When you walk into a grocery store with your reusable bag you probably feel proud of yourself, as you should, for reducing plastic waste in landfills and in natural environments. Then you walk into the produce section and buy three bell peppers that come in a plastic sleeve, a cucumber wrapped in plastic, some tomatoes that you place in a small plastic bag, a gallon of milk in a plastic container, and a package of tofu in a plastic container. When you get home you find that your roommate has ordered take out sushi that came in plastic clamshells with a whole slew of plastic dishware, plastic soy and wasabi packets, plastic straws for beverages, all wrapped up in a plastic bag. By now you are realizing how engrained single use plastics are in the food industry and how hard it is to avoid in grocery stores and restaurants.
As a community on the Cramer, we do all that we can to prevent plastic pollution. We collect every piece of plastic food packaging, wash and dry it, and then compact it in a waste bin until we arrive on shore, where we will dispose of it properly. We also reuse rags for cleaning different surfaces on the boat, and we rinse and ring these rags out in a sieve to collect and prevent microplastics from going down our drains and entering the ocean. But even after all these efforts, we cannot guarantee no macro and micro plastic pollution will occur as a result of our presence sailing through the ocean, or the fact that so much of the food we eat and products we use come in plastic wrapping and will end up in a landfill. Along our cruise track, we have found pieces of plastic ranging from sand grain-sized pieces to boots and balloons. Just today, we unfortunately observed large mats of sargassum floating by, decorated with colorful plastic pieces in ranging sizes.
There are no natural sources of plastic, and human production of plastic has only increased since it was invented in 1907. It is malleable, hard, solvent-resistant, non-conductive, lightweight, and relatively cheap, so it is not hard to tell why it is used so frequently (Newton 2003). In many cases, the use of food safe plastics extends the shelf life of produce and other foods and can help reduce food waste. Due to the lightweight nature of plastics, they also allow for cheaper shipping and can reduce the quantity of fossil fuel emission in the food transit process. These are just a few of the reasons that plastic is so ubiquitous, but often the end life of plastic is not incorporated in the cost benefit analysis for decisions on plastic use.
Policy related to food industry plastic is limited and exists in the US on the federal, state, and regional level mostly related to plastic bag and straw usage. Many states have implemented preemptive laws preventing plastic bag bans pushed by backing from the plastic industry. Some grocery stores have even taken it upon themselves to change and enforce plastic free policies. For example, a grocery store in Brooklyn, NY called Precycle, sells produce, pasta, tofu, and other household items without plastic. In addition, the owner looks for local businesses to supply food and other products to avoid plastic manufacturing behind the scenes. Shoppers are also welcomed to bring their own empty jars and containers to fill in bulk to prevent the use of single-use plastics. Larger corporations like Kroger have been phasing out plastic bag use while other chains like Trader Joe's have begun the process of minimizing unnecessary plastic use. But the reasons these larger corporations haven't shifted to plastic free packaging all relate back to how the lack of plastic packaging would lower the shelf life of the products being sold.
Local movements towards decreasing plastic use and bag taxes have gained a lot of attention and have been shown to have varied levels of success, but these types of efforts are akin to mopping up water on the floor from a running tap instead of turning off the tap or slowing the flow of water in the first place (Pahl 2017). We are investigating how behavioral science can be used to not just influence the consumer to reduce plastic use, but to also consider the changes that need to be made in every other step of the circular economy that will reduce plastic pollution. This includes implementing legislation on product design so as to facilitate innovation of more sustainable plastics in the future, incentivizing the production of plastic using renewable resources such as organic waste streams rather than fossil fuels, and increasing initiatives aimed at improving recycling and waste management of plastics. These kinds of policy measures are becoming increasingly essential and urgent, as we hope to protect our oceans and thereby protect our future.
- Elisabeth, Ari, and Lydia
Newton DEBT-EE (2003) Plastics. In: Bortman M, Brimblecombe P, Cunningham MA (eds) Environmental Encyclopedia 3, 3rd ed. IB. Gale, Detroit, MI, pp 1097-1099
Pahl S (2017) Channelling passion for the ocean towards plastic pollution
Nat Hum Behav. doi: 10.1038/s41562-017-0204-4;
Borunda A (2019) Grocery Stores are Packed with Plastic. Some are Changing.
National Geographic, pp 1-16