From plastic straws to a sea change for plastic

From plastic straws to a sea change for plastic

Written by Matt Prindiville. Article originally appeared here.

Right now, we are all part of an interesting moment of change in our culture. In the span of a very short period of time, plastic straws have gone from a relatively accepted part of everyday existence to a niche-need product. As someone who works to end plastic pollution for a living, I’ve been getting a lot of questions as to how this happened and what it means.

I want to begin by crediting my friends at the Plastic Pollution Coalition and Lonely Whale Foundation. Both groups realized that straws could be the “gateway drug” to get people hooked on taking greater action to solve plastic pollution. And the genius of what became the Strawless Ocean campaign is that the call to action was so simple: Next time you’re out at a restaurant or a bar, tell the server, “No straw, please.”

What this simple act of resistance does is that it starts a conversation — between you and the restaurant or bar, and also between you and everyone you’re with. Suddenly, the people you’re out with are confronted with a question — “Should I say ‘no straw,’ too?” Or they might say, “Oh, that’s interesting. Why no straw?” A conversation about plastic in our environment is teed up for everyone at the table.

But if this action stops at straws, we won’t have accomplished very much. One of the core questions we and our friends in the plastic-pollution movement are asking is, “How do we turn this awareness and desire for action into truly transformative change that reshapes how we think about and use throwaway products and creates something better in its place?”

If this action stops at straws, we won’t have accomplished very much.

A couple of years ago, my friend Marcus Eriksen from the 5 Gyres Institute and I were having a conversation centered around this exact question. That conversation led us and several of our friends to author a report called the Better Alternatives Now List (BAN List), where we analyzed publicly available data from a number of sources to determine which plastic products were most widely found in the environment.

We purposely did not look at microfibers from synthetic clothing, microbeads from cosmetic products, fishing gear or plastic dust abrading from tires. These are all significant sources of plastic pollution, but from our perspective, they are products that require technical design changes from industry, and not necessarily changes in the way we consume.

When we looked at the data, what we found was that most products, not surprisingly, were convenience to-go food and beverage packaging. Here are the top 10:

Food wrappers (candy, chips, etc.)

Bottle caps

Beverage bottles

Plastic bags

Straws and stirrers



Cigarette butts

Take-out containers

Cups and plates

When you look at the data worldwide, you see pretty much the same types of products in the environment. The exception is that in Latin America, Africa, India and Southeast Asia, you also see a lot of single-serve personal care products and sundry items — shampoo, laundry detergent, dish detergent, etc — packaged in little plastic pouches commonly called sachets.

Now, you can solve plastic pollution in the environment by switching out throwaway plastic for another throwaway product made from a different material, such as paper, for example. However, with this approach we’re often pursuing strategies that are “out of the frying pan, into the fire.”

For example, styrofoam container bans, which we support, often lead to restaurants substituting paper-based to-go containers, many of which are made with toxic Teflon-type chemicals that have been proven to cause harm. And throwaway paper products come with their own set of environmental problems — deforestation, carbon emissions from manufacture and transport, methane emissions from decomposing in landfills, etc.

While substituting more sustainable materials for high-pollution plastic products is likely to be part of the solution for certain products, the real game-changer is figuring out how to get what we want without any disposable materials at all.

Let’s imagine what this world might look like:

Imagine that you walk into a coffee shop and realize you forgot your reusable mug, and right as you turn to your friend to complain about how hard it is to do the right thing, the person behind the counter says, “That’s OK. We’ve got reusable cups on deposit. That will be $1 extra and you can change it out for a clean mug at any coffee shop in town next time you need your caffeine fix.”

Or imagine that you’re taking lunch to go from your favorite restaurant to eat in the park. And as you wrestle with the guilt of of taking yet another throwaway to-go box, the person behind the counter hands you your food in a reusable to-go box and mentions there is a kiosk in the park where you can drop it off (or at any restaurant or grocery store in the city).

Or imagine that you’ve ordered take-out from Seamless or GrubHub or a mealkit from Blue Apron, and the delivery driver hands you your food in reusable containers and says that they will pick them up next time you place an order.

Now imagine that every airport, every mall, every theme park, every zoo, every university campus, every office building and corporate campus did the same thing — got rid of throwaway cups, lids, plates, cutlery, straws, bags, etc. So that everywhere you go, you are getting what you want without all the waste, in reusable systems that are created and run by business.

The really great news is that this is happening right now. All over the world, businesses, college campuses and communities are saying no to disposable packaging and designing reusable systems that are convenient, sustainable and way more fun than the old throwaway model. Here’s just a few examples:

In Switzerland, ReCircle is serving hundreds of to-go oriented restaurants with reusable containers.

In Germany, cities such as Freiberg, Hamburg and Berlin have reusable coffee cups on deposit at cafes throughout each city.

Companies such as CupClub, DishJoy and VesselWorks are creating reusable systems for coffee cups, dishware, to-go-containers and more, for businesses, campuses, office buildings and communities that want to ditch throwaway for reusable.

In Portland, Oregon, and Durham, North Carolina, businesses and community members have developed reusable to-go container systems to serve restaurants and patrons.

So, how do we replace the throwaway society with a culture of stewardship? We believe that there are important roles for communities, businesses and individuals.


From our perspective, the biggest opportunities for communities are to address grocery stores and retail, restaurants and institutional dining, and food delivery:

Here’s the low-hanging fruit:

Plastic bag bans/disposable bag fees (including fees on disposable paper bags).

Polystyrene (Styrofoam) container ban.

Straws on request.

From there, the next levels are:

Bans on plastic cutlery, straws, stirrers.

Requiring on-site dining to be reusable — no disposable plates, cups, cutlery for dining-in.

Fees on to-go disposables — cups, to-go containers, primarily.

Developing and marketing public water “hydration stations” (and ditching bottled water in community buildings).

Most important: developing community-wide reusable systems for to-go cups and containers. Once the reusable system is in place, incorporate it into food-delivery.

Institutions (universities, corporate campuses) and places of commerce (malls, airports, stadiums) are mini-communities and can follow the same kinds of policies to develop their own reusable systems. Because these are closed systems, the facilities managers have a lot of power to create rules for the vendors that operate on their campus or in their buildings.


Companies have the responsibility to identify their high-pollution products and begin taking steps to change. Businesses — especially grocers, retail and foodservice operations — also can take the same steps as communities and institutions (outlined above) either on their own, or in partnership with other businesses.

Companies have the responsibility to identify their high-pollution products and begin taking steps to change.

If your community hasn’t developed a reusable to-go system yet, you can deeply discount reusable containers and encourage your customers to bring them. You also can charge for disposables — and publicize that you’re doing so — in an effort to do the same. More important, you can get ahead of the curve and develop a reusable system for your own customers, test what works and be a model for the rest of the business community.

For multinational corporations, the actions really break down by sector:

Beverage industry — bottles and caps, six-pack holders. Beverage companies voluntarily should use existing technology to attach their bottle-caps to the bottles. They also could ensure that their products don’t end up in the environment by supporting state-level connect-the-cap and bottle-deposit legislation, which works remarkably well to ensure people recycle their plastic bottles. After deposits are in place, the real game-changer is figuring out how to bring refillables back as they do in many parts of the world.

Personal care products and sundries — sachets. This is by no means an easy problem to solve, but for much of human history people got their sundries and personal care products in reusable containers. Reusable delivery systems that protect the integrity of the product, avoid contamination, provide for sales of affordable portions and allow for market competition may be one of the better ways to solve the ubiquitous problem of sachets in the environment.

Consumer packaged goods — most wrapped convenience food packaging, such as food wrappers, chip bags, etc. This is probably the hardest one to tackle. Two tracks:

Design change. Today, to my knowledge, no material besides plastic provides shelf-stable packaging for convenience food for the 12 to 18 months that vendors require of consumer packaged goods companies. There likely needs to be massive investment to design truly safe, biodegradable packaging (in ambient environmental conditions), yet maintain a shelf-stable consumable food product for 12 months.

Culture change. There is no question consumers worldwide need to slowly wean ourselves off junk food and eat healthier. It’s possible we can start to do this by eating less packaged food on the go, emphasizing slowing down to enjoy healthy meals out, and to make healthier food at home.

Big picture, business needs to start figuring out how to start kicking the plastic habit across the board. Because plastic pollution isn’t just about plastic in the ocean. It’s one long toxic supply chain that takes a massive toll on the environment and human health. From fracked natural gas wells contaminating drinking water; to pipelines scarring the landscape; to the sacrifice zones — especially among communities of color — in the Gulf South where petrochemicals are turned into plastic. We need to find better ways to deliver food and products without this kind of harm.


Bringing your own coffee cup and reusable water bottle are great first steps, but we believe the most important thing you can do is create demand for the changes in your community and with the businesses you support.

That starts with a conversation. Just like with straws, every individual conversation about throwaway plastic can start more conversations, which can start more conversations which can change the world. If your community, school or workplace hasn’t yet begun to address throwaway plastic, begin a group — or join one — to start having conversations about how to get these policies adopted. Make sure to reach out to the businesses you frequent and start conversations with them. Better yet, do it with your friends and family.

When we act in private, we can feel good about not contributing to the problem, but we don’t change the narrative. When we act visibly in our community and with our community — and foster conversations about doing things better — then we start to change the norms of what’s acceptable and what isn’t in our society.

And that has the power to change the world more rapidly and more transformatively than anything else.

S.F. invites world to join in zero-waste initiative

S.F. invites world to join in zero-waste initiative

San Francisco’s color-coded trash bins — the black, the blue and the green — marked a breakthrough in waste reduction when they hit the curbs nearly two decades ago.

Now, the pioneering program that encouraged residents to separate their recyclables and food scraps from their garbage is headed to a whole new level. City officials want people to generate no garbage at all, or at least as little as physically possible, and they’re asking the rest of the world to join their cause.

The ambitious zero-waste initiative, which would cut greenhouse gas emissions from landfills, will be promoted on the international stage next month when San Francisco hosts the Global Climate Action Summit.

The three-day event beginning Sept. 12, with such environmental notables as former Vice President Al Gore, chimpanzee expert Jane Goodall and actor Alec Baldwin, is all about encouraging climate action at the local level.

“This is a moment in time when the world is coming to San Francisco and thinking, ‘What do we need to do more of?’” said Deborah Raphael, director of the city’s Department of the Environment, which is spearheading the push for zero waste with Mayor London Breed and a handful of cities attending the summit. “The last thing we want is a lightweight commitment.”

The hope of the San Francisco summit is to advance the 2015 Paris agreement. Nearly 200 nations pledged three years ago to keep global temperatures from rising 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels, the point at which scientists expect catastrophic consequences from global warming, including more intense wildfires and higher seas.

The effort to hit the 2-degree mark, though, has gotten harder since President Trump last year vowed to pull the U.S. out of the Paris climate accord. He’s since started reversing Obama-era policies designed to limit heat-trapping gases. The United States is responsible for about 17 percent of the world’s emissions.

Absent federal leadership, organizers of the San Francisco summit expect to roll out initiatives among cities, states and other subnational governments, as well as from businesses, with such climate goals as making buildings more energy efficient, increasing investment in environmentally friendly bonds and generating zero waste.

“Yes, I know President Trump is trying to get out of the Paris agreement, but he doesn’t speak for the rest of America,” said Gov. Jerry Brown in a recent plug for the summit, which he helped schedule. “We in California and states all across America believe it’s time to act, to join together.”

Silverware is wrapped in napkins at Ziggy’s, which replaced the disposable utensils previously used.

Photo: Lea Suzuki / The Chronicle

The no-waste initiative led by San Francisco remains, at this point, more of a vision than a doable goal. The city and its contractor Recology have vastly expanded the number of things that can be recycled or composted, successfully diverting more than 80 percent of the trash that otherwise would be sent to landfills. Yet many items inevitably end up at the dump.

And as perplexing as it is to deal with stubborn items like throwaway packaging of an online meal kit, city leaders are eager to develop new methods for getting difficult materials out of the waste stream.

“We can’t say just because it’s too big and hard we won’t keep at the journey,” Raphael said.

Waste reduction has long been viewed as a vital way to limit methane, a potent greenhouse gas that is produced when organic materials decompose. But waste experts say the climate benefits of recycling and composting go even further. Harder-to-measure gains come from reduced energy use when products are made from recycled materials instead of created from scratch and from composting food scraps, which enhance the ability of soil to store carbon.

‘Recyclable’ is a word, not a promise — most plastic goes to landfills

‘Recyclable’ is a word, not a promise — most plastic goes to landfills

Only 9 percent of recyclable plastics end up at a recycling center and are recycled. Photo: Will Waldron / Albany (N.Y.) Times Union

Written by Monica Wilson. Article originally posted here.

It seems like every week, a corporation maligned for its role in the plastic pollution crisis comes out with some new recycling pledge, accompanied by fanfare and applause. Just last month, Starbucks announced that it will be phasing out plastic straws in favor of “recyclable” plastic lids (containing more plastic than the old straw-and-lid combo did). Earlier this year, Pepsi pledged to make its packaging 100 percent recyclable by 2025, and Unilever committed to making its packaging 100 percent recyclable, reusable or compostable. Sounds like a step in the right direction — right?

No. These announcements may sound great, but they look painfully naive in the face of the growing storm that is the global plastic recycling market. At the same time that the news is filled with these flashy industry recycling pledges, we are getting an increasingly frantic story from across the country and the world that our plastic simply isn’t getting recycled.

2017 study found that of all the plastic ever created, only a paltry 9 percent has been recycled, and the rest is clogging our streets, waterways, and has even made its way into our food systems. Beyond the fish on our plate, tiny pieces of plastic have been found in sea salt, honey, and even beer. Not to mention 94 percent of the United States’ drinking water.

For decades, brands have bankrolled flashy media campaigns to convince us that our switch to disposables over reusables was perfectly fine for the planet because we could just recycle them into new products. The ugly truth is that instead of dealing with the mounting piles of plastic waste enabled by this harmful mind-set, we sent much of it to China, burdening that country with the responsibility of land-filling or burning the large quantities that couldn’t be recycled. Now China has had enough, restricting imported waste in 2017 and imposing tariffs of 25 percent as of Aug. 23, and the West’s fantasy that its plastic waste was being taken care of elsewhere has come crashing down.

As of January 2018, cities across the country have had to break it to their citizens that the yogurt cups, takeout containers, and single-use cutlery that they were dutifully putting into the recyling bin were being sent straight to a landfill. Last month Waste Management, the largest waste company in America, announced that it would not be collecting plastics with codes #4 through #7 for recycling in Sacramento, making the Starbucks “sippy cup” lid just another disposable item destined for the landfill.

So where does that leave those lofty corporate “recyclability” goals? Most likely in the garbage with the rest of the plastic.

We can’t count on recycling to save us from the plastic pollution crisis, especially when the plastic industry is planning on increasing production in the next decade. Even if we were to miraculously find a way to recycle the millions of single-use throwaway plastic Starbucks cranks out every year, more and more plastic will overwhelm recycling systems and decimate the market.

As consumers, we must demand that these companies do more than give us the same-old “recycling will save the day” line, and take things into our own hands. Cities and states can be the first line of defense against plastic pollution through sound policy that minimizes waste instead of merely managing it.

As of now, food and beverage single-use disposables make up approximately 25 percent of all waste produced in California, gumming up recycling systems and clogging our landfills. Berkeley is tackling this problem head-on. A proposed ordinance from a coalition spearheaded by the city’s recycling provider, the Ecology Center, would mandate that all restaurants provide reusable foodware to customers dining in, and charge a small fee for takeout disposable foodware. Takeout items would need to be compostable or recyclable by local standards.

This is one of the most ambitious waste reduction policies in the country, and would force global chains like Starbucks and McDonald’s to limit their use of throwaway items and change packaging design. Imagine if cities across the country adopted the same measures. Companies like Starbucks would have to wake up and smell the coffee.

Plastic recycling has long been used as a crutch to justify industry’s ever-increasing production of single-use plastic. We need bold, innovative solutions to the plastic pollution crisis at the global level, not tired, recycled promises.

Monica Wilson is the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives’ policy and research coordinator and the associate director of GAIA’s U.S. office. She has been working on waste issues around the world for more than 15 years.

Taking the Greenwash route to fix the plastic crisis

Taking the Greenwash route to fix the plastic crisis

This article is in response to the article titled “Are plastic alternatives a blessing or a curse” by
Anton Hanekom, Executive Director of Plastics SA.

The issue with plastic is evident for everyone to see: it fills our streets and waterways and now
we know that plastic particles have entered our food systems too. So how do we address this
issue? How can we prevent our families from ingesting toxic plastic during every meal?
Certainly not through the continued production of plastic!

Mr Hanekom makes a compelling argument that in South Africa recycling has saved tons of CO2
emissions and landfill, space but what he does not mention is that we are only recycling roughly
9% of the plastic that we are producing. So while recycling is doing some good, clearly we
cannot recycle our way out of plastic pollution. It is pretty much an industry tactic to lead us to
believe that despite the ever-increasing amount of plastic entering into our ecosystem, recycling
is the answer. This provides a convenient excuse for industry to continue to churn out massive
amounts of plastic packaging. We need to shift away from believing that recycling alone is the
solution to this problem.

The idea that people are to blame for plastic pollution was intentionally planted by the
fast-moving consumer goods industry to protect their business model. While people do need to
act responsibly and know how to manage their waste, companies that are producing this waste
need to step up and take some accountability. If producers of plastic packaging were financially
responsible for the full lifecycle of their products, it would be in their interest to design products
that can be easily repaired or failing that, recycled. Instead industry pushes the blame onto the
consumer, so they don’t have to foot the bill for the waste their products create.

Phasing out single use plastic such as sachets, straws, and cutlery while implementing a
separation at source programme would be the ideal start we need. We have to start taking a
zero waste approach to waste management in our country. Packaging that cannot be reduced,
reused or recycled should not be produced. Furthermore, we cannot change from plastic to
another form of packaging and continue to ‘over package’ for this will result in a future crisis.
Who has not been frustrated by the very many layers of plastic on one product?

Mr Hanekom makes reference to the amount of jobs that the recycling sector creates. Waste
pickers are an important part of our waste management system, sorting through waste in far
from ideal conditions like landfill sites or in the streets. Although they are responsible for a large
quantity of materials being diverted from landfill, we are investing very little in this key
component of our waste management system , according to the South African Waste Pickers
Association. The glut of new plastic in the marketplace kills the plastic recycling economy, along
with the livelihoods of thousands of waste pickers. According to a report by GAIA titled
“Recycling is Not Enough”, production of virgin plastic leads to low market prices, particularly
as prices don’t factor in the externalities of plastic production, such as climate impacts, toxic
chemicals in the production system, pollution from oil, coal and gas extraction and the health
impact on society. Low virgin plastic prices outcompete recycled plastic, and there are no
mechanisms in place to ensure manufacturers will use recycled plastic content in their products.
In order to save our recycling economy, we simply need to stop making so much plastic.

GAIA is the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives, a network of organisations who believe
in a just, Zero Waste world centered around respect for ecological limits and community rights,
where burning and dumping is replaced with people-powered solutions.

Niven Reddy is a Campaigner at groundWork who coordinates the African region for GAIA.

Defend the Defenders: Ellen Sue Gerhart needs our support!

Defend the Defenders: Ellen Sue Gerhart needs our support!

Written by Ethan Buckner. Originally published in Earthworks website.

Late last Friday afternoon, four officers with the Huntingdon County Sheriff’s Department arrested grandmother, retired teacher, and advocate Ellen Sue Gerhart on her own property – likely in retaliation for her tireless work to protect her family’s land and Pennsylvania’s waterways from Energy Transfer Partners’ Mariner East 2 pipeline. Ellen will be in court on Friday, August 3, facing a slew of charges that could lead to her being thrown in jail for six months with no trial. She is currently being held in solitary confinement and on hunger strike – even while incarcerated, she is taking every opportunity she has to draw attention back to the dangers of the Mariner East pipeline project.

Ellen Sue Gerhart is a retired special ed teacher and longtime Huntingdon County resident who has lived on her family’s land for 35 years in peace. Over three years ago, her tranquil retirement was abruptly disturbed with a notice that pipeline builder Energy Transfer Partners (ETP) planned to build a polluting, volatile Natural Gas Liquids Pipeline straight through her land in order to supply raw materials for plastics manufacturers in Europe.

The Gerharts never gave ETP permission to build a pipeline through their land, but ETP seized it anyway using eminent domain law. For the past three years, Ellen has been an outspoken, compassionate, and selfless leader in her advocacy against the pipeline. She helped host Camp White Pine on her land, a longstanding tree sit that effectively prevented pipeline construction on the family property for 741 days. She’s known at Camp White Pine as mama bear, and is known across Pennsylvania as a powerful and loving voice for justice.

In my visits to Camp White Pine over the past few years, I’ve had the immense privilege of witnessing Ellen in action – as a mother and grandmother, and a creative, witty, tireless, and grounded advocate. After meeting Ellen, it doesn’t take long to understand that she is a force of nature. It’s remarkable what she’s been able to accomplish under the most dire of circumstances: since deciding to oppose ETP, Ellen and her family have been subjected to harassment, intimidation, surveillance, and violence, but continue to persist in their work.

The Gerharts are currently using all legal avenues to oppose the project, including contesting the permits granted to ETP and the abuse of eminent domain. They have also levied a federal civil rights lawsuit against Energy Transfer Partners, private security contractor TigerSwan, the Pennsylvania State Police, the Huntingdon County Sheriff Department, and a creator of a fake grassroots facebook page called PA Progress over continuous harassment the family has faced since deciding to oppose the pipeline project.

As has been widely reported, the damage from the Mariner East pipeline project extends well beyond the boundaries of the Gerhart’s property. Since construction of Mariner East began, ETP has reported an astounding 111 spills along the pipeline route, with more occurring each week. Over two dozen residential water wells have been contaminated due to pollution related to the pipeline’s construction.

We are living in a precarious moment in American history. With democracy, human rights, and our environment under attack on all fronts at the federal level, it is more important than ever to stand beside those directly targeted for standing up for justice. Ellen Sue Gerhart needs our support. Let’s make sure she gets home.

We are working to raise $25,000 for the Gerharts’ legal fund and are grateful for any and all support – visit to donate.

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