plastic pollution

Plastic Pollution and Zero Waste

Our lives are filled with STUFF – the products of modern science that, in the US and the rest of the industrialized world, have raised life expectancy, human mobility, communications, comfort, convenience, and entertainment to levels unimaginable at any previous moment in human history. 

But the story of stuff is also a story of suffering.

Virtually all of the modern world’s stuff is made by a globalized production system that is undermining our very life support system, polluting air and water, converting whole communities into sacrifice zones, and generating the largest portion of the gases that cause the climate crisis.

At its core, the story of stuff is a story of injustice.

Every product we use was made from a natural resource from the earth – which had to be extracted, refined, and transported, where every step in the process places additional burdens on indigenous people and communities of color. Even within the United States, the material economy disproportionately burdens people of color.  A 2019 study found that Black and Hispanic Americans "shoulder a ‘pollution burden’ of 56% and 63% more exposure, respectively, than they contribute to.”  And every product we discard adds further burdens to communities near landfills and incinerators.  

The story of stuff forces us to ask this question: Can we have what’s great about life in the 21st century without the suffering and injustice that’s gotten us here?  And if so, how?

Our answer is “yes,” and our pathway to get there is known as “zero waste.”

The Ecology Center and others have been talking about zero waste for decades. When we use the phrase, we adopt a definition developed by the Zero Waste International Alliance: “The conservation of all resources by means of responsible production, consumption, reuse, and recovery of products, packaging, and materials without burning and with no discharges to land, water, or air that threaten the environment or human health.” Zero waste seeks to create an economy that’s not only “circular” but also just and equitable.

The Ecology Center has been a leading voice for zero waste for more than 50 years. We work for zero waste through community-based services, educational programs for all ages, grassroots campaigns for solutions, resistance to false solutions, and public policy to stop plastic pollution.

Community-Based Services.  The Ecology Center founded recycling in the state of Michigan back in 1970, and we’ve been a leading voice in the movement for zero waste ever since.  To this very day, our nonprofit subsidiary Recycle Ann Arbor provides one of the most comprehensive sets of community-based recycling and zero waste services in the country.

Educational Programs for All Ages.  We believe that a zero waste society will only come about through generational transformation, which demands a long-term investment in education. The Ecology Center developed some of the country’s first student programs on recycling, zero waste, and sustainability, and we provide targeted services in these areas today. In Ann Arbor and Washtenaw County, we provide unique programs for students, teachers, and community organizations that advance zero waste and the circular economy. We have also worked with other school districts and communities throughout Michigan. 

Grassroots Campaigns for Zero Waste. The Ecology Center has stood at the forefront of Michigan’s grassroots campaigns for recycling and zero waste since our founding. Today, we organize Washtenaw County communities to adopt the zero waste approach. Working with our partners, we persuaded the City of Ann Arbor to contract with our nonprofit subsidiary, Recycle Ann Arbor, to rebuild and “recycle” one of southeast Michigan’s most important recycling facilities a “zero waste MRF,” which re-started operations in 2021. In Detroit, we co-founded Zero Waste Detroit, a coalition that promotes recycling and waste reduction in the city.

Resistance Against False Solutions. The plastics, chemical, and waste industries have championed false solutions to the “waste crisis” (and now the “plastics crisis”) for decades. The Ecology Center helped lead the campaign to close the Detroit trash incinerator in 2019 because materials should be “reduce-reuse-recycle-composted,” not burned and converted to toxic pollution. Prior to that campaign, we helped lead efforts to close similar facilities in Jackson and Wayne counties as well as a decade-long campaign that closed all 157 of the state’s medical waste incinerators. More recently, we have fought to keep Michigan from adopting the plastic industry’s latest false solutions, like pyrolysis and the misleadingly named “chemical recycling,” which are being touted by industry as the fix for the problems they’ve created but in reality generate new toxic waste and pollution.

Public Policy to Stop Plastic Pollution. In the last 20 years, a glut of new plastic packaging has transformed what we all bring home with the groceries. Unfortunately, some of that plastic is toxic, much of it is not recyclable or compostable, and the net impact has been the “plastic pollution” in the Great Lakes and the world’s oceans, reckless dumping on impoverished communities in Asia, and sheer chaos for recycling programs here at home.

The Ecology Center has been addressing the problem through our unique system-wide approach. In 2021, we helped found the Alliance of Mission Based Recyclers (AMBR), a new national organization working to straighten out all the misconceptions about recycling and advocate for sensible policy. 

AMBR embraces the original ethic of recycling – that it is not the solution for everything but that it’s one important way that communities and people can help solve the climate crisis. We believe that manufacturers should be responsible for what happens to the stuff they make and that stuff should be designed to be reused, repaired, recycled, or composted. These are core principles of “zero waste,” and AMBR has been advocating across the country for laws and programs that enforce those principles. We will be supporting AMBR’s efforts across the country and proposing ways to move those ideas forward in Michigan, as practical.