From Straws to Sea Change

Can We Go Beyond #StopSucking to Actually Break Free From Disposables? 

Right now, we are all part of a pivotal moment of cultural change. In a brief span of time, plastic straws have gone from a relatively accepted part of everyday existence to a niche-need product. However, if this action to address plastic in the environment stops at straws, then 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 throw-away products and creates something better in its place?”

How do we turn this awareness and desire for action into truly transformative change that reshapes how we think about and use throw-away products and creates something better in its place?

A couple of years ago, my friend Marcus Eriksen from the 5 Gyres Institute and I were discussing this question. The 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 the most-widely found in the environment.

Now, my caveat here is that 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 the majority of products—not surprisingly—were convenience ‘to-go’ food and beverage packaging. Here are the top 10:

  1. Food wrappers
  2. Bottle caps
  3. Beverage bottles
  4. Plastic bags
  5. Straws and stirrers
  6. Lids
  7. Utensils
  8. Cigarette butts
  9. Take-out containers
  10. Cups and plates

 

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

We can dramatically reduce plastic pollution in the environment by switching out throw-away plastic for another throw-away product made from a different material, such as paper. 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. Of course, throw-away paper products also come with their own set of environmental problems—deforestation, carbon emissions from manufacture and transport, and methane released while breaking down in landfills, among others.

While substituting lower impact materials for high-pollution plastic products might 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.

While substituting lower impact materials for high-pollution plastic products might 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. Now let’s imagine what this world might look like in three future scenarios:

1. 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 okay, we’ve got reusable cups on deposit. It will cost an extra dollar and you can change it out for a clean mug at any coffee shop in town next time you need your caffeine fix.”

2. You’re taking lunch to-go from your favorite restaurant to eat in the park. As you wrestle with the guilt of taking yet another throw-away to-go box, the person behind the counter hands you your food in a reusable to-go box and directs you to a kiosk in the park where you can drop it off, or at any restaurant or grocery store in the city.

3. You’ve ordered take-out from Seamless or GrubHub or a meal kit 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 consider this system on a broader scale, where every airport, mall, theme park, zoo, university campus, office building, and corporate campus did the same thing—got rid of throw-away cups, lids, plates, cutlery, straws, and bags. Everywhere you go, you are getting what you want without all the waste—in reusable systems that are created and run by business.

The good news is that this is already happening. All over the world, businesses, college campuses, and communities are saying no to disposable packaging and designing reusable systems that are convenient, sustainable, and more fun than the old throw-away model. Here are just a few examples:

  • In Switzerland, ReCircle is serving hundreds of to-go oriented restaurants with reusable containers.
  • In Germany, cities like Freiberg, Hamburg, and Berlin have reusable coffee cups on deposit at cafes throughout each city.
  • Companies like 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 throw-away 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.

The reuse revolution isn’t some far-off dream; it’s happening today. The question for business, government, and citizens should be, “How can we make this the new norm?”


 

This article is part of a series on “solvable problems” within the context of the UN Sustainable Development Goals. The Global Engagement Forum: Live takes place this October 10–11, 2018, bringing together leaders from across the private, public, and social sectors to co-create solutions and partnerships to address four urgent, yet solvable problems—closing the skills gap in STEM, reducing post-harvest food loss, ending energy poverty, and eliminating marine debris and ocean plastics. Learn more about the Forum here.

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