Bails of recycled plastic waits to be picked up at the Casella zero-sort facility in Lewiston last September. The U.S. currently produces 460 million tons of plastic annually. Daryn Slover / Sun Journal

What are some ways cities, manufacturers, and individuals can reduce the huge amount of plastic that encloses many of our food and consumer products? In our home, with assiduous separation of all organic material into the compost pile and recycling as much as Topsham Transfer Station will accept, plastic bags make up the majority of our garbage. A recent poll of 500 members of The Natural Resource Council of Maine lists plastic as one of the biggest barriers to sustainability. It doesn’t degrade but breaks up into microplastics that pervade our air, water and soil, and get into our bodies in large amounts. It washes down streams, into rivers and, eventually, the ocean, making huge plastic floating piles. Fish, turtles and manatees die from eating plastics or can’t swim properly with plastic rope around their limbs.

The amount of plastic produced annually in the U.S. has grown from 35 million tons in 1970 to 460 million tons today. Shifting the responsibility for disposal of packaging from municipalities to manufacturers will increase incentives for them to reduce the amount of plastic used, use materials with higher value as recyclables and design products that can be disassembled. Maine is developing implementation categories and standards for our Extended Producer Responsibility law. Once the process of input from stakeholders is completed, manufacturers will pay into a state fund that will reimburse towns for solid waste disposal.

Toronto, Canada, is a city of 2.9 million people in the province of Ontario with an early history of a required recycling program that finds markets in North America for 85% of their recyclables and composts their municipal organic waste. The city requires separation of organic wastes in green bins and recyclables in blue bins from residential, 60% of the multi-residential units and small businesses.

This year, Toronto will implement a shift to producers paying for the processing of the recyclables in implementing a circular-economy procurement policy for their $2 billion in annual purchases. Extended Producer Responsibility is a mandated product stewardship that includes moving the cost of disposal from municipalities to the manufacturers. The incentives to companies wishing to be selected to sell products to Toronto is to minimize packaging and make their packaging recyclable. Instead of using the cheapest plastics, which often can’t be recycled to package their products, they are incentivized to spend more to package in recyclable materials.

In the U.S., 19 states have multiple mandated products requiring Extended Producer Responsibility. Eighty percent of these EPR requirements include electronic waste and products with toxic materials, including mercury. Maine requires EPR fees for disposal of tires, lead acid batteries, products such as thermostats containing mercury, pesticide containers and four other products. California also includes cell phones, mattresses, used paint and carpets. Most vehicle batteries are now recycled, keeping lead out of our waterways. Prior to required tire recycling, large piles of tires accumulated in private dumps around Maine, risking water pollution and air pollution from potential fires. Properly disposing of cell phones, computers and small batteries, paid for by the producers, will reduce land pollution. Collection of electronics will give incentives for future reprocessing by new industries into new products.

Meanwhile, what can individuals do to reduce their use of plastic? Many customers have learned to buy large grocery bags and keep them in our cars to take to stores when shopping. For years, my family has washed out most of the sturdy plastic food bags we get regularly and saved larger garment bags. I am starting to put several of these smaller bags into my larger canvas shopping bags to use in the produce section of a grocery or health-food store to collect vegetables and fruits. If we stop expecting stores to give us bags, save and keep various size bags in our cars, then remember to take them into the store, we help conserve plastic, solid waste, oil and money.

On the corner of Pleasant Street and Church Road in Brunswick is GoGo Refill that sells bulk soaps, dish- and clothes-washing liquids, and body-care products by the ounce. Bring several sizes of clean glass containers or your cleaned-out shampoo bottles with widemouth lids to fill with several of their body soaps or window-, dish- and laundry-cleaning products. Staff will fill your containers to the level or amount you request.

There are a few local food stores like Morning Glory Natural Foods, where customers can purchase a container to fill with olive oil and refill on future trips. There are also occasional bins of snack items and nuts at grocery stores we can patronize to reduce our packaging. If more of us ask for these services to reduce packaging and take a little time to reuse our glass containers, grocery stores will expand their offerings of bulk purchases.

Nancy Chandler studied Animal Behavior and Anthropology at Stanford University, then received her master’s in biology education in her home state of North Carolina at U.N.C. Chapel Hill. She is passionate about teaching energy conservation and hopes to get you thinking about how to use energy use efficiently to save both money and reduce greenhouse warming gases.

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