Is ditching plastic possible?
By Chelsea Harrison
“Plastic is anything we want it to be,” touts a 2002 commercial from the American Plastics Council, which proceeds to list the lifesaving uses of plastic, such as protective gear at work, airbags, children’s car seats, and life jackets. The ad ends with the tag line, “Plastics make it possible.”
We have a complicated relationship with the material. Plastic has been sold to us under the banner of safety, comfort, and convenience. And indeed, many life-saving products are made using plastic. But lately the message has shifted to one touting the hazards of plastic
Plastic is inexpensive for companies to use to sell mass amounts of their products, and a convenient option for consumers; however, in recent years, alarms are sounding about the harm plastics cause to our environment and ironically, to our health and safety.
The American Plastics Council (which became the American Chemistry Council in 2002) ran another print ad in the ‘90s stating, “Plastics. An Important Part Of Your Healthy Diet.” The ironic truth of this statement may not be far off.
The plastics getting the most attention currently are single-use products, items used once and then discarded. These plastic products can take hundreds of years to break down in the soil or water, and leave behind tinier bits of plastic forever. These microplastics (any plastic piece smaller than five millimeters, about the size of a pencil eraser or smaller) end up in our waterways, where they are eaten, inadvertently, by wildlife, often damaging their internal organs or killing them. Many scientists say the most disturbing part of this issue is that we don’t yet know the long-term effects of microplastics on the food chain (see Bay Journal story on microplastic research).
Microplastics contain a number of toxins and are consumed by fish, shellfish, and birds. As bigger and bigger predators, including humans, eat those animals, the effects are magnified.
If we love the Chesapeake Bay– its landscapes, the crabs and rockfish we love to eat, boating and other watersports—how do we keep plastic pollution out of it?
Plastic Free July is an initiative to encourage consumers to reduce their plastic usage, even by just switching out one single-use product with a non-plastic option. Rebecca Prince-Ruiz and a small team in Western Australia are credited with the first Plastic Free July movement in 2011, and it is now one of the most influential environmental campaigns in the world.
Here in Chesapeake Country going plastic-free is a major campaign for Annapolis Green, an environmental organization formed in 2006 by two friends, Lynne Forsman and Elvia Thompson, who wanted to find ways to promote environmental causes. They started with Green Drinks, a networking happy hour for environmentally minded folks to mingle and learn about environmental initiatives and updates.
Their most recent Green Drinks was held at Pirates Cove Restaurant in Galesville and celebrated Plastic Free July by showcasing alternatives to single-use plastic that many local restaurants are now using.
One such alternative is a straw created by the company BioSafe. The drinking straws are made of biopolymers from the canola plant. They are compostable and after use, can degrade in soil or water in only eight weeks (compared to the 200 years it takes a traditional plastic straw to decompose.)
Pollux Dietz, BioSafe’s CEO, describes these products as the “future of all single-use plastic.” The biopolymers can be used in plates, cups, takeaway containers, and other single-use products. The company has plans to open manufacturing in Maryland and distribute through major companies like Sysco and U.S. Foods, as well as partnering with a major sports arena and expanding into other markets in the near future.
BioSafe encourages consumers to dispose of their products just like any other, noting that, “there is no downside to it; it breaks down aerobically or anaerobically, releasing zero microplastics.” Dietz makes the distinction that while biopolymers break down and become soil once again, “traditional plastic doesn’t break down—it breaks apart.”
The Irish Restaurant Company, which owns Killarney House (Davidsonville), Brian Boru (Severna Park), Galway Bay (Downtown Annapolis), and Pirates Cove (Galesville), has taken many eco-conscious measures in its restaurants including installing solar panels, recycling, and replacing single-use plastic with more sustainable options.
Sean Lynch, general manager of Galway Bay, notes that the company began switching over about 12 years ago when owner Anthony Clarke started realizing the amount of waste being created by plastic straws alone. “It’s a commitment on the part of the business because [eco-friendly products] are more expensive.”
Another Annapolis Green initiative that aims to cut down on plastic pollution has been a big hit at the Annapolis Boat Shows and other public events around the region: Naptown Taps. These portable stations offer unlimited chilled filtered water, allowing people to refill reusable bottles rather than purchasing bottled water. The units can be rented for events, private or public, and even can be customized with advertising or signage. The innovative tap design originated from an Australian company, and Annapolis Green was the first to receive these taps in the U.S.
Forsman and Thompson have noticed that people enjoy using the taps. “What I’ve always heard is, ‘Oh this is so cool.’ People want to take pictures with them,” Forsman says.
KICK PLASTIC OUT OF YOUR CART
In addition to single-use plastic used for food products, there are also many personal and home products such as laundry detergent, shampoo, and soaps that usually come in plastic packaging.
Refill Goodness in Stevensville offers low-waste alternatives to home and bath products. Many of their products are offered as bulk refills, and customers can bring in empty, pre-purchased containers to refill with soap, detergent and more, eliminating the repeated buying (and disposal) of single-use containers. Glass containers are available for customers who don’t bring their own.
Jenny Vedrani and Jenn Szalkowski, co-founders and owners of Refill Goodness, began the company with a location in Ohio and then opened their Maryland location in April 2021. “The biggest thing for us is educating people and letting them know what their alternatives are. You can reduce plastic, whoever you are, whatever you’re doing in your life,” says Vedrani.
While recycling is encouraged, plastic recycling is much more complicated and costly than recycling other materials; therefore, much of the plastic that enters a recycling facility ends up in a landfill anyway.
According to a report by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, less than 10 percent of plastic used around the world is recycled. The report also found that 460 million metric tons of plastics were used in 2019, a number that has nearly doubled since 2000. “Only 9 percent of plastic waste was ultimately recycled, while 19 percent was incinerated and almost 50 percent went to sanitary landfills,” says the Global Plastics Outlook report.
Vedrani believes reducing plastic waste is going to become more urgent. “In the U.S., we haven’t had to worry about recycling because it got shipped off, but now other countries aren’t taking it anymore. It’s going to start becoming more apparent here, because there is nowhere for it to go.”
While some green organizations are reactive, cleaning up beaches and collecting waste for recycling/reuse, “Refill Goodness is proactive,” Vedrani notes. To go plastic-free, Vedrani suggests being open to trying something different. “Don’t feel like you have to try everything at once. Choose one thing to change and make that part of your routine.”
Customers can find Refill Goodness products in their retail location in Stevensville, farmers markets (Farragut Market, Catonsville, Wildberry Field Market, Kent Island Farmers Market), as well as through regional delivery, nationwide shipping, and neighborhood refill parties (https://refillgoodness.com/).
Refill Goodness is co-sponsoring a Low Waste Wednesday event on Aug. 3 (6:30pm) along with Himmel’s Landscape and Garden Center in Pasadena and ClearShark H2O. Participants will learn how long everyday plastic items take to break down, the human and environmental health effects from plastic pollution, and simple sustainable swaps alternatives to single-use plastics. Registration is $5 and participants will receive a “make-and-take product,” raffle entry for a Himmel’s $25 gift card, a reusable wine tumbler, wine, water, and light snacks.
A PLASTIC-FREE BAY
Plastic Free QAC works in in Queen Anne’s County to keep the Bay plastic-free. Their current campaign, Rethink the Straw, celebrates Plastic Free July by asking local restaurants to refrain from automatically including straws in every drink served. Instead, straws are made available upon request only. This proactive measure helps restaurants save money on purchasing straws and also helps reduce overall plastic straw use and disposal. According to Plastic Free QAC, plastic straws are the number one item found in beach clean-ups. Restaurants can take the pledge to support this campaign on their website (plasticfreeqac.com).
The Arundel Rivers Federation helps to protect the South, West, and Rhode Rivers through advocacy, restoration, and science. Arundel Rivers’ Executive Director Matthew Johnston describes a telling study they completed in 2017. “Arundel Rivers had installed a trash trap, basically a giant net you put across a very small stream; at one point, it took only five days to accumulate 200 pounds of trash. They found that the vast majority of trash was single-use plastics—plastic bottles, bags, polystyrene— thin film plastics and things like snack wrappers.”
So how did this trash get into a small stream? Johnston explains that this trash had nothing to do with boat traffic as the stream was so small and upstream from any major river that no boat could have reached this area.
“One of the things we like to say at Arundel Rivers is, what we do on the land, we do to the water. If something falls out of the trash can or you toss something out the car window, it will make its way to the Bay,” Johnston explains.
Besides microplastics entering the food chain, there are many other effects we may start to see as microplastics accumulate in the waterways. “One of the biggest things we will see if we don’t make changes quickly is that the sand at our beaches, if we look closer under a microscope, our beaches will be plastic and sand, and that is a visible, sad reality that is probably coming. But the hidden consequences of that are equally sad, the negative effects it will have on our fish, our crabs,” Johnston explains.
The Arundel Rivers Foundation is always looking for volunteers who want to help further their mission of caring for and cleaning up the bay (find opportunities both Wet & Messy and Clean & Dry at arundelrivers.org).
Plastics are not going away (they literally can’t) and we know now that it will take much more than reactive measures to plastic pollution in order to make a dent in this pervasive issue. It will take a higher level of proactive awareness and action from average citizens to prevent these dire effects from invading our waters and our bodies.
“Be aware of what you are purchasing whenever you are going into grocery stores and convenience stores and try to reduce the use of single-use plastics,” says Johnston. “We all value our water, so when you walk in the grocery store, think about the water. Make choices based upon that.”
Want to try out one of the coolest straws in town? Check out these restaurants who have made the switch to plant-based, compostable BioSafe straws: 1771 Grill & Tap Room, Annapolis Market House, Galway Bay, Killarney House, Brian Boru, Pirates Cove, Harry Brownes, Severn Inn, Sailor Oyster Bar (when reopen), Vida Taco Bar, Pussers Caribbean Grill, Ketch 22, The Point, Acme, West End Grill.
These restaurants in Queen Anne’s County have agreed to only provide straws upon request: Amalfi Coast, Adam’s Grille and Tap House, Bridges Restaurant, Cult Classic Brewery, Dock House Restaurant, Doc’s Riverside Grille, Fisherman’s Inn, Fisherman’s Crab Deck, Harris Crab House, Hilton Garden Inn, The Jetty, Libbey’s Coastal Kitchen, Rams Head Shore House, Shogun Sushi-Teriya,Ten Eyck Brewery .
Want to learn more? Check out these films, recommended by the Oceanic Society and Plastic-Free July, for more information on plastic pollution and what you can do to help:
- · Garbage Island: An Ocean Full of Plastic
- · Bag It
- · A Plastic Ocean
- · Addicted to Plastic
- · Plasticized
- · Blue The Film
- · 2040
- · Straws
- · Pulau Plastik
Going plastic-free? Choose one or more for Plastic-Free July (or go ahead and make it a Plastic-Free August if you’re just now getting on board!).
Here are some easy swaps:
Plastic wrap/Cling film → Beeswax Food Wraps
Plastic disposable plates → Palm leaf plates
Plastic utensils → Bamboo or compostable utensils
Plastic straws→ Reusable stainless steel or glass straws (many come with a carrying case)
Plastic zip/snack bags → reusable silicone bags like Stasher, paper or compostable bags
Paper towels (lots of plastic packaging) → Swedish dishcloth (a bestseller at Refill Goodness!)
Plastic grocery bags → Ask for paper or bring your own reusable totes
Plastic produce bags → Forego the plastic and just put the fruit and veg carefully in your grocery cart (you’re going to wash it anyway, right?) or reusable mesh produce bags
Plastic water bottles → reusable stainless steel or glass water bottles
Plastic cleaning sponge → loofah sponges or Swedish dishcloth
Plastic single-serve coffee pod systems → replace with traditional coffee maker, French press, or compostable pods
Plastic toothbrushes → Bamboo or plant-based toothbrush handles, or toothbrushes that have a replaceable bristle such as Colgate Keep
Toothpaste (plastic packaging) → toothpaste tabs
Deodorant (plastic container) → Plastic-free packaging brands or DIY
Shampoo & conditioner (plastic packaging) → Try a shampoo bar, DIY, or refill your containers at a store like Refill Goodness
Laundry Detergent (plastic packaging) → Refill containers at a refill shop or use laundry detergent strips
Household cleaners (plastic packaging) → Refill containers at a refill shop or use concentrate or powder to mix into a reusable glass spray containers
Body lotion (plastic packaging) → Lotion bar