Anne Macquarie: Plastic-free July

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I’ve been thinking a lot about plastic. I’ve also been thinking about cardboard, aluminum, glass, lawn clippings and paper, but mostly I’m thinking about plastic.

Before about 1950, we lived without single-use plastic. Milk was delivered in glass bottles. Food was stored in glass jars, ceramic, paper, metals and wood. Meat was wrapped in butcher paper. We didn’t buy shrink-wrapped anything.

But since 1950 the production of plastic is growing annually. According to the Worldwatch Institute, plastics growth from 1950 to 2012 averaged 8.7 percent per year, booming from 1.7 million tons to the nearly 300 million tons of today. In the U.S., only about 9% of this has been recycled. About 12% has been incinerated, and the rest has accumulated in landfills and the environment.

Which is where it sits. Plastic does not biodegrade – ever. It deteriorates into smaller and smaller particles, which end up polluting oceans, the environment – even our own bodies.

I’ve been a dedicated recycler for most of my life: zealously sorting my trash, composting my organic kitchen waste, advocating for better recycling options.

But I have reluctantly concluded that recycling is little more than a way to make us feel better. I began to understand this when last year China announced it would no longer accept recyclable waste from other countries – they were now generating enough of their own. And it turns out that what we thought was being recycled in China was not – much of the recyclable material we ship there is too contaminated to recycle. So plastic trash from Europe and North America ends up in open dumps, streams, and waterways in Asian countries, washing to the sea, and contributing to the great ocean gyre of trash.

So I’m working on cutting single-use plastic out of my life and I urge you to do the same.

Remember the three R’s of Reduce, Reuse, Recycle? This has been reformulated to the 5 R’s (or 6 or 7)

First, Refuse.

This means refuse plastic packaging. Refuse plastic bags at the grocery store. Don’t buy produce that is excessively encased in plastic- and tell your retailer why. This worked at Trader Joe’s. This March after thousands of petitions, letters, and even protests outside of stores by environmentally conscious customers, the store announced major plans to reduce their plastic waste.

And don’t eat in restaurants that serve food only in plastic. This was a tough one for me because a new restaurant just opened in town, specializing in my favorite foods from the islands. I went there once and did not return. There was no way to eat there without eating off single-use plastic.

Reduce: That’s right. Just buy less. And use less. Good not only for the environment but for your pocketbook.

Reuse and Repurpose: Carson City has great thrift shops. Some people I know – like my son – never come to Carson without checking out the thrift stores. Last week I broke the pitcher I use to make sun tea, so I went to Classy Seconds to replace it and found five glass pitchers to choose from and a bonus – a used soda-water maker for $8.50. Now with my $8.50 Soda Stream I’ve ditched single-use plastic and glass beverage bottles – recyclable or not.

Repair: Why isn’t anything repairable anymore? Do we really have to buy something new rather than fix it? In some communities, people get together and teach each other how to repair appliances rather than toss them out. Or there’s You Tube. I just Googled “lawn mower repair video” and came up with 356,000 results.

Some people add Rot to this list. Plastic doesn’t rot, but organic material does. I’m very happy with the new yard waste bins from Waste Management – especially when I found out that much of the yard waste goes to Full Circle Compost in Carson Valley to be composted here and reused. I’ve already bought a couple of bags of Full Circle mulch. Now if only they would package their products in paper rather than plastic.

Last – Recycle. Notice that Recycling is the last of the R’s. It should be the last option used only sparingly. And if you are going to recycle, please make your recyclables are as clean as possible – they are more likely to actually be recycled that way. Don’t put in something (dirty diaper, anyone?) that could contaminate a whole load, making the whole load unrecyclable.

And remember the big picture. As Greenpeace says, “We have lived in a world free of single-use plastics before, and we can again. It will take time and investment to phase out all throwaway plastics, but it is time for companies to move toward that goal. New materials and delivery systems are emerging all the time that will make this transition easier. Reduction and ultimately the phasing out of single-use plastics is the only answer to our ocean plastics crisis.”

It’s worth working for and right now is a good time to start. Here’s more on Plastic-free July.

Anne Macquarie blogs about clean energy and climate change in Nevada at


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