Greenpeace: forget the plastic; Reusables Are Doable even during coronavirus

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Regulate single-use plastics sign. By Seán Kinane / WMNF News (10 April 2018).

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You may be thinking about how to protect the environment even during the pandemic. Disposables, including plastics, are commonly used these days in order to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

But in this WMNF MidPoint Monday interview with David Pinsky, the Greenpeace USA senior Plastics Campaigner, you’ll find out that reusable materials can work as well. He’s author of the Greenpeace report: Reusables Are Doable.

“The equivalent of one truckload full of plastic is entering our oceans every minute of every day, year after year. We’re seeing the fossil fuel and petrochemical plastics industries wanting to ramp up production largely for single-use plastics in the next couple of decades, and we know that only nine percent of all plastics ever created have been recycled. Even more have been incinerated and are in landfills, are now showing up in our environments, in our air and our food and our water. So it’s time that we really need to take on this plastic pollution crisis, which is also fueling the climate crisis, and eliminate single-use plastics and move to reuse and refill solutions.”

During the Covid-19 pandemic a lot of people are switching to things that they can just throw away, maybe using plastic containers and throwing them away rather than risk infection from reusables, but your new report, Reusables are Doable, says that it’s possible to use reusables and be safe.

“Exactly. In our new report, Reusables are Doable, we’re showing that around the world reuse and refill models have continued to be used or can be used safely during a pandemic. And this is despite the plastic industry’s efforts to push widespread disposables. These reuse systems can instill confidence, ensure strong sanitization or contactless systems for cups and containers that make it both convenient and safe for customers and workers alike. Just in the last couple months, we’ve now seen 130 health experts from 20 countries around the world weighing in on the ways to use reusables safely and pushing back on that narrative that single-use plastics are safer than reusables.”

The transcription continues below, after the video of this interview:

 

There are some places where plastic bans have been paused or reusables have been restricted. What’s happening there and do you think that’s a good idea.

“What we’ve seen is toward the beginning of the pandemic here in the U.S. the plastics industry was promoting some studies that were claiming that single-use plastics were safer than reusables. We know this was an industry-led effort that was really trying to exploit people’s anxiety about the pandemic and wanting to keep their families safe. What we know is that this, indeed, certainly has led to some rollbacks in certain states. I’m here in the San Francisco Bay area. In California, the state temporarily paused its ban on single-use plastic bags. It’s now been reinstated. We’ve seen that happen in some other states as well. So Massachusetts was banning reusable bags, has now said, hey, that’s fine to go ahead and resume reusable bags. In Vermont, Vermont moved forward with its ban on single-use plastic bags despite some of these efforts from industry to push back.

“I think what’s really important for folks to know is that the fossil fuel and plastic industries know that their time is limited. That we’re seeing more investments in renewables. We’re seeing folks that want an end to the plastic pollution crisis, want to move to these reuse and refill systems. So they’re really throwing whatever they can at the wall, but the public knows that this is not only important to keep our oceans safe, it’s important to keep our families safe. And especially communities of color that are on the frontlines of fossil fuel and plastic industry and manufacturing production that this is also a public health crisis and we deserve better.”

David, I want to ask if you have an example of a business that’s using reusables and refill systems even during the pandemic and what we can learn from that.

“One of the most well-known reusable companies out there is Loop, which started just last year in 2019. It’s expanded throughout the U.S. It’s starting to expand in the European markets. And it works with large brands such as Nestle, Unilever and Proctor and Gamble. And so folks when they sign up with Loop they can get a reusable packaging sent to their doorstep. And some major brands such as Haagen Dazs, comes in a reusable container and then when folks are done with that product, they return the container. And, of course, all these companies, have already been adhering when we talk again about health and safety, to FDA standards for sanitization to make sure that these containers can be reused safely for the next customer. And we’re seeing large companies here, supermarket chains like Kroger, that are working with Loop to provide this to customers. Of course, even Kroger, that stands out working with Loop, needs to markedly expand its investments in reuse and refill. Some others come to mind, in Florida, Publix and Winn Dixie. We need to see these companies that are making billions of dollars every year really markedly shift and reduce their single-use plastic footprint and invest in these reuse and refill systems. And when that happens we’re really going to see a transformation not just here in the U.S. but around the world.”

There’s a reusable food delivery system for lunches in India that your report talks about. How does that work and how could businesses in the U.S. learn from that model.

“That system has been around for 130 years now. It’s called Dabawallas. That is where folks largely for their lunches get lunch delivered to them, largely via bicycle, sometimes folks are moving around on the extensive train system there in India. That comes in a reusable stainless steel container and then that is, of course, returned and cleaned. A very effective model. It’s been around 130 years. Some folks will probably remember the milkman coming to their door. These aren’t new ideas. What we have seen and around the middle of the 20th century was a marked increase in use of single-use plastics and this convenience model that was sold to us. Of course, we know now the public health and environmental impacts of runaway disposable plastics and that need to shift. In the U.S. here one of the companies we feature in the report, the Wally Shop, has a similar model to Loop where it’s delivering reusable containers with grocery staples in them to your doorstep. They were inspired by that system of Dabba Walla’s in India. What’s really exciting at this moment is that we’re seeing a lot of innovation, a lot of start-ups here that are bringing these reuse models to Americans throughout the country. So now the real question is are some of these bigger brands, are Walmart, Publix, Target, are they going to invest in these systems as well or find themselves soon obsolete if they don’t change with the times.”

Would it be expensive to replace throwaway plastics with reusable containers?

“The Ellen McArthur foundation put out a great report called Reuse and they found that there’s over $10 billion in economic opportunity for companies if they’re just going to reduce their single use plastics by 20% and shift to reusable systems. That’s one figure there, but that’s not a small chunk of change. And of course, many of these companies are driven by the economics. I think there’s a huge opportunity here. But it’s important that we also make sure these systems are affordable and accessible to folks making all levels of income. Other models that we’ve seen are bring your own container. Further up on the east coast, Mom’s Organic Market which is based out of Maryland and operates in states such as Virginia, Pennsylvania, New York, they have a bulk section where folks can bring in their own containers. They have certain standards. You need to make sure you clean it before you bring it in. They have continued to operate that model throughout the pandemic. There are some low-cost options as well for us to be able to participate in this reuse revolution, to protect our communities and the planet.”

[In August], Greenpeace USA workers announced their intent to unionize. Is that something you can talk about?

“Greenpeace management has responded and said they support the effort of workers to unionize. Of course, we work very closely with unions and are excited to ensure that workers are part of the solution not just at Greenpeace but as we mentioned as well in Reusables Are Doable, in the report, it’s very important that we’re not leaving behind workers, we’re not leaving behind communities and that we really are able to move forward together especially as there’s been such a change and hardship during the pandemic.

“I encourage folks to take a look at Greenpeace.org, check out Reusables Are Doable, how you can take action. Not just to be part of the reuse revolution but again, next time you go to Publix, or if you want to call them up because you’re social distancing, let them know you want to see Publix, you want to see Winn Dixie, you want to see Target to take action on the plastic pollution crisis. To eliminate single-use plastics and switch to reuse and refill systems.”

Listen to the full show here.

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