Missoula activists offer ways to reduce, even eliminate plastic use

Pollution created by thousands of plastic bags that escaped the Missoula landfill during high winds last winter provoked a call for stronger efforts to reduce the use of plastics. (Laura Lundquist/Missoula Current)

Some Missoulians are trying to make a dent in the proliferation of plastic plaguing the nation, even though greater efforts are needed.

“Sometimes, we’re going to have to do a little better on our way to doing much better,” Youpa Stein told a dozen people attending Thursday night’s ZERO By FIFTY Community Series lecture on plastic at the UM Flat.

Plastic is now everywhere, as more companies use plastic for packaging and containers where once they used paper or tin. For the past several decades, more toys, trinkets and tools have been made from plastic, and all of it eventually ends up as trash.

That might not be as bad if plastic could be recycled. But once China stopped accepting U.S. plastic last year, that became less of an option. And even then, less than 10 percent of plastic items were recycled.

According to a 2015 Environmental Protection Agency report, plastic covers about 20 percent of landfills. Only food waste is a larger component of landfills, at 22 percent.

But unlike food waste, the plastic won’t degrade for hundreds of years, and in the meantime, toxins leach out and potentially pollute the environment.

So what to do? You could follow the lead of three panelists who described their efforts to depend less on plastic.

It’s easy to follow Romy Mcghan Daniels because she regularly blogs about how she’s learned to reduce plastic over the past three years.

While single people have an easier time buying small amounts in bulk and making their own products, it’s harder to avoid plastic when you’re a mother of four. Mcghan Daniels explained how she’s avoided disposable diapers and other child-related plastics and composted enough that she’s gone more than 100 days without needing to empty her trash can.

“Changing shopping habits has been a big one because kids require a lot of food. We stopped shopping at Costco because the plastic waste is just high there,” Mcghan Daniels said. “I realize that we have more opportunities than maybe rural families to be able to do this, but it shouldn’t have to be a privilege to be zero-waste.”

Hellgate High School student Grace Gibson-Snyder saw that plastic and Styrofoam takeout containers and utensils were a major source of single-use waste. After hearing that China wasn’t recycling plastic anymore, she started a campaign, Bring Your Own, to encourage restaurants citywide to allow patrons to bring their own containers for food.

The idea seems simple, but Gibson-Snyder learned how complicated it could be, due to health regulations that require strict sanitation. She’s come up with a few solutions, but each has possible drawbacks, such as washing a few extra plates. Still, they reduce plastic.

“How many people bring their own coffee cups into coffee shops? This is the same thing, except with food,” Gibson-Snyder said. “The first value is this is free. Being sustainable isn’t cheap, but I think anyone can do this. We all have a container that can hold food.”

Chase Bjornsen of Logjam Presents agreed that being sustainable isn’t cheap, but it’s the right thing to do. That’s why his company no longer sells water in plastic bottles at concerts.

Instead, he’s teamed up with the Philipsburg Brewing Company’s Nolan Smith, who has revived the Montana Silver Springs brand and is now bottling spring water in Alumi-tech aluminum bottles made by Ball in Colorado. That was after a long but fruitless search for compostable water bottles.

“There are a lot of things out there that say they’re compostable, but they’re really not. Some of the samples we got were hysterical, where we’d peel away the paper and find plastic underneath,” Bjornsen said. “These (aluminum) bottles add $85,000 to our expenses each year, but it’s all relative. Yeah, they’re more expensive than a 13-cent (plastic) bottle, but it’s not that much more expensive. And now, we’re not issuing any single-use plastics whatsoever.”

Logjam Presents will sell Montana Silver Springs water at all its venues and would refill the bottles at events, but Bjornsen reminded everyone that the best option was to bring their own water bottles.

To learn more ways to reduce plastic use, go to www.zerobyfiftymissoula.com.