Action 1 – No, no, it’s not the cucumbers…(They’re great!)
This is the season for articles on what to give up for Lent. This year, instead 40 days without chocolate, alcohol or binge-watching TV shows, many churches are asking their parishioners to give up single-use plastic, some even specifying different types each week, like shopping bags, drinking straws, water bottles, styrofoam and food wrappers. In the secular world, Trader Joe’s announced in February’s Fearless Flyer, that they will be taking more steps to reduce plastic and other packaging waste due to increasing customer criticism for their perceived “overuse of packaging,” especially in the produce section. (See cucumbers, above.)
Why is plastic in the news everywhere? Because China has CUT US OFF! The recycling giant isn’t taking our plastic recyclables anymore, or anyone else’s – nearly half of the world’s excess plastic waste. So what is the US going to do about our little 4000-shipping-containers-A-DAY plastic trash habit? Although 2018’s Earth Day motto was a warning about plastics pollution, we hadn’t hit bottom yet. We need to make changes fast, beyond bags and straws, and CA can lead the way.
Environmental groups (see below) are supporting AB-1080/ SB 54 – “California Circular Economy and Plastic Pollution Reduction Act.” It will address the collapse of foreign recycling markets by reducing solid waste generation, encourage transition to compostable or recyclable materials, and foster domestic recycling markets. Businesses selling products into California would also have to comply with our packaging requirements, spreading the benefits to our environment beyond state lines.
Minimal script: I’m calling from [zip code and I want Senator/Assemblymember [____] to follow and support AB-1080/ SB 54 – “California Circular Economy and Plastic Pollution Reduction Act.” This is a really important issue for the future of California.
State Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson (SD-19):SAC (916) 651-4019, SB (805) 965-0862, OX (805)988-1940 email
State Assemblymember Monique Limón: (CA-37): SAC (916) 319-2037, SB (805) 564-1649, VTA (805) 641-3700 email
Not your people?:findyourrep.legislature.ca.gov.
- Californians Against Waste
- Heal the Bay
- Surfrider Foundation
- The Story of Stuff Project
- Seventh Generation Advisors
- Wishtoyo Chumash Foundation
- Save Our Shores
- The 5 Gyres Institute
- Plastic Pollution Coalition
- Zero Waste USA
- The Center for Oceanic Awareness, Research and Education (COARE)
- Audubon California
- Environment California
- Sierra Club California
- Center for Biological Diversity
What happened? While most of us have been laser-focused on the 10-12 years we have before harmful climate change becomes unstoppable, we didn’t fully understand the scale of a different environmental apocalypse beginning two years ago. That’s when China, in order to protect their own environment and people’s health, passed their “National Sword” policy, which halted their 25 year-long domination of the plastic processing business that took in nearly half of the world’s excess waste. The act took effect on Jan. 2018. We were their second largest customer behind Japan, shipping them over 26.7 million tons from 1988 to 2016, 372,000 metric tons in 2017 alone. Other scrap importer countries such as Indonesia, Vietnam or India are incapable of absorbing the tens of millions of tons that China had previously taken. And few American industries currently possess the ability to treat the waste, though we still think we can recycle our way out of trouble.
How did we get so dependent on China?
First, we need to understand what “recycling” really is. We perceive it to be a public function like fire stations, sewer and water, but it is actually a commodities business. Private contractors contract with municipalities to collect, sort, and clean profitable materials and sell them as raw materials to manufacturers. Non-profitable materials are returned to the cities to figure out how to dispose of them at taxpayer expense. The explosive expansion of disposable plastics in the 1990s, including single-use containers, drove up the supply quickly, but most contractors soon figured out that plastics were only economical if they were sold to China for processing. Plastic is difficult to recycle, due to the wide variety of additives and blends used in manufacturing, making processing economically feasible only for large-scale recycling specialists.
China still wasn’t the perfect solution. Of exported plastic trash, 89 percent comes from single-use food packaging and even when they were still accepting it, only nine percent of material produced globally was recycled. The remainder ends up in landfills, incinerators, or floating free and polluting the environment and contaminating the food chain.
What are other people doing about this? Are we behind?
Yes. Whole countries, big cities and small towns are already actively engaged in the war against waste. We as a country, and CA as a state, are late to this game but that means we have a lot of examples to study. Sweden, incinerates nearly 100% of their waste, including plastics, to create energy. In face, they are now importers of other people’s trash.
Kamikatsu, a small rural town in Japan, became a top recycler when they couldn’t afford a new incinerator and desperately needed new options. They ended up founding the Zero Waste Academy.
An exponentially larger place, like San Francisco, is already diverting 80% of its waste with their “Zero Waste” initiative. Their Instagram site #zerowasteexistence is documenting the creation of new business opportunities.
Trader Joe’s has started, other grocery stores can do this too.
Since 89% of our problem is with single-use food packaging, we should spend a moment here. Trader Joe’s has already replaced plastic produce bags with biodegradable and compostable options and switched out styrofoam trays with compostable versions. They are planning on phasing in offering more loose items, instead of prepacked in plastic, and eliminating plastic sleeves on greeting cards and wrappers on flower bouquets, replacing them with renewable material.
In his article on how grocery’s can adjust help us adjust to this new reality, Ken Lonyai put together a list. (we’ve added some links that show products or companies for illustration, no endorsements of any kind are implied)
- Eliminate all non-plant-based plastics from private labels
- Incentivize shoppers to buy products with “green” packaging, such as a “Plastic-Free Shopping Club” or app (one example)(another example)
- Create a plastic-free aisle or store-in-store like Dutch supermarket Ekoplaza; (not without criticism)
- Create a sustainable aisle or store-in-store like Brooklyn start-up Package Free;
- Replace bottled water with reusable bottles and offer free filtered water refills. The mathematics of how much money we’d save is actually really interesting.
- Mandate that product manufacturers remove single-use plastics from packaging by a certain date or face removal from shelves;
- Offer products in bulk utilizing shoppers’ own containers like German grocer Original Unverpackt—it was once that way in the US;
· Establish a nonprofit that certifies packaging as biodegradable/compostable similar to Non-GMO Project certification; or
· Organize a consortium of manufacturers that pledge to be rid of single-use plastics by a reasonable target date.
Here’s a map, mostly for Europe, that shows zero-waste stores.
- How recycling is changing in all 50 states (Wastedive)
- Timeline: How China has reshaped US recycling (Wastedive)
- Recycling Is Broken (earther)
- Recycling in Ventura County (vcpublicworks.org)
Refresher on recycling…Actually really helpful.