Single-use plastics include such things as bags we get in stores, plastic table wear, and drinking straws. They include the plastic-based wipes Larry Plesent objects to in his “Ingredient of the Month” article in this issue of Green Energy Times (G.E.T.). In cases like plastic bags, they need not be thrown out but are anyway. In such cases as the wipes, they really should be thrown out but need not be made of plastic. But they are always a problem.
The issue is not whether they can be recycled. Jenna Evans, Ben & Jerry’s Global Sustainability Manager, made this clear. She said, “We’re not going to recycle our way out of this problem. We, and the rest of the world, need to get out of single-use plastic.”
Plastics get into the environment and making their way in winds and river waters to the ocean, where they accumulate in slowly swirling systems called gyres. Some of the areas where plastics accumulate are hundreds of miles across. For more about this, see the article, “Garbage Patches in our Ocean,” which was in the August, 2015 issue of G.E.T. (http://bit.ly/GET-gyres).
Single-use plastics kill all manner of life in the oceans, from the smallest to the largest. They often kill by clogging digestive systems. Last June, when the UN World Environment Day had the theme, “Beat Plastic Pollution,” G.E.T. ran an article of the same name; it mentioned a whale that was killed by plastic bags (http://bit.ly/beat-plastic).
The move to stop plastic pollution has been gaining momentum over the last few years. Some Vermont towns have banned single-use plastic bags. Last year, Brattleboro was first to ban the bags outright, while Manchester called on the state to implement a state-wide ban. This year, Manchester, Middlebury, and Burlington residents voted overwhelmingly in favor of bans on plastic bags.
Vermont is not the only state moving on the bans. New Hampshire, Maine, Massachusetts, and others have efforts under way for state-wide bans on single use bans, with bills coming before the legislatures. As voters understand the issue better, support for the bans is growing, and we are increasingly likely to see bills passed into law.
Some businesses have taken leadership roles in reducing single-use plastic use. A notable example is Ben & Jerry’s, which started reducing use of plastics in 2009, with a switch away from plastic containers for their ice cream. Now the company is eliminating use of plastic spoons and straws. The changeover to wood and paper for these items is set to be complete by the end of 2020.
Ben & Jerry’s is not alone. Businesses large and small are working on eliminating single-use plastic. One example is the Common Man, which runs fifteen restaurants and a movie theater in New Hampshire. The Common Man is actually going a little beyond a simple switch to paper straws by making sure that all straws are made from Forest Stewardship Council certified paper. The switch is costing the chain $24,000, which does not seem excessive, considering there are sixteen sites involved.
For the time being, paper and wood cost a little more than plastic, but pressure can be brought on hesitant businesses to take steps to protect the environment. Trader Joe’s has announced it will eliminate use of a million pounds of single-use plastic from its stores in 2019. It will replace all single-use plastic bags, offering biodegradable and compostable bags instead. It will eliminate the polystyrene foam used for packaging, and it will sell more produce loose, instead of wrapped in plastic. Nevertheless, according to Greenpeace, Trader Joe’s could do much better, and customers should hold it to a higher standard. The plan Trader Joe’s announced did not address well over a million pounds of plastic it will still be using.
This is an issue that we should all keep in mind as we shop. And if we see stores continue to offer single-use plastic to its customers, we might ask the management to stop. One alternative is to shop instead at a store that does better on plastic.
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