Things That Do Work
To my knowledge and thinking, there is no single 'silver-bullet' solution for the
problems of plastic pollution. In large part, this is because there are many types of
plastic in the waste stream, complicated by the many form factors (bottles vs. bags. vs.
packing material vs. big blocks of material), and the amount of mixed-material pieces
used in packaging. To my mind, that means we need to embrace a range of solutions to
address the range of issues. I'm also not suggesting there won't be challenges;
there are vested interests who like the pollution program in place now, and frankly,
if it was easy, we would already be doing what we need to do.
Where I live, we have deposit-return systems for beer cans, bottles, kegs, alcohol and
wine bottles. Despite the presumable inebriation of those using these containers,
I seldom see these empties on my property or in roadside ditches or elsewhere. That's because
they have financial value. Nearby, Quebec has the same program in place for soft drink
containers. While I routinely see empty soft drink cans and plastic bottles on walking
routes near my home, I seldom see them when travelling in Quebec. What I do see as litter
in Quebec is one-use water bottles and 'health' drink bottles, as these are not covered
by the deposit-return program. As the Quebec program info-blurb says, "Only people who
choose to throw away their containers pay the price." If we applied the same approach to
one-use water and other drink bottles, I am sure much less would end up in the environment.
Design for Reuse
There are times I pay for convenience. Meal preparation is one. There is a retail
chain which makes heat-and-eat meals as its prime product. These include some sauces,
soups, etc. which come in clear, reusable plastic containers with snap-on lids. Once I
peel off the (non-recyclable) plastic labels, I am left with a perfectly serviceable
half-litre food-grade container which is safe for use in freezer and refrigerator. When
it reaches end-of-reuse-life, it can be put into the municipal recycling program.
Similarly, I keep small plastic fruit baskets for picking raspberries in my yard,
which I received originally with fruit I bought at a store. If I end up with a surplus,
I provide them to a local farmer who runs a seasonal farm-to-consumer fruit and veggie
stand about 2 km from where I live. This is not meant as an exhaustive list, there are
so many more possibilities. As one of the virtues of plastic is its longevity,
we should be designing more of our 'consumable' plastic packaging for reuse, and making
use of that capability.
Repurposing and Reuse
Examples abound. Give it some thought. There are lists on the Web (if you can't
find one on your own,
here's a starting point). My personal favourite is still the milk bag (actually
4 bags in a package) (Hint: look under M at the link above.) In short, just keep
your (yes, your) plastic out of our waste stream.
Charging the Consumer a Fee for One-time Use Plastics
Jurisdictions which charge a fee for plastic grocery bags see dramatic decreases in
the number which end up in the waste stream and the environment. Yes, there is a lot
of contrary opinion in the blogosphere, and claims that taxing one-use plastic bags
will bring upon us the end of civilization as we know it and riots in the streets.
However, the experiment has been carried out and the results are in. Just a 5p bag fee
resulted in an 85% reduction in bags taken from stores by consumers. I know, its just
more of that science, evidence and data crap, which clearly can't be right if your
opinion is to the contrary. Well, it's time to start acting like adults, and accept
that financial disincentive programs work wondrously well.
Real Incentives for Reuse Coupled with Disincentives for One-time Use
One oddity of human behaviour is that we respond more effectively to disincentives than
incentives; the stick is more effective than the carrot. However, almost all motivational
programs know that the most effective approach is to use BOTH. So, while some coffee chains
offer a nominal incentive for bringing in your own reusable cup/mug (typically 5 or 10 cents
on a $1.50 to $4.50 expenditure), it clearly is not sufficient to overcome the inconvenience
premium for most consumers. So much so, that promotional campaigns are built around the
assumption you will always take away a disposable cup. (Seriously, if you bring in your
own mug during these promotions, the chain will give you an empty cup, as it's the only
way they can let you participte in the campaign.)
So, here are a couple of thoughts on how to encourage more reusable cups.
stop making people who bring their own cups feel like oddballs
make the reuse incentive significant, in my opinion, at least 20 cents per refill
in ADDITION to the refill incentive, charge the customer 5 cents per disposable cup
(this one will take some real courage in North America today)
find an alternative to non-recyclable plastic-lined 'paper' cups
find and install trash receptacles for the one-use cups which actually capture the cups,
with sufficient capacity that piles of empties don't pile up around them, and empty them
regularly and dispose of the contents responsibly.
Paper Drinking Straws
Yes, they really do exist. Yes, they really do work. Yes, they really will remain
viable for 20-30 minutes. Yes, they actually do biodegrade if put into a composting
system, or even if they escape into the environment. No, they are not a lot more expensive
than the ubiquitous plastic straws we use now. So from home use to restaurants to fast
food outlets, let's go back to paper straws. Most fauna (including humans) can digest
a paper drinking straw without serious consequences. Save a bird, use a paper straw.
Paper, Wood, Bamboo Coffee Stirrers
Much like plastic drinking straws, but plastic coffee stirrers are slightly worse.
You might use the plastic drinking straw for 10 or even 20 minutes. The useful life of
the disposable coffee stirrer is measured in seconds, typically just 1 to 2 seconds, but
it still lasts pretty much forever once it gets into the wild. So, here's the thing.
The real reason you need that stirrer is because you put sugar in your coffee or tea,
and without stirring, the sugar just sinks to the bottom. You know that sugar isn't
good for your health, so just stop using (especially granulated white) sugar in your
hot drink. Personally, I like cream in my coffee and milk in my tea. However, I
don't use a stirrer; a little agitation is all it takes to get the mixing done.
However, if you must use something to stir your drink, consider some other options.
a) reusable stirrers, like spoons, which can be dropped into a 'used' tray at the
coffee counter and washed for reuse
b) stirrers made from natural materials like bamboo, wood or paper, which will
biodegrade in a composting container or program
(If you must have a sweetener, consider honey, and do your bit to protect the bees.)
Banning Mixed-Material Packaging
We know it can't be recycled, and in most form factors I have seen, it can't be reused
or reasonably repurposed. So, let's just agree to stop allowing it to be used. If we can
put ice cream in a small plastic tub with a lid which is reusable and recyclable, why
can't we use the same for frozen drink concentrate?
Cellophane is essentially a paper product (lignin or cellulose-based) which does
biodegrade, much like paper. That's why envelopes with cellophane windows are OK in
paper recycling programs. Cellophane is viable for use in food packaging, and can
be transparent (again, think of the window envelopes).
Wikipedia on cellophane.
Banning Plastic Packing Materials
We can make protective packaging from very low quality recycled paper pulp (short
fibres). We can even make paper fibre packing 'peanuts' or equivalents which fill
space flexibly while adding very little weight. So far, in low volumes, this does
cost a bit more than subsidized oil-based polystyrene, but it is biodegradable
(just add water and watch for yourself).
This is the ultimate in driving the cost of packaging waste and waste products back up the production
chain. Let the business that generated the waste in the first place take ownership
of the problem and cost of resolving it. If they can reprocess the product to make
a new product (e.g. engine oil), that's valid. If they create a packaging solution which
doesn't generate a downstream issue, then they can avoid the associated cost, but not
just by abandoning the problem in the homes of consumers.
Banning Unnecesary Plastic Convenience Items
In our consumer society, encouraged by vendors who profit from and encourage single-use
containers, this will be a tough sell. I don't think we have many elected officials with
the courage to stand up for this. However, there is no questioning that this approach
would be effective. If the consumer can't actually get the throw-away container, then
they can't throw it away. If you want people to have easy access to drinking water,
go back to installing drinking water fountains or taps.
These are just the highlights and more obvious measures. There are so
many other ways to reduce the amount of plastic that ends up
in the wild, but none of these address the existing pollution in the environment. For that,
we need a different way of
thinking about the problem.