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single use plastics ban

We Banned Single-Use Plastics from our Office - Here's What Happened

By Melissa Rappaport Schifman Editor-At-Large
Dec 17, 2018

At Rise, we are all about sustainability. But do we walk the talk in how we live and work? We try. It’s challenging and frustrating sometimes. This past summer, Rise headquarters implemented a “Single-Use Plastics Ban” (see our Founder and CEO, Matt Daigle, talk about it on Facebook Live). 

Why did Rise do this? It’s not like we just thought of this on our own. In October, the New York Times reported that the entire European Parliament approved a ban on single-use plastics for all of Europe by 2021. A Fortune article reports that the Swedish furniture retailer Ikea recently announced that it would stop selling single-use plastics and remove them from all its restaurants by 2020. And it doesn’t stop there: Time reports that American Airlines, Hyatt, McDonald's, Marriott, and Starbucks are all banning plastic straws. Just last week, the City of Boston’s plastic bag ordinance went into effect.

What’s all the fuss about? It’s no secret that plastics are damaging to the environment. But the heightened activity seems to be primarily driven by increased public awareness of all the problems plastics cause in our oceans. According to the Ocean Conservancy, every year, 8 million tons of plastics enter our oceans, contaminate fish and shellfish—and possibly humans—and littering beaches everywhere. Plastics don’t biodegrade; they turn into microplastics and stay around for a very long time.

National Geographic is asking readers to take a pledge to stop using the most used single-use plastics: cups and lids, utensils, straws, bags, and bottles. (On the website’s simple pledge form, you get to choose how many of each you are planning to cut per week). The European Union’s proposal adds to the list several more culprits: food containers, cotton bud sticks, balloons, wrapping/packaging, cigarette filters, and wet wipes.

How has this ban played out for Rise’s office? 

“It’s been an adjustment,” says Matt. When the policy was first considered, there was a realization that “we live in a city that doesn’t have a very sophisticated waste management infrastructure. It’s garbage + bi-weekly paper recycling + bi-weekly bottle recycling… and that’s it. So, we knew that whatever we were going to change at the office, we somehow had to work with that. We also knew we had to do it, no baby steps, rip the band-aid, and start doing it. But now that we’re a few months in, it’s become second nature, and we consider it pretty easy to uphold the policy.”

For Andrew, his coffee buying habits have had to change the most. “The office policy has pushed me to (a) make coffee at home in a travel mug or (b) make coffee at the office versus picking one up at coffee shops. It's great news for the office, and I've saved money! (The local coffee shops may not appreciate it, but that’s what you get for using plastic lids and straws, right?).”

The increase in coffee at the office has benefited one team member who is an avid gardener. Once a week, all the coffee grounds get packed up, and he then uses it as compost/fertilizer for his garden.

Sometimes, there are challenges. Andrew says that he struggles to comply with the policy on those busy days in the office when he needs to order takeout. “Some local restaurants do a great job of providing paper takeout containers. However, many still opt for Styrofoam (a polystyrene plastic), and everyone provides plastic utensils. When ordering, I ask not to include plastic utensils and supply my own. I also make a habit of politely asking why they don't offer paper-based takeout containers and then telling them why I am asking. While plastic may be the subject of the question, it usually comes coupled with other forms of waste.”

There are some downsides. Not having a coffee lid makes spilling more likely, and the coffee cools down faster. (Solution? Bring your own insulated Klean Kanteen!) Or, we might forgo getting the food we want. Matt says, “if I know that the restaurant next door is using Styrofoam take-out containers, I skip it.”

And now that it’s gift-giving time, Jeremy wonders, “Would we consider gift cards single-use plastics?” Sometimes these types of policies are only successful if there is a better alternative. In the case of gift cards, several retailers do electronic gift cards, but that might take away some of the fun!

Do These Policies Make A Difference? 

No, says Rachel A. Meidl, Ph.D., a Fellow at Rice University's Baker Institute of Public Policy. Her December 13, 2018, Houston Chronicle article questions the motive of these policies. She writes, “plastic bans are merely a superficial win to an amorphous end state. Precipitously banning plastic straws and bags without rationale and a well-defined strategic plan for further action is only a symbolic and sanguine attempt that erroneously leads the public to believe that a prohibition is an ultimate and only solution to the world's myriad problems.”

She says that the fact that over 60 countries and 350 municipalities across the U.S. have introduced actions on single-use plastics “without first defining the problem and contemplating a practical, holistic plan is premature and will result in rudimentary, dead-ended, and misguided policies.”

Then, there’s the size of the problem. From a global perspective, it’s hard to believe that what we do in North America can make a difference. Nature's study published last year reported that plastic released from Asian rivers represented 86% of the total global input. The Chinese Yangtze River was the most significant contributor, followed by the Ganges River (between India and Bangladesh). Third in line is the combined input of the Xi, Dong, and Zhujiang Rivers in China, all flowing into the South China Sea at the Pearl River delta, followed by Indonesia’s Javanese rivers. The rest of the world shares the remaining plastic trash, with 7.8% coming from Africa, 4.8% from South America, 0.95% from Central and North America, and 0.28% from Europe. 

Really? Of the 8 million tons of plastic that end up in the ocean, less than one percent comes from North America? And according to a Bloomberg News story, plastic straws account for only 0.03 percent of this total.

So do we throw up our hands and give up? From a policy perspective, Dr. Meidl has a point. We do need clearer goals and more holistic plans. But she is missing one of the critical upsides of single-use plastic bans—an upside that we have all experienced personally: awareness and action.

Bigger Picture Awareness and Action

Matt says, “For me, it’s made me realize just how much we rely on and expect single-use plastics in everyday life (when we don’t need to be). It’s made me make changes at home too, which is a big bonus. And it’s also impacted where I shop and what I buy. Little things like picking up coffee beans at the roasters down the street last week, I asked for no bag, and when I told the shop owner about our policy, she got excited and said she now wanted to change her policies.”

Ashley says she uses more reusable bags and tries to leave them in her car (but sometimes forgets). “When that happens, I still say no to a plastic bag and struggle with an armload of stuff to carry out. That helps to make sure I remember next time!” Andrew says that it “definitely has made me more cognizant of other single-use items that are just as bad.”

Matt also recognizes another benefit: camaraderie. Matt explains, “having a policy has kept the team accountable to each other and ourselves. It’s fun and sometimes funny, the things we do to enforce the policy.”

Climate change, ocean trash, declining ecosystems…we are faced with huge problems, and it can often be paralyzing and demoralizing. But we all want to be part of the solution, not part of the problem, right? Dealing with trash is much more tangible than addressing climate change: we can see trash, reduce/reuse/recycle our plastics. Plastic bans are doable, so more people are jumping on board. And as we have experienced, the simple policy has led to more awareness and more action.

So the answer is yes, a single-use plastic ban policy can and does make a difference. This belief is rooted in fundamental hope and optimism for our future. It sounds cliché, but Margaret Mead was right: Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.

As we wrap up 2018 and start thinking about plans for 2019, what are your New Years' resolutions? Getting an energy audit? Starting to compost? We’d love to hear about them. Happy Holidays and New Year from your Editor!

Disclaimer: This article does not constitute a product endorsement however Rise does reserve the right to recommend relevant products based on the articles content to provide a more comprehensive experience for the reader.Last Modified: 2021-08-25T03:10:00+0000

Article by:

Melissa Rappaport Schifman