Have you ever counted how much plastic you use in a day? If you kept a bag at your side and just put things in it that were plastic, recyclable or not, what would be in it? After seeing a picture of a dead bird with plastic in its belly, a fellow green mom Beth Terry tracked her trash and began to weed out plastic items one-by-one. She then started a blog to share her triumphs and travails, which led to a book on kicking the plastic habit, a Ted Talk, and a website that is one of the most comprehensive and inspiring places to learn about plastic-free living.
Plastic is complex. On the one hand, it is extraordinarily beneficial. It’s lightweight and reduces fuel and therefore, carbon, emitted during transportation. It has helped ensure safer and more sterile food products, reducing spoilage. It keeps medical products safe and stable. But it’s made from fossil fuels, a non-renewable resource that emits carbon during production and incineration. There are health concerns about what happens when plastic mixes with heat and other chemicals or microplastics are consumed. However, the biggest problem is plastic waste, particularly when it gets into rivers and oceans. Less than 14% of plastic is collected for recycling globally, and without significant changes, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation estimates there will be more plastic than fish in the ocean by 2050. The global recycling system is also under stress with entire countries refusing to accept much of what the world recycles. Finally, plastic waste in the oceans has emerged as one of the top environmental concerns that Americans have.
How can you demonstrate personal leadership on plastics and influence the acceleration of solutions to this problem? Here are four ideas that everyone should consider:
Reduce your own use of plastics, particularly single-use.
Whether you do a formal audit or not, start by looking at your own habits. The simplest options are to focus on what you may use daily: bottled water, coffee or water cups, straws, utensils, bags, and take-out containers. Pick one or two of these common single-use items and swap in a reusable alternative. Store bags in your car or backpack to bring to the grocery store. Eat in or change where you get take-out to select those places that offer compostable take-out containers. Get a Sodastream to avoid single-use fizzy water bottles. Use a reusable straw or skip one altogether. Invest in a reusable cup for ice tea and coffee and keep a metal fork stashed at your desk. If you have any influence on your company cafeteria or favorite take-out place, ask them to offer non-plastic alternatives. If you want to make deep inroads, switch over to reusable food wrap, buy bulk options (snacks, yogurt, cookies) and “single serve” it in reusable containers, and try new innovations like “toothpaste bits” or shampoo bars.
There is still a ton of plastic reduction “opportunities” in the Stevens household. However, we have gotten creative with reuse. Saving the bag of tortillas and deli cheese with a “zip” on them eliminated purchases of new zipped bags. Bread bags make excellent vegetable and fruit storage bags. Take-out containers double as leftovers storage. Finally, we are very fortunate to have a crafty kid who turns leftover plastic into art. Ask your local schools or community organizations what might help them, and set up your own collection.
Recycling contamination occurs when otherwise well-meaning people put things into the recycling bin that can’t be recycled. Our city faced a $65,000 fine for contaminated recycling last year. One of the primary culprits is plastic bags in the bins, which can only be recycled at stores. At our office, yes, I’m that person you will see picking through the recycling bin on our floor to get out all the plastic straws (not recyclable) put in with the plastic cups (recyclable) because people either don’t know, or are not willing, to separate them. Know what goes in, what doesn’t and help educate others. Besides curbside recycling, there are two companies who can help with plastics recycling. Preserve Products has a “Gimme 5” initiative and will take back yogurt containers, plastic caps, dip containers and more — plus all their own recycled plastic products. Terracycle also offers infrastructure for community recycling programs for everything from plastic baby gear to food pouches to action figures.
Use Your Voice
While personal leadership is critical, if you are a leader in any organization, particularly one that uses plastics, consider getting involved to solve these issues at the system level. We won’t go from a 14% recycling rate to a 100% recycling rate without large-scale, system-wide solutions. In addition to the Ellen McArthur Foundation, other groups are emerging, including the Alliance to End Plastic Waste and the team behind the inaugural Ocean Plastics Leadership Summit has a number of follow-up initiatives. Know your voice and influence is critical to catalyzing the change we need.
Quote of the Week: “When I’m working, on sets or stages, my contracts specify in the rider that no plastic bottles be used. When I’m playing with my band, we all use metal and non-plastic containers for drinking to be ecologically sensitive and show others that this is the way to go.”Jeff Bridges