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 replacing them 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 alternatives. “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.” They feel like plastic, but are certified compostable, she says.
UF has engaged with Cupanion, a company that developed 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, rewarding people for reusing their bottles,” says Vitt.
Interested students, staff and faculty are given a barcode sticker to scan on their phone each time a bottle is refilled at a campus retailer or water fountain. The app provides points that can be redeemed for monthly prizes. “It also shows you your personal footprint—your cumulative impact, like how many single-use bottles you have avoided,” she 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].