DO YOU KNOW HOW MUCH PLASTIC PASSES THROUGH YOUR LIFE? Last year several members of our Environmental Justice group tracked 1-time use plastic items that flowed through our lives on a daily basis. It was a real eye-opener. In my 31 days, the number of items ranged from 0 to 18. Besides the obvious items like plastic bags* from the produce aisles of your local grocery store, yogurt containers or water bottles, plastic comes with so many ordinary items we use every day. For example, a Kleenex tissue box has a plastic insert in the opening. I tried soaking it to remove the cardboard so I could put the plastic with my collection of clean plastic film– all plastic film has to be clean and dry and bunched up together in a plastic bag or wrapped together before being put in your grey bin or taken to the Recycling Center. A metal cap on a bottle of sparkling water has a ring of plastic around it. The batteries you buy come packaged in cardboard and plastic. Multiple rolls of toilet paper are packaged in plastic. Produce from Trade Joe’s comes in plastic containers (although now the company is finally responding to customer’s urges to stop that practice–I for one never buy produce there because of the plastic. When you get takeout food, does the restaurant stick in a plastic fork? What implement do you use to write? I would guess it’s a plastic-encased disposable pen. I could go on and on about the data our group has uncovered in more than a year of researching the insidiousness and dangers of plastic.
People were led to believe that recycling solves the problem of our over-consumption of stuff. The fact is that 91% of plastic worldwide is NOT RECYCLED. A recent study by marketing researchers at Citi found that only 14 percent of plastic packaging is recycled. And when China declared in 2018 that it would not longer accept our “recyclable” trash because much of it was contaminated and they have their own garbage to deal with, America was stopped dead in our wanton wastefulness and confronted with mountains of so-called recyclables that are now being hauled to landfills.
Why? Because so many communities, including our own, went to single-stream recycling. That is, we were told to place metal, glass, paper, cardboard, and plastic altogether in our grey bins. This resulted in contamination of many items, making it impossible to be recycled, hence they end up in landfills. Years back people in El Cerrito had to separate our recyclables into different bins; that was in the era before food waste was accepted. Then single stream recycling came into practice and new trucks were designed and built to accommodate one large bin and prevent workers from having to pick up and lift the bins and tilt them into the yawning rear openings of the recycling trucks. What used to take several workers now only takes one worker to run the truck and its grippers that pick up the bin and toss its contents into the side opening of the truck and then set the bin back on the street. When materials are contaminated, purchasers or recyclable materials don’t want to buy them and they have to go into landfill. Not only does this pollute our Earth, it loses money for our City.
Recycle processing equipment cannot handle small bits of plastic. 500 million straws were being used every day in the U.S.; they plus the ubiquitous plastic stirrers and plastic knives, forks, and spoons slip through the machines. And yet they can be found by the 1000s in our creeks, pathways, streets, at bus stops, and blown into people’s yards.
These are just a few of the reasons why last Summer we took our “Skip the Straw” campaign to El Cerrito’s Environmental Quality Committee, an advisory group to the City Council. Although we called it “Skip the Straw,” what we really want is for our city to ban all 1-time use and non-recyclable and non-compostable foodware. In July 2018 we started an awareness campaign at the One World Festival, and collected signatures of El Cerrito residents. We had a contest for people to guess how many plastic straws were picked up at the festival, and gave out organic plants as prizes. We made informal and formal presentations to the EQC, whose members acknowledged that we had done the heavy lifting for them by doing a lot of relevant research, complete with references to problems and cases where cities, states and whole countries are tackling the issue. We showed them the environmental, health, litter, and economic consequences of so much plastic being used and tossed on streets, in creeks, in parks, and all around town. As a result, EQC set up a sub-committee on plastics and declared 2019 The Year of Plastics.
Other cities are way ahead of us. Richmond passed their food ordinance in 2010 that required food providers to stop using disposable foodware and use recyclable or compostable foodware, encouraging them to provide reusable containers. Polystyrene foodware was banned in 2018. In December 2018 they added bans on the use and sale of all plasatic straws and stirrers by retail establishments, food providers, and transient lodging, and added utensils and lids to the list of disposable foodware that must be compostable or recyclable and applies it to City facilities and events. In January 2019 after a council member introducing the idea in April 2018, Berkeley passed an ambitious comprehensible Single-Use Foodware and Litter Reduction ordinance. Among other things, the Berkeley Ordinance includes small items such as plastic packets of condiments (e.g., ketchup), customers are encouraged to bring their own clean beverage containers for takeout beverages or be charged 25¢ for a disposable cups. Disposable foodware must be BPI Certified Compostable starting January 2020. The details about their ordinance are a role model for other municipalities to follow to get to Zero Waste.
Although we have urged the EQC to work on a comprehensive plastics and non-compostable foodware ordinance, the staff has told EQC and us that they are only willing to work on a plastic straw and stirrer ban this year.
Our belief is that it will take a lot of effort just to go this one small step, and question why we should not design a comprehensive foodware and anti-litter ordinance that supports the healthy and safety of workers, diners and drinkers, and helps business improve their bottom financial line. Rethink Disposables, part of Clean Water Action has helped businesses save money by eliminating disposable foodware.
If you care about the health of our city and its inhabitants, food providers and workers, please join our campaign. Contact us through this website.
Barbara Chan, Convener for Environmental Justice
* For years i have cleaned and re-used plastic bags, like my mother before me, taking them with me to the store. Lately I stopped putting my produce into bags and just pile apples and oranges on the conveyer belt and then put them loose into my large cloth grocery bag or my wicker basket.