Zero Waste Humboldt: Nearing the Tipping Point?

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Changing our Single-use Plastic Culture

Malcom Gladwell defined a tipping point as “the moment of critical mass, the threshold, the boiling point.” Indications are that the U.S. public is gradually awakening to the fact that we cannot recycle ourselves out of the increasing problems caused by single use plastics (read more on page 5). For example, the growing concern about the proliferation of disposable items made to be used only once, brought the word “single-use” to the top of Collins Dictionary’s 2018 Word of the Year list.

For too many years, we have seen photos of plastic-littered beaches, dead whales and birds with plastic-filled stomachs, and heard stories of the multiple massive gyres of suspended plastic waste in the world’s oceans. Recent research found microplastics in the bodies of every deep sea creature sampled in the depths of our deepest ocean trenches. Data predicts there will be more plastic than fish, by weight in the oceans, by weight, by 2050.

A real tipping point will come when environmental and consumer activists, governments, and businesses all actively work together toward a drastic reduction in single-use plastics.   

Taxpayers, ratepayers, and consumers are slowly making the connection between excessive plastic packaging for shelf appearance and fast food, and increasing costs to their household budgets. There is a new feeling among Gen X,Y,& Zers, that the extreme convenience of plastics just isn’t worth the environmental damage. Social media is full of living-without-plastics and lifestyle change advice.

In the past two decades, an over-emphasis on recycling and landfill diversion has sidetracked and distracted our focus from the external upfront costs of resource extraction and the energy used to manufacture and distribute wasteful, single-use packaging and products. We are starting to see a heightened awareness of the need for manufacturers to redesign packaging to use less plastic and produce less waste, which  is stirring more conscious consumer advocacy and attention toward life-cycle costs and long-term consequences of packaging.

While it is encouraging that some cities are taking steps to reduce the availability of plastic single-use items like to-go containers, straws, and bottles, we have not yet reached a significant enough groundswell for major change. A recent plastics industry report shows steady annual increases in plastic water and beverage containers. The report projects continued growth.

A real tipping point will come when environmental and consumer activists, governments, and businesses all actively work together toward a drastic reduction in single-use plastics.

Consumer opinion can go a long way toward intiating change. A recent petition, circulated by Greenpeace, gathered over 100,000 signatures, and appealing to grocery chain Trader Joe’s to reduce their plastic waste. The petition was successful, and the chain announced they would take steps to phase out single-use plastics at their stores.

Last month, the California legislature introduced a bill that will require plastic and other single-use materials sold in California to be either reusable, fully recyclable or compostable by 2030. New definitions will be needed for recyclability to include the carbon footprint and affordability for collection, processing, long distance transport, and manufacturing from rural regions.

To assist Redwood Coast local governments, Zero Waste Humboldt research associate, Kelly Fortner, completed a summary of hundreds of U.S. local government ordinances and actions to reduce single use plastic water bottles, bags, straws, styrofoam, and other food service items.

For more information about this summary of local government action and California’s plastics-related bills working their way through the legislature this year, email