Womxn Are Tired Of Single-Use Plastic: How Sustainable Mindsets Will Rebuild Our Future Before There Is None

This year has been difficult, to say the least, and I think we could all use a beacon of hope in these dark times. To quote Ruth Bader Ginsburg, “[…]Women belong in all places where decisions are being made. It shouldn’t be that women are the exception.”

With the passing of R.B.G, it is more evident now than ever, that we need more womxn in roles of leadership and community development programs who are working to build a more sustainable future. (“Womxn” is a more inclusive and progressive term for women, meant to highlight their struggles, to show they are not merely an extension of men and to include trans womxn and womxn of color). The idea that more womxn belong in roles of leadership was clearly shared based on the most recent election having a historic number of wins for womxn candidates, including Sarah McBride, the first transgender female to be elected into State Senate and Kamala Harris, the first Black/South Asian American woman to become Vice President. 

Without the help of Stacey Abrams rallying votes in Georgia and the overwhelming number of Black, Trans, Latinx, Asian and Native American womxn who showed up to vote, having a womxn Vice President would not be a reality today. Womxn have disproportionately felt the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic. According to NBC News, “Female unemployment this year reached double digits for the first time since 1948 (when the Bureau of Labor Statistics began tracking women’s unemployment). This joblessness crisis hurt women of color the most. Part of this is due to heavy layoffs in female-dominated industries, such as hospitality and entertainment. But research also shows that women are being forced out of the labor market due to child care demands.” USA Today shows that 40% of the population are communities of color that lean Democratic, and with a recession, a pandemic and the largest civil rights movement in history, they made their voices heard amidst blatant voter suppression.

This is a huge win for marginalized communities and the environment—as equality and environmentalism are inextricably linked. ‘Intersectional Environmentalism’ is the term used for environmentalists that advocate justice for people and the planet- pinpointing ways that they are connected and what actions can be taken to bring about necessary changes. Minorities tend to live in areas that are worst hit by the impacts of climate change, and their poverty exacerbates their vulnerability- leaving them open to industrialization and the negative health impacts that come with it. 

The LA Times recently wrote about how the effects of polluted air has increased the COVID-19 death rate among Black and Latinx populations. In order to properly address climate change, we also need to be protecting the marginalized and indigenous populations who are most affected by it. 

With COVID-19 came the understanding of the impact that we, as humans, have had on our environment. With more people staying home and less cars on the road, the air became a little cleaner and the earth took a deep sigh of relief.

Bill Magavern, the policy director for the Coalition for Clean Air, stated in an interview with abc news, that “We’re seeing in some places the best air quality in decades.” Satellite imagery from NASA confirms this- showing a 30% drop in air pollutants in the northeastern section of the U.S. during March. 

As COVID-19 life became the new normal, we all got comfortable in our sweatpants and more people started ordering take-out and delivery than you could imagine. Our consumption of single-use disposables from the food service industry has gone up a whopping 250%, according to the International Solid Waste Association

A waste collection study called, Taking Out the Trash, was recently conducted across the Bay Area to identify specific sources of pollution that are ending up as street trash. This study, conducted in 6 sites around the San Francisco Bay, captured nearly 12,000 pieces of trash littered on streets in commercial districts within four cities. Cigarette butts were excluded from the study because they were too numerous to count. The data gathered indicates that take-out food and beverage packaging comprises the most significant type of trash on Bay Area streets. It was 67% of all trash collected; food packaging comprised 48% and beverage packaging was 19%. Using brand identification and other recognizable characteristics, the study was able to identify the sources of 19% of the litter collected. Of the trash for which sources were identified, fast food chains comprised 49% of the litter. Other large sources included grocery stores (11%), convenience stores (10%), retail stores (8%), and café/coffee shops (7%).

So, how do we stop this tsunami of trash? More than ever, we need to continue sustainable practices and promote the idea of refuse, reduce, reuse. 

The goal of the Taking Out The Trash project was to identify opportunities to reduce trash at the source and develop strategies in future waste prevention. This will reduce waste produced from food and beverage packaging used in the take-out food industry that makes its way onto our streets, into our storm drains, our oceans, our air and eventually, into our bodies.

It was determined that 13% of beverage related litter could be eliminated by promoting reusable beverage containers (i.e. “bring your own” cup or mug) and 27% of food packaging litter could be eliminated by replacing disposable food-ware with reusable food containers. 

One of the reasons that the use of disposables has increased so dramatically is the misinformation surrounding COVID-19 and the safety of reusables. The misconception being that reusables aren’t safe, when in fact, THEY ARE. Restaurants are already required to follow strict health and safety regulations, including safety codes for washing and sanitizing food service items. The CDC’s considerations for COVID-19 include additional resources for cleaning and sanitizing hands and surfaces, including reusable foodware items — with EPA approved disinfectant products. The FDA’s best practices also state that hot water can be used in place of chemicals to sanitize equipment and does not suggest that single-use disposables are safer than reusables.

The CDC has confirmed ZERO cases of COVID-19 through surface contact and 125 health experts released a joint-statement declaring reusables are just as safe as disposables, if not safer. A single-use foodware item hasn’t been previously used, but they still may have been exposed to COVID-19, may not be sanitary, and cannot be washed and sanitized. With reusables, you know where they came from, where they’ve been and with the use of appropriate food service sanitation standards and practices, have been safely sanitized for each use. Also, it’s pretty nice to have an outdoor dining experience that doesn’t remind us that we’re in the middle of a pandemic by being served in all disposables. 

We all know that plastic bags and styrofoam are terrible for the environment and that these items take hundreds, sometimes thousands of years to degrade- if ever, which is why many Bay Area cities have enacted Waste Reduction Ordinances banning their use. This plastic breaks down to create micro-plastics, which has been found in our air, our bodies, our oceans, our seafood, tap and bottled water, alcohol and even our honey.

A study published in Forbes showed a case study where 8 participants provided fecal samples to be analyzed, and every single one contained micro-plastics in their samples and intestinal tracks. This makes sense, as we are surrounded by plastic- if it’s found in aquatic life and mammals, why wouldn’t it be inside of us as well?

I know, I know—you’re thinking that by using those bio-plastic cups and utensils that you’re free and clear, right? Wrong. 

A good rule of thumb is that, if it looks like plastic and feels like plastic, it probably acts like plastic. A study conducted in Oregon identifies the different types of bioplastics, ultimately coming to the conclusion that they all have negative impacts on the environment.

Most of these items say they’re made from corn or potato, which may be true, but in order to meet performance standards, plasticizers and stabilizers are added in the chemical process. Because of this, these items are so similar to plastic that it can still take up to 50 years to decompose, if it does at all. Most compostable packaging is actually not degrading as marketed and is typically not accepted by a majority of composting facilities. Instead they spend their life in a landfill without the proper conditions for decomposition, where they release methane, a powerful heat trapping greenhouse gas that is a major contributor to global warming. 

These plastics and bioplastics are also deeply affecting the health of our waterways and wildlife. PLA, or Polylactic Acid, is a bio based plastic that is commonly used and contains hormone disruptors that have been shown to affect our mental and reproductive health and can also have detrimental effects on fish—leading to lower rates or reproduction and population decrease. Bisphenol-A (BPA) is also a common chemical used to harden plastics that is found in water bottles, polycarbonate tableware, food storage containers, lined cans, baby bottles and receipt paper. Bisphenols have been known to cause irreversible health damage to us, particularly to those who are most vulnerable- pregnant women, infants, and children. BPA mimics estrogen, and has been known to cause hormone disruption leading to miscarriages, premature birth, and has been found in breastmilk. It has also been linked to serious adverse health effects such as increased risk of obesity, prostate cancer, and heart disease. Although absorption through skin contact is the leading cause of contamination, it can also be absorbed into the food we eat through the containers they were stored in, with additional contamination happening if those containers are heated at high temperatures. 

But what about compostables? Those are better, right? Not necessarily. 

Paper based products need to be grown, and are often done so with the use of pesticides that we end up ingesting through prolonged contact with our food. These crops need copious amounts of water to grow and even more water and energy to process and produce. They are then packaged- often in plastic, and require fuel to transport to distribution facilities and then to the restaurants that use them. 

Almost any compostable product that prevents seepage contains a toxic, cancer causing chemical called PFAS (poly and perfluorinated alkyl substances), which ends up in the water we drink and the food that we eat. Most of us already have high levels in our bodies that will never leave.

These chemicals are everywhere in products we use on a daily basis. In that paper coffee cup you got recently from your favorite cafe, that nonstick pan you used to cook breakfast, and that compostable container you ate your take-out in. Some of these compostables end up as agricultural compost, but it degrades the quality of the compost and prevents it from being used organically.

From beginning to finish, the life cycle of single use items are extensive- even the compostable ones. Once we’ve used and discarded an item, we tend not to concern ourselves with it’s “afterlife”, but after their single use, these items are transported to facilities for sorting to begin their end of life cycle. 

Trash piling up in a trash can. Studies show by 2050, there will be more plastic and single-use cartons in the ocean than fish. Photo courtesy of ReThink Disposable.Trash piling up in a trash can. Studies show by 2050, there will be more plastic and single-use cartons in the ocean than fish. Photo courtesy of ReThink Disposable.

Trash piling up in a trash can. Studies show by 2050, there will be more plastic and single-use cartons in the ocean than fish. Photo courtesy of ReThink Disposable.

Every step of the production and elimination process is creating greenhouse gas emissions and is an undeniable link to climate change. According to Stopwaste, landfills are the leading cause of methane gas production, which is 23 times more potent than carbon dioxide. The more disposable items that are eliminated, recycled or composted, the less methane we produce.

About half a million tons of material ends up in San Francisco’s landfill every year, and 60% of waste collected from the city’s trash bins could be composted or recycled. The EPA estimates that 75% of the American waste stream is recyclable, but we only recycle about 30% of it. 

The truth is, though, that most of the items you recycle or compost are ending up in our landfills and incinerators—with items smaller than your hand being immediately discarded. The items that are incinerated have a devastating effect on our air quality and our physical health, especially now, at a time when our lungs are particularly precious. 

By adopting a reusable system and making small changes—bringing your own coffee cup, bags and reusable utensils, you can make a positive impact on public health. 

One of the best ways that you can do this, is to support businesses that are utilizing waste reduction practices, like MudLab, a POC/womxn owned zero waste cafe in Oakland. They are leading the charge in sustainability and showing others that it can be done. At a time when the economy and businesses are struggling, it’s imperative that we speak with our money. According to The World Economic Forum, approximately 60% of small businesses have closed due to financial hardship through the pandemic. As consumers, we are powerful and can drive change with our dollars. This struggle is also felt by restaurants throughout the Bay Area. And we get it, at such an uncertain time, change of any kind is hard, and going sustainable is an investment that some businesses just can’t afford right now. 

That’s where ReThink Disposable comes in—they are a Bay Area-based, ethnically diverse and all womxn team created by Clean Water Fund, an environmental grassroots organization with the sole purpose of battling this drastic increase of waste. Their team was recently interviewed by Cal State East Bay’s Sustainability Council in a web panel called, The Next Normal- A Slice of Positivity where they discuss their program and sustainable practices.

Their intention is to shift communities away from the use of plastic bags and recyclable/compostable items that, more commonly than not, end up in our landfills and/or incinerators.

ReThink’s goal is to reduce waste at its source by working with restaurants and providing them with the resources, social media management, and implementation needed to aid in the transition from disposable to reusable food service ware. 

Their program is specially curated to provide micro-grants to small businesses in the foodservice industry that are owned and operated by P.O.C, womxn, LGBTQA+, immigrants and minorities—aiding in these transitions to alleviate the burden of needing to make an initial investment that would, over time, help save them money and eliminate waste. 

Participating businesses typically save an average of 3-7 thousand dollars per year, based on volume of service. Past participants include Hang 10 Boiler in Alameda, who saved $4,000 annually (including ongoing costs for water and labor), Comforts in San Enselmo, who saved $14,000 annually, and University of San Francisco’s Market Cafe, that saved more than $150,000 annually in disposable foodware costs and eliminated more than 2 million disposable items. It literally pays to go green.

Through these partnerships, they hope to engage the industry and the community in lasting, sustainable practices that will reduce waste, beautify communities and eliminate greenhouse gas emissions. This will also lead to lower costs to taxpayers by reducing the need for storm drain clean up and maintenance as well as protecting our waterways and marine life. 

Investing in the education of our youth on the subject of conservation is also essential.

Most recently, ReThink worked with the San Carlos Youth Center for kids to transition their youth development and cooking programs to 100% reusable items. Check out their transformation here. Making these changes not only protected children from ingesting toxic chemicals, it also saved them an annual cost of $719, reduced close to 19 thousand disposable items, and prevented 214 pounds of waste while also teaching kids the importance of conserving resources in order to protect our environment.

So far, Rethink has partnered with over 240 participants, in diverting 21 million disposable items each year, and eliminating over 100 tons of waste annually, in addition to cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 10-15%. 

While ReThink Disposable primarily tackles the waste from dine-in services, they have been heavily advocating and recruiting for a San Francisco based company called Dispatch Goods, that focuses on the take-out and delivery aspect of waste reduction. Dispatch is also a womxn led team that is working towards sustainability and has been rapidly gaining popularity and partnerships with their reusable packaging program and were recently mentioned in an article by Green Peace called Reusables are Doable. So far, they have focused predominantly in San Francisco and have worked with multiple restaurants such as Voodoo Love, The Juice Shop, and even Square Pie Guys. So far, the amount of waste they’ve prevented, if piled up, would be the height of The Salesforce Tower in San Francisco. Dispatch will soon be expanding to surrounding Bay Area locations, most immediately to Alameda County, where they will be joining forces with ReThink Disposables. This dynamic duo recently solidified their partnership and are working together with a common goal of reducing waste and preventing the consumption of toxic chemicals consumed from food and beverage packaging. 

We, as a nation, weren’t always so dependent on plastic packaging and single use disposables. So from the 1950’s until now, what’s changed? Three words—fossil fuel industries.

We have been sold a culture of convenience and of immediate gratification that has been fueled by the oil and gas companies that profit from the production of petroleum based products. Since the beginning of COVID-19, these industries have fueled the misconception that reusables are not as safe as plastic, and for a time, it worked. Restaurants stopped accepting reusable bags and containers, grocery stores stopped allowing bulk refills and ditched the paper/reusable bags for their plastic counterparts, and cafes stopped allowing customers to bring their own cups for refills. 

If we truly want to build a more sustainable future, we need to get back to these practices. Safely, of course, but it can and is being done. 

Contactless pours can be done safely, and here’s a graphic from Greenpeace to show you how. The use of bulk dispensers is perfectly safe if they are gravity based and the handle is sanitized with each use, and our reusable bags are MUCH safer than reusable ones when washed after use. Here’s a guide to reuse post COVID.

Yes, some of these practices are not as “convenient” as using disposables and may take a bit of foresight and planning to practice, but don’t you think that’s the least we can do to ensure that we are protecting the earth for our future generations?

There are so many ways that we can make small, sustainable shifts in our daily lives that will positively impact our environment, such as:

  1. Bring your own bag, reusable cup, reusable utensils and cloth napkin.

  2. Replace plastic bags with silicone bags.

  3. Use shampoo and conditioner bars. 

  4. Use bars of soap for face, body and dishes.

  5. Use tooth tabs and mouthwash tabs.

  6. Use zero waste detergent pods for your laundry.

There are also ways that we can make big change: 

  1. Support businesses, like Mudlab, that promote or incorporate waste reduction practices. See Rethink’s list.

  2. Vote for elected officials who will fight for bold climate action

  3. Don’t support large corporations that use excessive disposable packaging (ie: Amazon/Walmart).

  4. Order from restaurants or food based delivery services that use reusable packaging. See Dispatch’s list.

  5. Donate to organizations like Clean Water Action that are creating and enforcing legislative protections and policies.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg also said that we should aspire to be “someone who used whatever talent she had to do her work to the very best of her ability and to help repair tears in her society, to make things better through the use of whatever ability she has.” 

Climate change is real and these womxn are leading the charge in sustainable practices- tackling the plastic pollution crisis and the excessive waste that comes from the food service industry. More importantly, they are engaging and educating their communities, eliminating street trash to protect the environment from pollution, preventing the consumption of toxic chemicals and protecting public health amidst the devastating effects of COVID-19. 

Minorities are most effected by the impacts of environmental pollution. We can support these communities by speaking with our money- supporting small businesses that are owned and operated by P.O.C, womxn, LGBTQA+, immigrants and minorities. It is more essential now, than ever, that we continue to support the work of womxn in sustainability and community development by utilizing waste reduction practices. It’s time to uplift our local economies that have been hit hard by the pandemic, to not support companies and large corporations that aren’t utilizing waste reduction practices- prioritizing profit over planet health, and to challenge ourselves in making changes that reflect what we would like to see in the world. The earth has been good to us and it’s our duty to return the favor. When many make small changes, the impact will be great.

// Want to get involved and learn more about ReThink Disposable’s mission; rethinkdisposable.org. Photo courtesy of ReThink Disposable.

Womxn Are Tired Of Single-Use Plastic: How Sustainable Mindsets Will Rebuild Our Future Before There Is None
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