Moving Beyond Recycling in Government

There is too much plastic in the world. According to CNN, “Nearly every piece of plastic ever made still exists today. More than five trillion pieces of plastic are already in the oceans, and by 2050 there will be more plastic in the sea than fish, by weight, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.

Plastic is bad for the environment, “Some 8 million tons of plastic trash leak into the ocean annually, and it’s getting worse every year. Americans are said to use 2.5 million plastic bottles every hour.” Plastic kills fish, gets wrapped around sea animals and creates floating islands of debris that are taking over our oceans.

There are a number of bills to ban plastic out there. In Yonkers, where I work, and in New York State there are bills that would ban plastic bags. Personally, I am not a fan because I think it adversely impacts low-income people and because canvas bags might actually be worse for the environment than the plastic ones they are meant to replace. In 2008, the UK Environment Agency (UKEA) published a study of resource expenditures for various bags: paper, plastic, canvas and recycled-polypropylene tote bags. Surprisingly, the authors found that in typical patterns of use and disposal, consumers seeking to minimize pollution and carbon emissions should use plastic grocery bags and then reuse those bags at least once—as trash-can liners or for other secondary tasks.

Conventional plastic bags made from high-density polyethylene (HDPE, the plastic sacks found at grocery stores) had the smallest per-use environmental impact of all those tested. Cotton tote bags, by contrast, exhibited the highest and most severe global-warming potential by far since they require more resources to produce and distribute.

Another option is the biodegradable plastic bags I received when I bought groceries in Italy almost a decade ago. I brought some home to the United States and put them in a compost heap at the Battery Park City Authority where I worked at the time. Battery Park City had the first LEED certified residential tower in America, the Solaire and everything we did was green or sustainable.  The bags did in fact decay as I was told by the compost guru, but like in all compost situations, the compost must be churned to allow for oxygen to help break down the materials. This churning does not happen in regular landfills.

So how else can we help save our planet as government workers? I personally brought in random utensils and dishes for my office staff to use and re-use. I bought them at a consignment store. It takes a little extra effort but isn’t our planet worth it?

Recently, our deputy mayor wondered why we even had plastic cups attached to the water bottle for staff. Shouldn’t, he opined, everyone be using re-useable cups or glasses? Everyone started to go a little crazy in our office because they thought we had gone too far. But I don’t think so since 6 million tons of single-use plastic gets thrown out every year .

How do we combat that? When I was touring the WWII museum I noticed the display of all the items issued to our troops during the war. The United States government issued items that varied from folding shovels to mess kits. What government workers wouldn’t want a modern mess kit (“modern” = microwaveable) that sported the seal of their great municipality, state or federal government agency? How cool would that be? And how inexpensive when you consider how it could save the planet? A mess kit with utensils retails for $19.99 at www.Colemans.com.

If something is good enough for the men and women who serve our country in the military, it sure is good enough for me. It’s time to move beyond recycling plastic and back to a time when we didn’t even use it to begin with. I, for one, can’t wait to see my City of Yonkers-issued spork!  

Wilson Kimball is part of the GovLoop Featured Contributor program, where we feature articles by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Contributor posts, click here.

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