Shlomit Auciello of Rockland hasn’t bought plastic wrap, or new Tupperware-style plastic containers, in decades. She avoids using microfiber fleece and washes plastic bags to reuse them again and again.
She knows that makes her a bit quirky by modern American standards, but she hopes that more and more Mainers will start to develop quirks like hers and take their own steps to reduce their use and waste of plastic.
“We’re clogging up the world,” she said of plastic, adding that even she must be vigilant about keeping it at bay in her life. “It’s hard. It’s harder every day to hold back this tide of convenience.”
The world is awash in plastic waste, and Maine is no exception. In just 60 years or so, since plastic started being widely produced, the cheap, durable, useful material derived from petroleum seems to have found its way to nearly every corner of the planet. According to the National Geographic Society, since the 1950s, humans have generated 8.3 billion metric tons of plastics — and of that vast number, only 9 percent has been recycled. Almost 80 percent has ended up in landfills or the environment, where it takes more than 400 years to degrade.
Even if people strive to recycle their discarded plastic, it is becoming harder and more expensive to do. China, the largest importer of solid waste in the world, banned imports of 24 waste items from the U.S. and other nations at the beginning of this year. Maine communities are grappling with increased recycling costs, due in part to the ban and also due to people putting too many dirty materials, such as used pizza boxes, in recycling.
“I’m continually amazed at the amount of plastic in our world,” said Kevin Gadsby, the general manager of the Blue Hill Co-op. “I saw a recent video that showed an exorbitant amount of plastic washing up. Someone posted it on social media. I thought, ‘is this for real?’ It was really just shocking. And disheartening. That with so many advancements in technology, we’re still just destroying the world in so many ways.”
So what are folks concerned about their discarded plastics to do? A good idea is to decrease the use of plastics in the first place.
Seeking small ways to reduce plastic
For Mainers like Auciello, who works at a midcoast restaurant, or Rachel Norgang, a primary teacher from Monroe, eliminating plastic from their lives is a constant effort. Auciello grew up with a single mother who was very thrifty. She never purchased plastic containers. Her mom would cook a big meal once a week and then parcel it out into washed-out paper milk cartons, which she would then put into the freezer and thaw when needed. So Auciello came by her ways naturally. She reuses things as much as she can, keeps shopping bags in her car so she doesn’t need to get new ones from the store, and even brings a stainless steel “tiffin,” or lunch box, with her to festivals, cafeterias, potluck suppers and other places where she expects to take food away.
“Your tiny, tiny actions are important,” she said. “A lot of people are reinventing the wheel [of plastic alternatives]. It’s a wheel we were using 50 years ago but has disappeared. How quickly we change how we do things to the point where we can’t step back.”
Norgang, 32, also lives without plastic food wrap, straws and other kinds of disposable plastic, and has done so all her life.
“We were always kind of doing this as a family,” she said. “To not be wasteful. To be mindful. If something is recyclable, it still takes a lot of energy to recycle. I think reduce, reuse, recycle is best done in that order. If you can reduce, do that first.”
She believes that while small, individual steps are important, it would be better for the country — and the planet — if there was political will to do something bigger about disposable plastic. She knows it’s hard to avoid plastic packaging and other single-use types of plastic, and wishes it wasn’t that way.
“It makes it really hard. It makes it inconvenient to be responsible, and that’s unfortunate,” she said. “I think that manufacturers should not be allowed to make single-use plastics that are not recyclable. … There’s a moral value and a monetary value to not filling up the ocean with plastic. There’s a value to keeping plastic out of the environment. If we had people in power that really believed that I think we’d be doing a lot better.”
Finding solutions close to home
Mainers who shop at co-ops and natural food stores can buy from bulk bins, which saves packaging. Available bulk goods can run a wide gamut, and include items such as olive oil, maple syrup, beans, grains and cleaning materials. Gadsby said that more and more people at the Blue Hill Co-op have been coming in with their own glass jars to fill up from the bulk section. Stores with bulk bins generally welcome people bringing their own clean glass or plastic containers to fill.
“We used to carry the Ball jars for people to purchase and reuse,” he said, adding that co-op management had discontinued that practice until very recently but popular demand has made them rethink that. “We actually brought back a relatively low-cost Ball jar with a lid within the last month or two.”
Down the coast, the Belfast Co-op is expanding its line of bulk offerings and encouraging customers to buy what they need and put it in reusable containers. They likely also will be allowing customers to bring in their own containers for deli items, too.
“My hope is that people are going to be a lot more mindful and willing to shop with their own reusable or recyclable containers and not depend so much on prepackaged plastics,” Jeremy Peskoe, operations manager, said.
There are many ways to reduce plastic use, as long as folks are willing to make an effort. Some ideas to reduce plastic waste include:
— Trade plastic food wrap and Ziploc plastic bags for reusable beeswax and cotton food wrappers. They are available at stores such as Willie Wags in downtown Bangor and through local makers like Northern Maine artisan Holly Hardwick, who sells her beeswax food wraps online through her store Northwoods Nectar. If you do use plastic freezer bags, wash and reuse them.
— Buy locally made yogurt in returnable glass jars. Tide Mill Farm in Edmunds and Toddy Pond Farm in Monroe are two dairy farms that sell their yogurt this way, with products available at locations including Tiller & Rye in Brewer, The Natural Living Center in Bangor, the Belfast Co-op and Megunticook Market in Camden.
— Remember to bring your own cloth bags or reusable plastic bags to the grocery store. Keep some in the car just in case you make an unexpected stop at a store.
— Drink tap water, not bottled water (this will save money, too!)
— Bring your own clean containers to restaurants to bring home leftovers (though restaurants may not be on board with this effort, likely because of health safety concerns about a “foreign” container coming into the kitchen).
— If you don’t need to use a plastic straw, ask for “no straw” for your drink at restaurants. Americans use 500 million plastic straws a day — and while straws can be a medical necessity, some of those plastic straws could be eliminated from the waste stream or replaced with sustainable straws made from paper, stainless steel, bamboo and other materials.
— Improve your recycling. Rinse out containers, so they don’t contaminate other plastics around them and wind up in a landfill. Try to avoid buying plastics numbered 3-7, which includes packaging for products such as single-serve yogurt cups. Many communities no longer can recycle these items. To keep the convenience of single-serve yogurt without the plastic waste, you could purchase larger quantities of yogurt and separate it into your own glass storage containers. As for your used pizza boxes — not plastic, we know — you can throw away, burn or try to compost them. Grease and oil are two of the worst contaminants in paper recycling and can ruin an entire batch of paper and cardboard.
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