposable plastics has been gaining significant traction among WeSpire customers. Most companies explain, appropriately, that plastic is critical for a number of uses. However, the confluence of three trends is causing rapid rethinking about when plastic isn’t an optimal or necessary choice.

First, people’s awareness of the impact of plastic single-use disposables on ocean health has increased dramatically. Then, in early 2018, China shut its doors to plastic recycling. It left waste haulers and communities scrambling and the value of recyclables plunged. As a result, a number of communities are abandoning plastic recycling altogether. Third, companies and communities are setting Zero-Waste targets. If plastic can’t be recycled effectively, then the push for alternatives gains traction in support of these goals.

Given this confluence of factors, it makes sense for all of us to watch the role of plastic in our lives. If they can manage to make the entire Superbowl plastic-free, it’s certainly feasible to make some changes in our own households and businesses. 

Where to start? Kitchens and cafeterias are where single use disposables are most prevalent. Encourage reusable straws, mugs, water bottles, take-out containers, and cutlery. Try a Bevi and Quench at work or convince facilities to install water filling stations. Try a Soda Stream at home.

The bathroom is another place for rethinking. Some of the easiest changes are going back to paper q-tips, eliminating floss-picks, or switching to bar soap. More challenging are cosmetics and personal care packaging, although new options are emerging. There are entire stores for “unwrapped” products online, like the Unwrapped Life. A grand experiment is emerging with Loop for some of your favorite personal care brands offered in reusable packaging.

Where I struggle most is when there is a choice between the same product in different packaging. Milk cartons now can’t be recycled in our town so should I switch back to plastic milk jugs? If you do buy soda or water, are cans better than plastic or glass?

If only the answer were easy, but it’s not. Like many things in sustainability, the devil is in the details. Is the can or bottle made from recycled materials? Can the container be recycled after use? How far was it transported and how much does it weigh? Are you most concerned about hitting a waste metric or reducing carbon emissions? 

The most obvious advice is to opt for a reusable container whenever possible. But if you find yourself on the go in an urban part of the US, staring at drinks in cans and plastic bottles, the can is likely the best bet, despite the horrific impact of bauxite mining. Why? Cans are most likely to be made, today, with 50% or more recycled aluminum and you are more than likely to be in a place that can recycle the can. That gets the can footprint lower than the plastic bottle, which has lower recycled content and much lower recycling rates, especially now. The only concern is if we all switch at once, there won’t be enough recycled aluminum to meet demand. Then plastic is better. See how stupidly complicated this becomes?

What this whole complexity points to is how critical it is to fix the recycling system. Then we can transition to an ideal future, where all packaging is made entirely from renewable, recyclable materials or is rethought altogether. I’m personally looking forward to getting a glimpse of edible cups at Superbowl 60.

Quote of the Week: “If you’re not confused, you’re not paying attention.”

Tom Peters

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