Many of us want to do the right thing but we don't know what the right thing is.
Simply eliminating plastic and using other single-use alternatives like paper, fiber-based materials, or bio-based plastics creates other significant environmental and human health impacts, like depletion of forests, increased carbon emissions, and greater water and energy use.
Take the disposable coffee cup for example. Americans use 120 billion of them each year. Placed end-to-end, these could circle the equator 333 times. This one throw-away, highly-polluting habit generates 2.2 billion pounds of waste, uses 35 billion gallons of water, generates 4 billion pounds of CO2 emissions, and cuts down 11 million trees each year.*
The problem isn’t simply the use of plastic. It’s our reliance on single-use products and packaging, all of which are designed to be used immediately and then thrown away.
It gets a little depressing. People generally feel really upset when they learn that the eco-friendly looking brown paper to-go box that they get at Whole Foods with the compostable label actually isn’t much better for the environment than a foam (polystyrene) box. It takes considerably more energy and water to make it, is responsible for greater carbon emissions and it’s made with a toxic, carcinogenic grease-resistant coating.**
“Bioplastic” sounds like a greener alternative. But bioplastic isn’t necessarily biodegradable or compostable. It behaves pretty much exactly the same way in the environment as petroleum-based plastic. It’s another type of plastic polymer, just made out of plants instead of petroleum products.
And the really depressing part is that the plastic pollution problem won’t be solved by recycling. For one thing, almost all the high pollution plastic products we find in the environment - pretty much everything besides soda and water bottles - have no value in today’s fickle recycling systems. People can’t make money off it and so they don’t collect it. As a result, only about 9% of plastic packaging gets recycled. And, even the plastics that do have value still get littered. Plastic bottles, which do have economic value are still among the top 10 most littered items in beach debris studies. So focusing on making plastics more recyclable doesn’t mean that they won’t end up in the environment.
If we want to live in a world that can support 7.5 billion people and growing, we need convenient systems that make economic and environmental sense and get us what we want without all the waste. It turns out that is not throw-away.
The real, scalable solution to plastic pollution in the ocean and the waste of natural resources is to move to real and reusable, wherever and whenever possible.
Because single-use uses more water, energy, and natural resources to produce and contributes to ocean pollution AND climate change. Consider this: by simply replacing a throw-away cup for a reusable mug every day for a year, a single coffee drinker can save one tree, 23 pounds of carbon emissions, and 281 gallons of water.*
But if reuse doesn't make economic sense, it is doubtful it would ever scale to the level we need.
Good news: Restaurants switching from throw-away to reusables actually SAVE MONEY. They save money even after purchasing real, reusable dishes and adding dishwashing. They reduce waste hauling and labor costs used to manage garbage. According to Clean Water Action’s ReThink Disposable, every single one of their 300+ participating restaurants saved money when making the switch. Not one restaurant lost money, even when they had to install a dishwasher.
In cases where restaurants did not have room for dishwashing, new businesses cropped up to provide clean dishes as a service. Just as businesses provide services to restaurants to pick up dirty rugs and linens, launder them and return them; new businesses are cropping up to do the same for reusable dishes and silverware.
In addition to environmental and economic benefits for the food service industry, reusables create an opportunity to spark a whole new industry of reusable businesses impacting not just an individual restaurant but the entire community. Throw-Away-Free makes a heck of a lot of sense.
Reuse is not rocket science - but it is smart….and green. But best yet, it gets us what we want without all the waste.
* Fact Sheet from Clean Water Action - http://www.rethinkdisposable.org/resources
**The Significance of Environmental Attributes as Indicators of the Life Cycle Environmental Impacts of Packaging and Food Service Ware - https://www.oregon.gov/deq/FilterDocs/MaterialAttributes.pdf