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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.

Deposit-Return Systems

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

    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).

    Take-it-Back Programs

    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.

    Next: The RESTCo Vision of Resolving Persistent Plastic Pollution

    Types of Plastic
    The Science of Plastic Pollution
    Media Items on Plastic Pollution
    Some Interesting Approaches
    Things That Don't Work
    Things That Do Work
    De-plasticizing the Ocean (2017 RESTCo 3-pager)
    Removing microplastic from shoreline/beach (demo)
    RESTCo Plastic Pollution Solution
    Capturing Micro- and Nano-plastics from the Waste Stream
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