Plastics Webinar Follow-Up

RethinkWaste held a Plastics Webinar on April 15, 2021 in celebration of Earth Month. We shared a film screening of the PBS Frontline documentary Plastic Wars, followed by a panel discussion with experts in the field: Alejandra Warren, Sustainability Consultant and Co-Founder of Plastic Free Future, Dan Domonoske, Executive Vice President of Potential Industries, and Eva Holman, Policy Organizer at UPSTREAM.

This page provides the webinar recording, links to more resources, and all of the questions (with answers) submitted by attendees. If you have additional questions, fill out the form at the bottom of the page.


Resources from Panelists

Webinar recording and panelist discussion

Questions and Answers

Text was edited for conciseness.

1. Are plastics #3-7 going to the landfill?

Dan: Yes, all of the plastic #3-7’s are going to the landfill. There is a market for plastic #5, which is polypropylene, and depending on the MRF (Material Recovery Facility) recovery equipment, they’re able to recover that.

2. What are some plastics-related policies that UPSTREAM is working on?

Eva: Within the last few years, we’ve started to introduce reuse policies which mandate reuse for on site, and sometimes can also include a cup or a container charge for single-use “to go” containers. These are really what we’ve been passionate about introducing, supporting, and passing all over the Bay Area and beyond.  

3. Some grocery stores are collecting single-use plastic bags. Is there a market for them? What happens to them?

Dan: It’s my understanding that the contamination level on single-use plastic bags is so high that even if it ends up in a recycling facility, it just gets trashed.

4. How many shipping containers are currently being exported for recycling?

Dan: Between six and eight 40-foot containers per day. It goes to Southeast Asia but that’s cardboard and paper because there’s essentially no market for that in California. A 40-foot container holds about 20 to 23 tons. Very few plastics are being exported from our Shoreway facility to Southeast Asia.

5. I’m a middle schooler, how can I help? It’s way harder to make an impact as a younger person as adults don’t really listen.

Alejandra: Use your voice. Don’t be afraid, don’t feel small, because any conversation that you can have can make a really big difference with your friends at school with your teachers, with your parents, with your family. Every time you show them by example that you are leading the way, they’re going to listen to you. So don’t think that they are not listening. We are all listening, and we want more kids like you involved.

Eva: School cafeterias are a great launching point! For some reason, schools moved away from reusable trays and containers to rigid plastic containers with plastic tops some years ago. Schools in Palo Alto, as well as in Berkeley and Marin are moving back to reusables in their cafeterias. If you’re in a school that has a cafeteria that’s using single use items, that’s a great spot to get involved! You have a strong voice within your school environment, especially if your school is back [in session] now. If not, then it might take until next year, but that’s gives you some time to set up a really great campaign and do some research on how schools in Berkeley and Palo Alto have navigated that process.

6. I’ve heard that some plastics, the kind that seem almost like cellophane, are biodegradable?

Dan: It doesn’t work. It’s fine in a lab, but there’s no commercially viable application for that in the country.

Alejandra: There’s a lot of greenwashing in “bioplastics,” “biodegradable plastics,” and “compostable plastics.”  We’re starting to understand that they really don’t do what people wanted them to do. We can see all sorts of plastic that say compostable, and they are probably compostable when they go to a composting facility with a really high temperature and controlled humidity. But if you take that compostable fork to the beach and accidentally drop it then a turtle is going to eat it. The fish are going to eat it, and it’s never going to decompose, it’s just going to break down into smaller and smaller pieces called microplastics or nano-plastics. They’re going to end up in the fish, they’re going to end up in the food chain, and we’re going to end up eating them. So please keep your eyes open for all those names that are not the real solution.

7. What about Trex – NextTrex recycling program for plastic film?

Julia: A lot of plastics can be recycled once. You can turn a water bottle into a pair of shoes but you can’t recycle the shoe. So at least you’re extending the life of a product which I think is what NextTrex does.

Alejandra: Everything that we think that is recyclable, it’s just going to be down cycled probably into a product that is a lot lesser quality than the first one so then it ends there.

Dan: Recycling is if something gets used over and over. Glass, aluminum, and paper [get used] over and over. Down cycling is when you turn it into some kind of a park bench or three-dimensional plastic lumber and it stays that way forever. Even to do that, it’s not done with post-consumer film plastic.

8. How we can get Trader Joe’s to change their plastic packaging?

Eva: Don’t buy those things at Trader Joe’s. I know I frequent Trader Joe’s, but I try not to buy that packaged stuff because it’s completely wasteful and it’s completely unnecessary, especially for produce to be packaged like that.

Julia: Go by your stores, and let them know! The more people who speak up, the more they’ll hear about it.

9. Are there any restaurants in the Bay Area that will let you bring your own plate or container for takeout?

Eva: We’re starting to gather more data in this area! If you hear of a restaurant or a cafe that’s letting you bring your own, we want to hear about it. It’s really important that we celebrate these restaurants that are taking the lead.

Alejandra: Our plan is to create a map. We just had a meeting on this with a bunch of activists  in the Bay Area. We want to create a map that everyone can use to guide them in making decisions in frequenting restaurants and cafes that are allowing for reusables.

10. Are there any restaurants in the Bay Area that will let you bring your own plate or container for takeout?

Eva: We’re starting to gather more data in this area! If you hear of a restaurant or a cafe that’s letting you bring your own, we want to hear about it. It’s really important that we celebrate these restaurants that are taking the lead.

Alejandra: Our plan is to create a map. We just had a meeting on this with a bunch of activists  in the Bay Area. We want to create a map that everyone can use to guide them in making decisions in frequenting restaurants and cafes that are allowing for reusables.

11. What are the most impactful and also realistic plastic reduction campaigns that local organizations should encourage in their local communities?

Alejandra: As restaurants reopen, there’s an opportunity to ask legislators to pass a policy that mandates reuse for on-site dining at a new restaurant. If a restaurant’s opening or there’s a restaurant with new ownership or new management, mandate reusables for on-site dining. Also, push for PFAS ban no matter what, because PFAS chemicals should not be in your foodware whether it be plastic or non-plastic.

12. [In reference to the “chasing arrows” symbol and recycling] The printed guidelines on our bins from your companies are quite misleading. Why can’t we be honest with one another?

Eva: Just like we want transparency in our food system, I think the same kind of clarity should be expected from consumers about packaging. We want to know if it’s truly recyclable because that will impact our purchasing, and so I’m just really excited that this is changing. The film told the story really well about how these symbols were created, and none of it was to help consumers make the right decisions or to help waste management companies.

Dan: There are two cases right now we should keep our eye on in California. One is Smith vs. Keurig, which has to do with the pods, and the second one is Greenpeace vs. Walmart. Both of them have to do with stopping the misleading representation of recyclability when it’s not true.

13. Where to purchase bulk food in the Bay Area?

Alejandra: Check this list of stores that offer food in bulk.

14. Is the Biden administration and our new and improved Environmental Protection Agency working on resolving our plastics problem?

Eva: The “Break Free from Plastic” bill, is something we should all get behind and support. And recently, a reuse component was added to that as well. Also, climate is big on Biden’s plate right now, and obviously the extraction of fossil fuels and the creation of plastic has a huge climate impact, as well as many more aspects of the whole oil business. I think that the connection between plastics and climate will become an obvious next step. I know that Recology funded the ballot initiative, which would actually do a chargeback to the makers of plastic packaging. That money would be used to fund programs that are working on reducing plastic pollution.

15. Amazon brags that “this plastic bag is 50% lighter than a cardboard box”. Is this relevant?

Eva: The conversation should not be “is this one single use disposable better than this other single use disposable?” It should be “Hey Amazon, when are you going to start using reusable packaging?” The new campaign with Amazon is to get a reusable bag with a resealable closure and put that out into the market. There’s a big push from California, in the Bay Area and beyond, to ask Amazon to start piloting reusable packaging solutions.

16. What do you see as hopeful in the fight against plastic?

Alejandra: Just the fact that you’re here learning about it, and educating yourself, makes it a positive experience, because you’re learning and you care, and you’re going to bring this knowledge to your family and your friends, and you’re going to make a difference with this knowledge.

Dan: I think that it’s going to be harder for the big companies and the retailers to brainwash us into making stupid decisions to buy stuff without thinking about the unintended consequences. We are the ones that make decisions on what we choose to buy. And that’s a good thing.

Eva: I’m seeing this huge stage of opportunity and growth in green jobs, people moving away from going through other people’s garbage into jobs that bring them joy, and building a whole green infrastructure in this entire country and beyond!

Pre-Submitted Questions and Answers

1. Plastic bag recycling says bags must be clean & dry. What if one bag is dirty or wet, does the whole bundle get scrapped?

The short answer is typically no. Typically it takes more than just one piece of contamination to make the whole bundle unusable. The issue is if each person puts in one item that can’t be recycled what seems like a small amount of contamination can add up quickly.

2. What is the biggest disconnect with our waste management system and the general public?

One of the biggest disconnects with our waste system and the general public is the chasing arrows symbol. On almost all plastic items you can find the chasing arrows symbol, which some people mistakenly refer to as the recycling symbol, with a number inside. These chasing arrows and the number indicate what type of plastic the item is made out of, not that the item can be recycled.

3. Are people properly sorting? How much incorrect sorting can you tolerate with today’s recycling tech?

In our service area, for the most part people are sorting properly. At our Material Recovery Facility (MRF) we have a 13% contamination rate. The MRF is where we process all of the recyclables that we receive in the blue recycling bin/cart. That basically means for every 100 items sent to the MRF about 13 of them can’t be recycled and instead are sent to the landfill.

4. Is there an organization similar to RethinkWaste operating in the Monterey Bay Area? If not, can the model be leveraged?

Yes, the Monterey Bay area has an organization called the Monterey Regional Waste Management District (MRWMD). MRWMD serves Moss Landing, Castroville, Marina, Seaside, Del Rey Oaks, Sand City, Monterey, Monterey-Salinas Highway area, Pacific Grove, Pebble Beach, Carmel, Unincorporated Carmel, Carmel Valley, Carmel Highlands, and Big Sur.

5. How can I avoid plastic when buying food?

One option is to buy in bulk whenever possible. If you are looking for places to purchase bulk products, check this list of locations. Another option is to see if there are other packaging options such as metal cans or glass jars.

6. What to do with many plastic bags – grocery, bags carrying food, nuts, snack etc.

Unfortunately, in our service area we can’t recycle soft plastic, including grocery bags and snack wrappers. If you can’t reuse them, all soft plastic must go in the black landfill bin.

7. How much of our plastics actually get recycled?

Plastics #1 (PET) and 2 (HDPE) are readily recyclable and are usually recycled in both domestic and some international markets. Plastics #1 are items such as water and soda bottles, peanut butter jars, and salad dressing bottles. These items are mostly recycled into more water and soda bottles or textiles and insulation. Examples of Plastics #2 are milk jugs, laundry detergent and oil bottles, and drain cleaner containers. These items are mostly recycled into more laundry detergent and oil bottles, piping, recycling containers, shampoo bottles, and chairs.

8. Why can’t the U.S. incinerate the unusable plastics that litter our environment like Japan does?

Incineration is illegal in the state of California, so incineration is not an option.

9. Is there such a thing as bad plastic or like plastic you wouldn’t recommend recycling?

Plastics #3 – 7 are plastics that are difficult to recycle. Examples of Plastics #3 – 7 are PVC pipes, yogurt containers, cold and hot beverage lids, and takeout containers. There is currently no market for the material when it is deconstructed, as these are low-quality plastics. Currently, RethinkWaste is still accepting plastics #1 – 7, but once plastics #1 – 2 are sorted out, plastics #3 – 7 are directed to the transfer station and sent to the landfill. Try and avoid these plastics as much as possible or reuse them if you can.

10. I understand that black plastic cannot be recycled. How can we get manufactures to quit using it? Better labeling?

One way to try and get manufactures to stop using black plastic would be to advocate for other options. You can do this by writing letters directly to manufacturers and businesses, speaking to your local representatives, and spreading the word about waste reduction bills and ordinances.

11. Why are towns not having places to bring items that terracycle collects, such as a drop off place for items that terracycle collects?

Terracycle is a company that offers collection and recycling of items that are typically not accepted in a curbside recycling program. It would be wonderful if more communities had more drop off locations for hard to recycle items. If you are looking for local options for recycling different items please check recyclestuff.org.

12. When/how will plastic producers be held responsible if Break Free From Plastics doesn’t pass?

For more information and to show your support for the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act, check their website.

If you have more questions, fill out the form below!

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