Ann Arbor, Michigan
Cooking with Gas (In the Plastic Form)
I was cooking dinner on a Monday night and thinking about all the plastic involved. The broccoli, a superfood, looks a little less super shrouded in a plastic bag marked with the recommendation to microwave the broccoli in the plastic bag. I could have avoided this plastic, but I'd have to prepare and plan, which involves time and money: I'll need to purchase ($20 est) produce bags (making sure they are not plastic, too) and then remember to bring them when I shop. When I shop, I skip the produce bag and let the grapefruits and red peppers loose in the cart. But some fruits and vegetables must be bagged, especially if they can get smashed easily or are harder to wash. The biggest challenge for the broccoli is time. It's much faster to skip the broccoli prep and opt for the pre-washed and cut broccoli.
Next, the olives are in a plastic container made of #1 PET. I noticed that the lid states the container is 100% recycled material. This container, especially the flat lid, isn't likely to be recycled again. Recycling an item one time and then wasting it isn't the point of recycling. The material must be recycled repeatedly (in a closed loop) to reduce waste. The olives are particularly challenging; there aren't other packaging options at the store I shop at. There are olives to purchase in glass jars and cans, but they are less fresh. There might be an option to use your own container but I'll have to check at the register next time I am shopping or else call and ask someone in advance - again, more time and planning.
The Beyond Beef that I cook with is also encased in trash plastic. There aren't any reasonable alternatives for this. Even real meat from a butcher is paper wrapped, but the paper has a wax coating and, to my knowledge, can't be recycled. At least this plant-based meat I've purchased doesn't have styrofoam in its packaging. Many pre-packaged meats have a styrofoam plate underneath (or at least they used to.)
The bread is in an LDPE plastic bag (even though it's fresh-baked). I could have avoided this plastic bag by using paper bags. However, bread only lasts for a short time in paper bags. With time, effort, and planning, I could store bread without disposable plastic bags. LDPE plastic bags are a huge issue. When I had an office at the local MRF (sorting facility for recyclables), plastic bags littered the floor and tangled the machines. They were a true nuisance.
All the fresh ingredients were packaged in plastic, but the dry goods were packaged in cans, glass jars, or boxboard. Why is there so much plastic packaging in the grocery store's produce, bread, and refrigerated/frozen sections? I did a quick Google search and didn't learn much, but I did discover an interesting article from 2019 about plastic food packaging and how foods were packaged and sold before the ramp-up of plastic packaging. Interestingly, more transportation emissions and the delocalization of our food system accompanied the increased plastic packaging– a double whammy for the planet.
Notes on Zero Waste Community Organizing
The Ecology Center held a community session in May to talk about tackling waste community-wide. We brought together a small group that reflects the community, specifically students, advocates, business owners, folks whose English is a second language, and people living in apartments or condos. These groups tend to experience the most barriers and challenges to local zero waste services, from hard-to-understand instructions, needing more infrastructure and different systems from their home communities to getting staff and customers to participate. First, we discussed barriers, challenges, and potential solutions. Next, we focused on what motivates people to refuse, reduce, reuse, recycle, and compost.
There were a few key takeaways from the session:
- Many community members (not just zero waste advocates) consider plastic poisonous.
- One man grew up in Taiwan, where all kids go to school with reusable forks, spoons, and napkins. The schools do not provide disposable items. I love the idea of 'life kits' and developing the norm of coming prepared with your forks, spoons, napkins, water bottles, and bags. It would not be difficult for schools to transition to the expectation that kids bring their own silverware & cloth napkins, along with their water bottles (which are already required).
- People preferred reducing waste (especially plastic) over finding ways to recycle or compost it.
- People were concerned that our waste was not a part of conversations with friends and family. However, they felt an unspoken desire to talk about it, but they needed to learn how to start the conversation.
- They thought we needed a cultural shift from a throw-away society to one that strives to make no trash.
The zero-waste spirit alive in our community was inspiring. It gave me real hope that we have what it takes to make a difference and tackle the plastic problem.
Notes on Plastic and Kids' Lunches
On June 10th, I packed my son's last school lunch before school's out for summer. Despite only taking a few minutes to pack, I still enjoy having one less thing to do in the morning. We're pretty decent at avoiding single-use plastic in our packed lunches. But we are trading up for more extended-use plastic #5 containers. Technically, a recycling facility could recycle these alongside other #5 containers, but some sorting facilities lack the equipment needed to separate #5 plastic. Often, it's lumped in with #2 plastic, and who knows what happens after it leaves the facility in #2 plastic bales. Our local sorting facility, operated by our sister organization, Recycle Ann Arbor, installed a robot that sorts #5 plastic from #2. The end goal is to bale it separately and sell it off as #5 plastic bales, but I've been out of the loop on what's going on there, so I can’t confirm that’s happening.
Regardless, these containers have been used in our household for over eight years (since my son first went to daycare as a baby.) We have metal & glass storage containers too, but glass is breakable, and the metal isn't see-thru, so plastic works best in a kid's lunch. And we are hoping to use them for a long, long time.
The plastic infiltrating my son's lunch sneaks in with the milk carton as plastic-wrapped straws that are virtually useless since they usually drop into the milk carton unable to be retrieved. Even sneakier is the 'BPI compostable' serving ware we've resorted to sending because so many metal forks weren't making it home. The compostable fork feels better to send than nasty single-use plastic forks (I have images of turtles with them stuck in their nostrils seared in my mind.) Unfortunately, depending on your community composting, much of the compostable plastics don’t break down into compost. I recently learned more about our community composting and discovered that our wind row system is ineffective at breaking down compostable plastic bags and serving ware. To quote the compost service provider and the local recyclers, "Plastic is 2% of the materials we handle but creates 100% of our problems."
The Irony of My Plastic Basement Floor
My biggest plastic bane is my plastic basement flooring. Twice our basement has flooded due to a sump pump failure. Our 1967 house came with asbestos tiles over the concrete basement floor. There is a high cost and health hazard to remove the asbestos tile. So, the norm is to keep it covered. Twice it's been covered by carpet – not a great material when water is a factor. It molds. It stinks – a real mess when your basement floods. The second flood gave us new resolve to find a floor suitable for a basement that occasionally gets wet.
We first sought the healthiest option – beneficial for us and the environment. After some research, we found that Marmoleum was our best option. It was ideal, but we couldn't afford a 7K basement floor! To no avail, I searched everywhere for a better affordable option.
The only option under 7K was a supposed eco-resilient flooring, but the sample looked like it wouldn't last long, and worse yet, if the basement flooded again, water would likely ruin it. And I was suspicious that eco-resilient was code for greenwashing. Ultimately, I held my nose and ordered the PVC floor planks – a sad and frustrating conclusion to my pursuit of healthy options. It seems the most environmentally beneficial options are only for those that can afford them, and it resounded the message: You can't shop your way out of the plastic problem; plastic pollution regulation and manufacturer accountability are critical components to the solution.
If you regrettably have plastic flooring in your basement, we should form a support group. If you can afford not to, way to go. Regardless, vote for lawmakers most likely to tackle the plastic problem and stand up against the formidable plastic chemical industry.