Last week I wrote an article about how my city — San Francisco — has reached a stunning 78% waste diversion rate and is on the way to its stated goal of zero waste in 2020. It describes the city’s history of dealing with waste, from volunteer-run community recycling centers dating back to the first Earth Day and early compliance with AB 939 (California’s 1989 mandate requiring 50 percent of waste diversion by 2000) to the city’s 2002 zero waste resolution and 2009 landmark Mandatory Recycling and Composting Ordinance.
It details the city’s state of the art three-stream collection system and how this first in the nation large-scale urban food waste and composting program has returned 1 million tons of nutrient-rich compost to residents’ dinner tables in the form of fresh food from local farms, reducing the city’s greenhouse gas emissions to 12 percent below 1990 levels.
It chronicles how the city by the bay has even been able to tackle — against the usual hippie, commie, and big daddy accusations — some of the most sacred cows of modern convenience, by banning or at least reflecting the true cost of single-use plastic bags.
San Francisco’s groundbreaking waste diversion efforts and programs have been truly visionary, earning it the mantle of “greenest” major city in the US and Canada Green City Index and making it a model for other municipalities. And yet, despite all the achievements and accolades there’s a million pound gorilla in the room that weighs down our city and landfill, as well as marine and terrestrial environments:
Whether it’s containers,
or food packaging,
the explosion of single-use disposable plastic over the last 30 years is posing problems that go far beyond any city’s recycling program and much deeper into the question of who we are as citizens, sentient beings and inhabitants of a planet with finite resources and a fragile ecosystem. Basically, one of the biggest and dirtiest secrets our collective lazy-bone and the plastics industry is trying very hard to keep out of our consciousness is that plastic, even if it does end up in the recycling bin, isn’t recyclable.
The Plastic Pollution Coalition points out The Recycling Myth:
Collecting plastics at curbside fosters the belief that, like aluminum and glass, these will be converted into new similar objects. This is not the case with plastic. The best we can hope for plastics is that these will be turned into other products such as doormats, textiles, plastic lumber, etc. These products will still end at some point in the landfill – and do not stem the need for more virgin petroleum product. This is not recycling, but down-cycling. (boldface mine)
But not even down-cycling is happening.
In the US, 93% of plastics are NOT recovered (put in plastic “recycling” bins). These go straight to landfills. PET bottles that have a redemption value (cash value) fare a bit better: 62% are NOT recovered.
What this means is that just because your bottle or package says that it can be recycled doesn’t mean that it will be or that it will reduce your city’s waste stream. Chances are it won’t. Even if you count plastic downcycling as recycling and your city has a blue recycling bin, there’s something in those three arrows on a container that seems to give our poor beleaguered eco souls automatic license to consume more.
“Hey, it says it’s recyclable, so I can have as many as I want, right? Grab another bag of Puffcorn!”
The numbers tell the story: While 34 percent — or 85 million tons out of a total 250 million tons of trash generated in the U.S. in 2010 — was recycled, up from only 10 percent in 1980, per capita solid waste generation in the U.S. has actually increased from 3.66 to 4.43 pounds per person per day in the same time span. In other words, whatever dent Americans are making into their garbage through recycling is still offset by increased consumption and disposal.
No matter how you slice it, most of our plastic items will ultimately end up in the landfill (or the ocean) sooner (in most of the U.S.) or later (in San Francisco), where the polyethylenes, polystyrenes, polyvinyl chlorides, and all the other polys will last several hundred years after having served us sometimes for mere minutes. San Francisco has shown how the right infrastructure, technology and political will can get a large chunk of stuff out of the waste stream, but unless there’s a more fundamental change in behavior, the combination of unsustainable and messy materials like plastics and a deeply-ingrained throw-away mentality will keep our dump busy and zero waste sounding good in theory only.
The Lunchbox Project
Right after I had submitted my article pondering these tremendous challenges San Francisco will be facing in getting from 78 percent waste diversion (what I call the low-hanging fruit) to 100 percent, I was forwarded an email from Deb Baida, my partner in reusability, about a planned action in downtown San Francisco called The Lunchbox Project. Organized by Brendan Moriarty, a financial district worker concerned about the rampant use of single-use dishes and containers during lunch hour, the Lunchbox Project invited people to come down to Crocker Galleria, a downtown mall with shops and restaurants, and order lunch in their own reusable containers in a way that attracts attention and inspires others to do the same.
It was the kind of action that I thought held the key to the missing 22 percent, so Deb and I grabbed our glassware and hopped on BART to join the party.
Our first impression upon entering Crocker Galleria was the perfect example of the huge gap that still exists between talking green and living green, and how far we still have to go in raising awareness and connecting mere words to deeds. Will the earth really benefit from these balloons? Where will the balloons be next week? Next month? Next century?
Our second impression was a plastic monster cut from an entirely different bag.
Beth Terry is one of the most tireless, creative, and fun plastic-free advocates this side of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, chronicling the journey of reducing her plastic consumption to 2.11 pounds in 2011 (the average American generates at least 100 pounds of plastic waste per year!). Ever since she saw a photo of a dead sea bird with its belly full of plastic pieces, she resolved to stop buying any new plastic and has been spreading all kinds of important tips and resources through her My Plastic-free Life (formerly Fake Plastic Fish) blog, also chronicled in her upcoming book, Plastic Free — How I Kicked the Plastic Habit and How You Can Too. Deb and Beth have become good buddies through their respective shedding-stuff-from-your-life missions, so it was only natural to see them geek out together.
After getting Beth “dressed” we walked up the lobby where a pretty good crowd of reusable warriors had gathered, ready to order.
It was great to see the fine folks from the San Francisco Department of Environment out and about,
sporting some of the slickest,
and grooviest lunch dishes
Donnie Oliveira, SF Environment’s Grassroots Program Manager and owner of the Frisbee plate, confirmed to me just what I had suspected, that disposable plastics are one of the most significant obstacles in the city’s zero waste mission. And of all places in San Francisco, the financial district is one of the biggest problem areas, as most people only come there for work and are in a constant rush, including their eating habits. The restaurants cater to that fast food mentality, many of them not even offering the option of reusable dishes and silverware.
As I was following Beth into Tully’s to get a cup of water, you could tell by their set-up what the default beverage container is.
You may wonder “well, what about those awesome composting and recycling bins, isn’t that where all this stuff goes?” It’s a great question, and it once again raises the issue of feelgood complacency. Just because the green and blue bins are there doesn’t mean that everything ends up where it belongs. For example, in case of the coffee cups, the cups themselves go into the green composting bin, whereas the plastic lids go into the blue recycling bin. A lot of folks who are either too busy, too lazy, or don’t pay attention will toss plastic lids into the compost bin and paper cups into the recycling bin, which means they’re both going to landfill after being sorted out at the composting and recycling facilities.
photo by Debra Baida
That’s why getting people to bring their own lunch containers is such a win-win-win. Not only do you keep stuff from ending up in the wrong bin, but you eliminate the need for single-use containers in the first place, as well as create a more conscious and educated citizenry who knows that reducing consumption is the most meaningful environmental act one can engage in.
before sending us off into the disposable jungle.
Jack Macy, Commercial Zero Waste Coordinator at the Department of Environment, lifts his reusable lunch box
The Frisbee Challenge
I’m not sure whether it was my journalistic instincts or my inner dog, but from the moment I saw Donnie and his Frisbee I knew I’d be following him once the action started. Sure, there were folks with way more fancy lunch boxes, and yes, that Frisbee is made of plastic, but it looked like it had been around the SF culinary block, with the battle scars to tell the story, and I wanted to see people’s reaction to it.
As he was trying to decide where he was going to have lunch, teetering between Indian, Mexican and BBQ, poor Donnie must have indeed felt like I was some stray dog on his coattails, tagging along with expectant eyes, in search for scraps. I thought it best to tell him my true intention, and once he was assured that it wasn’t his food I was after he immediately warmed up to his new personal paparazzi.
He settled on Indian, and we got in line at the place that was getting ready for the lunch rush with a wall of plastic containers.
When it came time for Donnie to order, the friendly girl at the cash register did a great job at pretending that this was an order like any other…
until she cracked.
Donnie’s plate then was properly handled and prepped by one of the cooks…
before getting in line with the competition.
Everything was going as planned without a hitch, until….NOOOOOOOO, DON’T DO IT!
Yes kids, this is really what happened. Donnie’s Frisbee, after all that talk, giddy anticipation, and steely determination, came out of the kitchen loaded with a Tandoori wrapped in aluminum and a salad prepackaged in a plastic container.
Sure, from a practical perspective it makes sense. The good folks at the Indian place are expecting a big lunch rush and so they have everything pre-wrapped and -packaged, ready to be “dished” out without a hitch. It’s no secret that mass production is most efficient when everything and everyone is on auto-pilot, and if the default setting is a plastic wrapper, then the reusable dish simply does not compute. (Those of us who have ever brought a reusable bag to the grocery store know how vigilant you have to be to thwart the disposable auto-pilot. Before you know it, your groceries are already in the plastic bag, and asking the checker to take them out again can lead not only to bewilderment but the unused plastic bag tossed in the trash rather than being used for another customer. Argh!)
But what if the majority of diners brought a reusable container, thus making it the default? The servers could be just as speedy in getting the food in the reusable container, plus the restaurant would save a lot of money on the cost of all the plastic and cardboard.
Though disappointed, Donnie was a good sport and went on to enjoy his lunch.
As I was walking around the patio it quickly became clear why this is such an uphill battle and why it was such a perfect location for the Lunchbox Project. This place was one big eat-n-toss party!
It doesn’t look like much on your own small table,
but when you put it all together it’s quite stunning how big of a mountain of trash this place produced in just one hour. The trash cans were literally overflowing, keeping the janitor very busy.
I walked over to the other side of the patio to catch up with some other lunchbox ambassadors. Outside a sushi place Beth was having a friendly talk with a diner, doing the educational and inspirational work necessary to change behaviors. This guy looked like someone who was just waiting for permission to bring his own lunch box next time. If this woman can run around in a laundry-detergent suit and a plastic fish hat, there’s no reason we can’t cause a little break in the disposable routine by bringing our own lunch box, don’t ya think?
photo by Debra Baida
Inside, Jessica Connolly of San Mateo Recology and her friend Nathan Rogers were flaunting their reusable containers…
and declared victory in getting their sushi placed in them unwrapped and unpackaged.
In a way, fake ornamental leaves in our food are the perfect symbol for how intertwined we’ve become with single-use plastic, how deeply these petrochemicals bleed into every aspect of our lives, and how hard it is to separate ourselves from them. Not only have these materials that are so harmful to the planet’s ecosystem become seemingly indispensable to our daily routines but they’ve entered our entire inner and outer operating systems to the point where we often don’t even notice their presence.
Whether it’s the City of San Francisco struggling to get to Zero Waste or Beth Terry attempting to live without single-use plastics, the lesson I think is the same: Once you dig deeper into the how’s and why’s of the waste we create, you realize that this issue goes far beyond recycling and into human behavior and consciousness. As I wrote at the end of Where No City Has Gone Before: San Francisco Will Be World’s First Zero-Waste Town by 2020, the closer you get to no waste at all, the deeper you wade into territories that are no longer about stuff, but about culture and consciousness and understanding your place in the cycle.
I think it’s quite ironic how government here in the U.S. has become typecast as the bogeyman who supposedly takes away our freedoms and choices, while there are entire industries who are allowed to inundate the market with such a large volume of toxic products that we literally cannot escape from, even if we try. Perhaps even harder to grasp for me is how these same industries can get away with the same “free market” justification of this plastic onslaught when they’ve externalized the true cost of their products to people and planet, who end up paying such a steep price for disposal, pollution and resource depletion.
But it’s also true that We the People, the public, the consumer, are not blameless in this. The only way it could get to this is because we have let these industries sell us on the ease, convenience and shine of these products, without questioning their impact beyond our immediate scope. We’ve followed the lure of instant gratification and supposed bottomless abundance because it saved us a little bit of extra work, time or thinking, and put up our collective blinders on the effects this sort of wasteful consumption might have on the planet and future generations who will wonder why we wasted such precious and non-renewable petroleum on a billion snacks.
This is why actions like The Lunchbox Project are so important: they help to wake each other up and reclaim an appreciation for the finite resources we are blessed with on this planet. They make us more sensitive to and conscious of all the things that seem to just miraculously fall into our hands every day, what it took to get them to us and what will happen to them after they leave our hands. Since the companies who make these products don’t tell us that information, it falls to us citizens to educate ourselves and each other to get to a collective understanding that on a finite planet there is no “away” to throw things.
Once you know the true cost of that single-use plastic container, you can’t help but look at it with different eyes, wearing a different hat, and eating from a different plate.
crossposted at Daily Kos