The confluence this past year of China no longer taking our recycling (much of which wasn’t actually recyclable) and media coverage of plastic pollution has made us painfully aware of the world’s plastic crisis. It has also made it clear that we can’t recycle our way out of it, and that reducing plastic use has to be a priority.
Reducing plastic use will require everyone — consumers, businesses and government — to take action. We have all become accustomed to the convenience and low price of disposables and plastic packaging, and have to wean ourselves off.
Compostable containers and packaging are preferable to plastic, but they are not the only solution to our waste problems. When they are thrown in the trash and go to a landfill, they break down slowly and emit methane, a potent greenhouse gas.
Many “bioplastics” and compostable materials don’t decompose in home composting operations and must be processed at an industrial composting or digestion facility. They are also contaminants when disposed of in the recycling.
Replacing single-use plastics with reusable items is the most effective way to reduce pollution and carbon dioxide emissions, and save energy and resources. It isn’t hard to start with the basics — reusable bags, water bottles and cups. If people the world over stopped using these disposable items it would make a huge difference. Bans on plastic bags, straws and bottles are increasing and are helping to reduce the prevalence of these items, but other solutions are needed as well.
What are options for replacing disposable with reusable containers when you want to take food with you? You can bring your own containers for take-out or leftovers. Reusable to-go container programs have recently started up on college campuses and in some cities. In the municipal programs, you pay a small fee and download an app, and you can then get reusable containers for food to go from participating restaurants. You return the container to a central location, and it is washed and returned to the restaurant.
Two local environmentally-minded entrepreneurs have looked into starting a similar program in Northampton, and although they found much interest and enthusiasm, there are still a number of challenges to making it a reality, from cost and container design to a washing location.
Another new model for reuse is Loop, a collaboration between Terracycle and a number of major brands, in which products from ice cream to shampoo are delivered in reusable containers and then collected after they are finished, using the old “milkman” model. It is piloting in New York and Paris, and if it is successful it will expand to other cities.
What do we do about the large amounts of plastic packaging when we can’t reuse? Buying items in bulk is the best way to avoid packaging, and more stores need to offer this option. However, most products come packaged, and a big step would be for products to only be sold in recyclable or compostable packaging.
Pressure on producers and retailers in this regard is starting to have an impact — Trader Joe’s has committed to reducing plastic packaging, and many other companies are promising to make their packaging recyclable and to make it from recycled material.
Recycling is still a key part of reducing waste, and in order to improve recycling markets it’s important to recycle correctly, and only put acceptable plastics in the bin — bottles, jars, jugs, tubs and clear clamshells. Go to http://springfieldmrf.org/whats-recyclable-at-the-mrf for information on what items are accepted for recycling.
Mimi Kaplan is the waste reduction coordinator for the Amherst Department of Public Works.