Disrupting Disposables- The Drive to Banish Single-Use Plastics

Disrupting Disposables- The Drive to Banish Single-Use Plastics

by Yvette C. Hammett

Universities, sports arenas, restaurants, and other businesses are taking up the call to “disrupt disposables” as part of a global effort to dramatically cut down on single-use plastics. The environmental problems caused by those ubiquitous throwaways have become a mainstay of news reporting, and studies on how best to reduce them through public policy abound. A recent Canadian research paper in the Marine Pollution Bulletin explores strategies such as bans, tax levies, and education. Experts agree that it is not just a litter problem, but a sobering matter of human and planetary health.

As these plastics wind up in the oceans and landfills worldwide, they can languish virtually intact for up to 1,000 years, entangling and choking marine mammals and terrestrial wildlife. Or, they break into toxic microplastics that enter drinking water supplies, eventually ingested by humans. Because plastics are made from petroleum, their production also adds to greenhouse gases that contribute to the climate crisis.

Two-pronged efforts by businesses and individuals to divert plastics from the waste system and replace it with Earth-friendly alternatives will eventually pay off, experts say, but it will be a long and slow process. However, momentum is building, spurred by consumer demand and a growing number of enterprising businesses, organizations, and academic institutions.

At Penn State University, agriculture and biological engineering professor Judd Michael is working with sports facilities to lower both plastics use and littering; the initiative is working so well that their approaches may be taken up by other schools across the nation. “One of my projects is with NASCAR’s Pocono Raceway [also in Pennsylvania], where the owners of the track wanted to continue to make the venue more green,” he says. “There is zero waste in suites for that track, and they are initiating a comprehensive recycling program. They try to get tailgaters to participate, as well.”

On campus, Penn State provides bags of different colors for tailgaters with instructions for fans to separate recyclables in one bag and everything else in the other. That program was exported to Pocono. Michael is also working with PepsiCo, which owns Frito-Lay, to develop alternative packaging.

The University of Florida’s efforts began in 2012 when the campus freed itself from plastic bags, getting buy-in from Chick-fil-A, Subway, and other eateries that agreed to switch to paper. “We’ve been Styrofoam-free since 2012, as well,” says Allison Vitt, outreach and communications coordinator for the UF Office of Sustainability. “At the end of 2018, we officially switched over all to compostable straws. It feels like plastic, but is certified compostable.”

In the dorms, UF has engaged with Cupanion, a refillable bottle with an app that has a “fill it forward” program, distributing money to clean-water charities worldwide. “Since 2016, we’ve been working with them to reduce single-use plastic bottles, rewarding people for reusing a bottle. There is a barcode sticker we give out to students and faculty. Any time you refill it at a retailer or a water fountain, you can scan the barcode with an app on your phone and it gives you points which you can redeem for prizes. It also shows you your personal footprint; your cumulative impact, like how many single-use bottles you have avoided,” Vitt says.

On a smaller scale, Dana Honn and his wife Christina went completely plastic-free upon opening Café Carmo, in New Orleans. “We only had about a dozen seats, but determined to have as little waste as possible. Every year, we were able to build upon it,” he says.

“A lot of local folks have really changed their perspective. We see a lot more customers coming in and saying they appreciate that we are using compostable cups and compostable straws.”

It’s a slow but steady effort, says Eric DesRoberts, senior manager of the Ocean Conservancy’s Trash Free Seas program. “We have worked with a number of restaurants talking about why it is important to be taking action to keep plastics out of the waste stream and out of the ocean.”

More people are volunteering to clean up and cut back on plastics, and more businesses are asking the nonprofit, Washington, D.C.-based, environmental advocacy organization how they can do their part. “There is momentum, but it is challenging,” says DesRoberts.

Yvette C. Hammett is an environmental writer based in Valrico, Florida. Connect at [email protected].


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