Sustainable Missoula: What can we do about plastic pollution?

Plastic vegetable labels and bread bag tabs saved for an art project by Youpa Stein.

Last week in Part 1 of this article, we dove into some of the problems of plastic. This week, we will explore the ways we can #breakfreefromplastic by asking thoughtful questions, taking informed action, and making better choices on the pathway to much better choices.

One of the things I learned in my work for years in the nonprofit world was how important it is to have your mission and values be the foundation for any decisions. I am grateful to the citizens and elected officials who developed the Missoula Zero Waste Resolution for adopting the Zero Waste International Alliance (ZWIA) definition of Zero Waste to guide Missoula’s waste reduction efforts.

The definition states that the solutions we choose must support “the conservation of all resources by means of responsible production, consumption, reuse and recovery of all products, packaging and materials without burning or burying them, and without discharges to land, water or air that threaten the environment or human health.” 

Let’s take a look at how that definition can apply to the problem of plastic.

Responsible Production

Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives recently released an important new report, making it clear that we must tackle the plastic pollution issue at the source by “reducing fossil fuel extraction and rethinking our plastic production and consumption patterns.”

Improved waste management and better recycling will have important but limited roles, especially as we are figuring out better options, but as we discussed last week, they will not be the answer. We need to produce less plastic. The UN Environment assessment for changing our destructive relationship with plastic is that it will take governments to regulate, businesses to innovate, and individuals to act.

What can we do? We can join global efforts to decrease plastic production and hold producers accountable. On the local level, I invite you to join the monthly Plastic Reduction Working Group focusing on producer accountability. You can find updates on the group on the Working Toward Plastic Free in Montana Facebook page (WTPFM).

Responsible Consumption

A simple example here is my search for a non-plastic toothbrush. I ended up with a bamboo toothbrush from Zero Waste Cartel which, while made from a single piece of bamboo, has nylon (i.e. plastic) bristles. When I corresponded with the company, I learned they are working on an alternative but haven’t yet found one that meets their standards.

While I believe this choice is better than an all-plastic toothbrush, hopefully there will be an even better option in the future. “Approximately a billion brushes are thrown away in the United States annually — that’s 50 million pounds of waste” so, even seemingly small steps like refusing plastic toothbrushes have the potential to make a big difference.

What can we do? We can find ways to reduce our day-to-day use of plastic. Two local resources exist that can provide support in that effort: 1) the Reducing Plastic Waste page on zerobyfiftymissoula.com and 2) the Working Toward Plastic Free in Missoula Facebook page (WTPFM). Another way is to join the Plastic Free July movement. We can also support legislation and government regulations (think: plastic bag bans, etc.) aimed at reducing plastic use and waste.

Responsible Reuse

Reuse is an easy way to limit the amount of plastic that passes through our lives and into an uncertain future by way of the landfill or the recycling bin. While reuse can sometimes mean we still use plastic, it can mean we use the same plastic over and over again thereby cutting down on the demand to make more of it. In the case of food, it can also mean replacing plastic packaging with less toxic alternatives such as metal, silicone and glass.

What can we do? We can explore options to bring more reuse into our lives, for example, by buying groceries and home supplies in bulk using reusable containers such as are offered at the Good Food Store or by supporting local businesses such as Keligreen who offers locally made, bulk cleaning products. We can also demand and support packaging design for refill and safe reuse such as what is happening in select spots across the planet through LOOP. We can use art to bring awareness to plastic reduction (message me through the WTPFM Facebook page to find out more about creating wearable art made from plastic and reused items for an event in the fall of 2020).

Responsible Recovery

Recovery is a nebulous term that in Montana mostly means recycling. However, there are instances where plastic has been “recovered” to use as solid fuel to burn for heat or electricity, which is inconsistent with the ZWIA definition of Zero Waste.

Last week. we explored how the US and other wealthier countries send plastic waste to underdeveloped countries unable to cope with it. One recent action that begins to address this issue happened in May when the Conference of Parties to the Basel Convention agreed to amend the convention to make global trade in plastic waste more transparent and better regulated.

Mixed, unrecyclable, and contaminated plastic waste exports now require the consent of the importing countries before shipments can proceed. Otherwise, such waste will be considered illegal traffic. Despite the mess that mixed plastics have made of the recycling industry, there is still a role for recycling, or more accurately downcycling, in managing some of our plastic waste.  

What can we do? We can recycle our clean, dry clear #1 PET and translucent #2 HDPE containers at the Republic recycling drop-off center on Broadway in Missoula or through the local curbside collection service of your choice. And we can limit our use of other plastics that we know will not actually be recycled, no matter how much we want them to be.

Moving Forward

As we continue to work toward Zero Waste, we must always ask: Is this a truly sustainable solution “without discharges to land, water or air that threaten the environment or human health?”

Sometimes we may need to take actions, for a limited time, that are better than our previous practices but are not a long-term answer (think: my bamboo toothbrush). Whenever we can, let’s make better choices on the pathway to much better choices.

We can support each other’s work to make a difference by sharing our Zero Waste efforts and actions with the people in our lives and the places where we shop. Together, we can build our collective knowledge to find better solutions. A resource is zerobyfiftymissoula.com hosted by Home ReSource. It is a central location for Zero Waste information, tips, actions, events and services. Individuals, organizations and businesses can participate by sending in their news, events or by writing a blog. The website is a community resource and it needs community input. Do what you can. 

As Zero Waste chef Anne Marie Bonneau says, “We don’t need a handful of people doing Zero Waste perfectly. We need millions of people doing it imperfectly.”

This article was developed based on Youpa’s talk at the ZERO by FIFTY Community Series focused on plastic held at the UM FLAT in April. Please view the video recording by MCAT for more local solutions to plastic from Logjam Presents, Environment Montana, a Hellgate High School student, and a local Zero Waste lifestyle blogger. 

Additional Resources

DISCARDED: Communities on the Frontlines of the Global Plastic Crisis – Break Free From Plastic Movement, Balifokus/Nexus3, Consumers Association of Penang, the Ecology Center, Ecoton, Friends of the Earth Malaysia, Greenpeace, the Story of Stuff Project and the Plastic Solutions Fund 

Plastic & Climate: The Hidden Costs of a Plastic Planet – Center for International Environmental Law, Environmental Integrity Project, FracTracker Alliance, Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives, 5Gyres and #breakfreefromplastic

UN Environment – Single-use Plastics: A Roadmap for Sustainability

How the Oil Industry is Pushing Plastic – YES! Media & The Story of Stuff

Plastics 101 – National Geographic

How Plastic Production Pollutes Small Towns – The Story of Stuff

How much plastic is your washing machine sending out to sea? –  Brian Resnick, Vox

Information About BioplasticsRenee Cho, Earth Institute, Columbia University

Recyclable Plastic U.S. Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory

Youpa Stein is a visual artist, co-founder of Living Art of Montana, Zero Waste volunteer and manager of the Working Toward Plastic Free in Montana Facebook page. Writer, farmer and activist, Wendell Berry, describes the care of the earth as our most ancient and worthiest responsibility. Youpa dedicates her work and art making in the service of that responsibility. Jeremy Drake is Community Engagement Manager at Home ReSource.

This Sustainable Missoula column is brought to you – via the Missoula Current – every Friday by Climate Smart Missoula and Home ReSource.

Upcoming Sustainability Events:

The summer scatter is in full effect and sustainability events are few at the moment. You can always Join the Logjam Presents Green Team. The Green Team will assist with teaching patrons how to use Zero Waste stations at events. Sign up here.

View more climate and energy events via Climate Smart Missoula’s Calendar.

There are many more conservation events for 2019 HERE.