If Wishes Were Fishes
Untangling the plastics problem during the pandemic
An interview with Martin Bourque,
Executive Director of the Ecology Center
No amount of wishing has made the pandemic depart our shores, nor will it do away with the plastics polluting our planet. Can the East Bay, a stronghold of environmental action, make headway with such an intractable problem even as we’re still battling the novel coronavirus? We asked Martin Bourque at the Ecology Center for an update on his organization’s zero-waste efforts and ideas to motivate local citizens to get back to work with reducing our reliance on plastics.
Edible East Bay: What are the biggest impacts of Covid-19 on the plastics crisis?
Martin Bourque: In the last nine months we’ve witnessed an alarming resurgence of single-use plastics. For months, plastic bag bans were temporarily lifted, reuse systems prohibited, and single-use plastic bags forced into our communities. Health concerns prompted by the pandemic have caused businesses, especially restaurants, to depend much more on single-use plastic containers, utensils, and bags as to-go orders and delivery quickly became their only way to stay afloat. Add to that the surge in online shopping and dramatic increase in our need for plastic-based personal protective equipment (PPE), almost all of which should be disposed of in the garbage/landfill cart for safety reasons. Discarded face masks and disposable gloves, frequent and disheartening sights during afternoon walks around the block, are polluting our neighborhoods, waterways, oceans, and ecosystems.
With reusables still largely prohibited, few reuse systems in place, and limited options to opt out of non-compostable, disposable foodware on food delivery apps, the majority of this increased waste is headed straight to landfill.
EEB: Have plastic producers played a role in the growing demand?
MB: It’s evident that the plastics industry has recognized an opportunity to exploit the pandemic crisis by encouraging the rollback of existing efforts to reduce single-use plastics while fanning fear and uncertainty around the safety of reusables. False claims demonizing reusables by Big Plastic and the food packaging industry highlight their deplorable attempt to incite fear in a time of crisis. Though there is little to no credible, research-based evidence to support a cause for health concerns, Covid has provided the opportunity for this pushback against reusables and reuse systems like our Ecology Center and Vessel reusable cup partnership program in Berkeley.
EEB: We have heard that there’s a connection between the plastic resurgence and the reduced demand for gasoline as we all stayed home. Is that true?
MB: Since the explosion of fracking for gas and oil in the United States and the production wars between Saudi Arabia and Russia, fossil fuel prices have dropped to historic levels. This, combined with the ongoing trends to reduce the use of fossil fuels for transportation, heating, and other uses, has driven the industry to embrace new strategies. Plastic, once thought of as a side industry or even as a byproduct of the gas and oil industries, is now being seen as the key growth sector and lifeline for the fossil fuel industry. They have over $150 billion in new expansion projects in the U.S. alone, and there is a global race to see who can own this sector internationally. Covid-related reductions in demand for transportation fuels and increased demand for disposable plastic only reinforce these trends. This means recycled plastic has an even harder time in the marketplace, which is why we need mandatory minimum recycled content requirements for all plastic packaging.
EEB: Can we make plastic producers bear responsibility?
MB: Last year, the California State Legislature attempted to pass an omnibus, groundbreaking new law reducing plastic waste and holding many industry sectors to account for the pollution they cause. It took two years and included many multi-stakeholder efforts to accommodate everyone while moving the benchmark significantly forward. Sadly, this bill was not approved by the minimum number of legislators necessary to pass it. Now we will have to take on legislative solutions one at a time and with much more force and vigor.
Other actions we can take include supporting systems that disrupt the disposables industry—Vessel is an example—and joining global campaigns like the one by the Action Network, which challenges food delivery apps to reduce unnecessary plastic pollution by making simple changes to their ordering systems. We can also use our dollars and our voices to invest in sustainable solutions, divest from extractive industries, and demand corporate and government accountability. Federal and local governments, waste haulers, and consumers can unite in holding industry accountable for impacts gravely affecting ecosystems, climate, and human health.
EEB: What are some concrete daily steps that individuals can take now to minimize their use of virgin plastic?
While plastic-free or zero-waste living is the goal, reducing our reliance on single-use plastic disposables is much more feasible if we consider it a lifelong journey requiring daily effort.
- First, and most importantly, rethink whether plastic is necessary to begin with.
- Eliminate the need for disposables completely by opting for reusable tote bags, food and beverage containers, utensils, and food wraps.
- While some restaurants and farmers’ markets are still not allowing staff to handle reusables, we can ask for our items to be put back loose into our cart or on the counter so we can bag them ourselves.
- Find ways to reuse each bag or plastic container that’s been brought home. By doing this, we make a huge dent in demand.
- Choose brands that use less—or no—plastic packaging.
- Plan ahead. Before you buy an item, consider how it will eventually be disposed of.
- Be mindful of when you are “wish-cycling” (attempting to recycle products or packages that are not truly recyclable due to the lack of solid markets).
- Use curbside pickup rather than delivery, which is typically overpackaged.
- Support your local businesses: Let them know when they are doing a good job, and when you would like to see a change.
- Shop at farmers’ markets, where you can get your produce plastic free.
More than 4.83 million tons of plastic film have been generated in our lifetime, and recycling was never really the answer. Only after we have exhausted all other, more sustainable options should we focus on recycling. When it comes to plastics, the odds are nine to one that virgin plastic is not being recycled. ♦
For more information on the Ecology Center’s work toward zero waste and plastic specifically, visit their Plastic Free July and Your Path to Zero Waste web pages at ecologycenter.org.
Meet the Plastic Fisherman
Rodrigo Butori is a Miami, Florida–based advertising professional who decided to put his creativity and free time towards a good cause: the fight against plastic pollution. Using social media and art, he brings awareness to marine plastic pollution by turning plastic trash he collects at the beach into fish, inviting others to do the same.
Wanna join in? It’s easy:
- Pick up five or more pieces of plastic polluting your beach or community
- Use them to design a little fish
- Snap a photo of your catch
- Share it using #plasticfishing
- Pick up your fish and put the plastic bits in the trash where they belong.
Crabus plasticus is a fast-growing species that came from plastic straws breeding with plastic toys and plastic cutlery. Usually found in beach dunes, these small plastic creatures are putting seagulls and other sea birds in danger as they get mistaken for food.
Plasticus snackusfishius is an invasive plastic fish species commonly found around picnic areas and barbecue pits. Its reflective interior is a magnet for pelagic fish that mistake it for food. The smell and colors attract birds looking for an easy snack. Because of its sturdy, lightweight material, it can travel great distances with the help of the wind, affecting areas far beyond its place of origin.
Re-up, Refill, Reuse
Meet the Re-Up Refill Shop. Located on-site at the O2 Artisans Aggregate in West Oakland, the shop offers a modern-day twist on the old-fashioned neighborhood milkman, but this delivery person uses an electric cargo bike to take orders from the shop to addresses in Oakland, Emeryville, or Berkeley. Customers are also welcome to go to the shop for household supplies—soap, shampoo, cleaning products, oil, vinegar, sweeteners, mushroom powders, and more—in refillable glass bottles or aluminum containers.
O2AA dubs itself an “eco-industrial park” where West Oakland artisans share space, resources, tools, and machinery as well as a commitment to developing environmentally friendly methods for manufacturing and agriculture. Sixteen groups (among them WasteWhat, Soba Ichi Restaurant, Paul Discoe Design Studio, and Salt Point Seaweed) make up the current community.
The Re-Up Refill Shop is part of WasteWhat, an environmental action organization cofounded by Matt Zimbalist. In addition to running the shop, WasteWhat helps businesses decrease their use of plastics and builds systems for reducing and upcycling waste. Before coming to O2AA, Zimbalist was busy creating waste reduction systems like greywater, aquaponics, and nutrient recycling at the Berkeley farm Urban Adamah. He opened the shop at O2AA in March of 2020, and the timing worked out in spite of the pandemic.
“They wanted to be more intentional and have waste upcycling on site; we realized that WasteWhat and the refill shop would be a perfect fit,” he says.
Since opening, the shop has seen a slow but steady growth in customers. To ensure safety during the pandemic, staff follow all CDC and Alameda County guidelines and do the refilling for customers. All bottles are cleaned in a sanitizing dishwasher.
Zimbalist does some of the bike deliveries himself, noting that he never had a milkman when he was a growing up. He wants to give customers the chance to ask questions and “meet their maker,” however that can best be managed in this time of masks and social distancing.
Re-Up Refill staffers have also stepped up politically, in 2018 registering voters on college campuses in flippable districts. This year, they offered incentives to their customers to encourage voter registration. At the time of our interview, Zimbalist was planning a trip to Arizona to do political groundwork for the Democratic party. “We’ve tried to integrate things we care about into our business,” he says. https://reuprefills.org/
More Resources for Reuse
Berkeley Ecology Center Store: Look online or in the store for reusable food containers, cups, straws, produce bags, beeswax cloth wraps, Klean Kanteens, canning jars, cotton sacks and bags, and metal tins. ecologycenter.org
Berkeley Bowl: Find items like the ECOlunchbox, Stasher bags, and other reusable food storage containers. Large selection of personal care and cleaning items in bulk. berkeleybowl.com
Fillgood.co: Use your own containers or those provided to stock up on soaps, cleaners, body wash, bath salts, and more. Staff will sanitize the outside of your jars with hydrogen peroxide and prepare your refills. Delivery available. Store in Berkeley and pickup sites in Oakland and Lafayette. fillgood.co
Mighty Market: A women-owned, zero-waste beauty shop and refill station in Martinez. Find bulk household and personal care products like laundry soap, produce wash, shampoo, conditioner, lotion, sunscreen, compostable dental floss, and more. mighty.market
MudLab: This zero-waste cafe and grocery store located on the north shore of Oakland’s Lake Merritt also works with their partner nonprofit, For Here, Please, to help Oakland businesses phase out single-use plastics. mudlaboak.com
Three Stone Hearth: Your orders of nutrient-dense foods like bone broth, kombucha, kraut, and mayonnaise come packaged in reusable glass jars. Return your clean jars, and your account will be credited for your next purchase. threestonehearth.com
Zero Grocery: This Bay Area–based home-delivery grocery company uses only reusable packaging. Delivery to many East Bay locations. zerogrocery.com
Reuse is on the Menu at Berkeley’s Gaumenkitzel
Fans of the spätzle, schnitzel, and other organic German fare at Gaumenkitzel can also celebrate its commitment to zero waste. The Berkeley eatery, also known for its impressive selection of German beer and wine, offers thoughtful reuse practices that serve as a model for restaurant owners and customers alike.
“The problem with waste of our precious resources became even more prominent with Covid,” says Gaumenkitzel chef and co-owner Anja Voth, who explains how they’re striving to minimize or avoid packaging whenever possible and to package food in multi-use containers rather than multiple smaller ones. Voth grew up in Germany, where it was common to bring one’s own bag to the market or bakery and expensive to buy a disposable bag.
Gaumenkitzel’s online ordering page encourages customers to bring a bag and pack up their takeout items at the restaurant’s well-sanitized bagging station. Voth also makes sure that staff ask customers if they need disposable cutlery, napkins, or a box or bag—it’s not assumed. About 30% of customers, she says, either bring their own bag or carry their food without one. Others are happy to receive their takeout in a repurposed cut-down cardboard box that originally held beer, wine, or produce. A few outdoor tables are available for those who might want to dine with the restaurant’s usual place setting of ceramic plates, silverware, and cloth napkins.
Gaumenkitzel is also offering homemade soups, goulash, pesto, and tap beer in reusable jars with a refundable $2 deposit, and customers are also welcome to bring jars from home.
2121 San Pablo Ave, Berkeley | gaumenkitzel.net