THE FUTURE OF ZERO WASTE: “REJECTING THROWAWAY CULTURE”
On a soggy winter afternoon in January, 2019, local school children, teachers and zero waste advocates gathered at the steps of city hall in Berkeley, California to call for their representatives to pass a historic piece of legislation that would be a giant step forward for reducing plastic waste in the city. The Disposable Free Dining ordinance mandates reusable foodware at restaurants for dining in, cutting the use of disposable utensils, plates, and cups, and slaps a 25 cent surcharge on disposable to-go containers, which must be certified compostable.
While some cities are wringing their hands helplessly in the face of China’s policy, community advocates in the city of Berkeley saw the ban as an opportunity to take action to reduce single-use plastic. Thanks to their efforts, the Disposable Free Dining ordinance passed unanimously in the city council, and implementation has already begun. In a recent opinion piece in the Los Angeles Times, one of the ordinance’s chief architects, Martin Bourque of the Ecology Center, and Annie Leonard, Executive Director of Greenpeace USA, wrote, “The ordinance does not simply ban plastic foodware, leaving businesses to replace it with other throwaway materials: It rejects throwaway culture altogether.”1 Bourque and others hope that this ordinance will be replicated in more and more places, as communities around the world lift up their voices to demand a future where nothing, and no one, is disposable.
The plastic waste problem is complex, dynamic, and changing rapidly. Many actors can take important steps to safeguard human health and the environment, including the following actions:
- Governments should take collective action through the United Nations and binding international agreements to address the production, export, recycling, and disposal of plastic.
- Developing countries should impose bans on importing plastic waste to prevent the dumping of waste from high-income countries on poor and under-resourced communities.
- The private sector, having created the plastic problem, is in the best position to quickly address it. Redesigning products, packaging, and delivery systems to eliminate the use of single-use plastic products and packaging is the ultimate solution to plastic pollution.
- Local and national governments must prioritize source reduction through bans on problematic plastic products and packaging and by mandating Extended Producer Responsibility.
- Governments should make rights for waste pickers and recycling workers central to system reform. The economic incentives to accept plastic waste are a pervasive force that speaks to a larger failure to address poverty and ensure decent livelihoods for everyone.
- Governments must prohibit the burning of plastic, whether in the open, in waste incinerators, in cement kilns, in plastic-to-fuel operations, in makeshift furnaces as fuel, or in landfill fires. Shutting off the plastic waste trade by itself is insufficient if poor and marginalized communities continue to host polluting disposal technologies.
- Exporting countries must take responsibility for their plastic reduction and recycling domestically. Investment in domestic recycling infrastructure should achieve high environmental and social outcomes and prevent further exports. However, plastic recycling should not be used as justification for further single-use plastic production but as a pathway towards zero waste.
Stop FAKE plastic recycling now!
In early May, governments around the world will meet in Switzerland for a vote on international rules to help force wealthy states and corporations to stop treating developing countries like dumps for their plastic rubbish.