This post was originally published in July 2020 by Shelby Bell and has been updated.
When synthetic plastic was invented in the early 1900s, it was seen as a once-in-a-century innovation that would change society as people knew it. Today, it has become an ecological and societal problem we’ll be dealing with for centuries to come.
Plastic is everywhere. According to a 2017 study, researchers estimated the world had created 8.3 billion metric tons of virgin plastic to date. Additionally, over half of all plastics were produced in the past two decades, with some estimates suggesting production could double from today’s figures (currently around 368 million metric tons/year) by 2050.
Developed for practical purposes like electrical insulation and car parts, its creators couldn’t have envisioned how ingrained with everyday life plastics would become, nor could they imagine a future where consumers would throw away their life’s work after a single use.
Single-use and “disposable” plastics—such as thin plastic film for packaging, lightweight water bottles, and durable plastic bags—account for roughly 50% of all modern production. Designed with convenience in mind, there’s often no second thought as to what comes next for the products.
That’s why, globally, less than 9% of all plastics are recycled. Looking deeper, despite being plastic’s most easily recyclable polymers, the rate for PET and HDPE (famously used for bottles and bags) barely scratches 15% (by the most favorable estimates).
So, where does it go instead? 79% of the world’s plastic now resides in landfills or the natural environment—a crisis many experts suggest is completely out of control.
Plastic Free July, a global movement created by Plastic Free Foundation, encourages us to take control back in how we use (or don’t use) single-use plastic. And it’s time for everyone to join in!
Breaking your reliance on plastic will be a challenge, so consider the following tips, advice, and activities, a playbook for the habit-breaking, sustainable month to come.
What is Plastic Free July?
Plastic Free July began in 2011 with a simple idea: small changes can have a big impact in addressing plastic pollution. Born as a small initiative in Western Australia, an estimated 326 million participants in 177 countries have joined the annual movement that targets everyday reduction of single-use plastics at home, work, school, or restaurants.
The campaign has proven to be successful as much as it is influential, with participants reporting reductions in their household waste and recycling by 46 pounds per person per year (almost 5%), and 85% recognize they’ve established lasting habits beyond the month. Altogether, the collective action of Plastic Free July results in a total savings of 940 million kilograms (over 2 billion pounds) of plastic waste each year.
Widely accessible, Plastic Free Foundation makes it convenient to get started by helping individuals pledge to participate on different levels, whether it’s one day, one week, the entire month, or a more permanent shift. You can also choose how you would like to participate, whether it’s by avoiding single-use plastic packaging only, targeting the “Top 4”, or aiming to go completely plastic-free.
At RoadRunner, an integrated waste and recycling management company operating in the US, our organization has a history of actively participating in and advocating for the month-long endeavor. Going into our third year, and combining our own industry knowledge with suggestions from the Plastic Free Foundation, we’re now consulting for other businesses taking the pledge.
How Can Your Business Participate in Plastic Free July?
#1 - Break Old Habits
On an individual and organizational level, a behavioral change is required to make progress. And for many, it’s recognizing the error of traditional ways.
An excerpt from our recent article on Extended Producer Responsibility…
“To create new products, natural resources are extracted for the Earth, manufactured into products, sold to consumers, and used until they are discarded as waste (which explains how humans produce over two billion metric tons of municipal solid waste worldwide annually).”
This is an example of a linear economy, and for the most part, this is America’s current reality. Rampant consumerism (encouraging buying in ever-increasing amounts), a fast-paced lifestyle that lends significant value to convenience, and a lack of accountability for products’ end of life means single-use plastics are used and discarded with reckless abandon—often straight to landfill. For instance, less than 30% of all plastic bottles were recycled in 2018.
The issue is that single-use plastics are designed for a single use. These plastics are often durable yet cheap; solid yet can be a conglomeration of multiple materials; and most importantly, single-use plastics are prevalent yet not widely accepted by recyclers.
Thus, your first action should be to recognize opportunities where plastics are unnecessary. Eschewing convenience for eco-conscience, avoiding unnecessary plastic in everyday life could look like bringing your own bag to the grocery store, using refillable containers, or having a discussion with your business’s supply chain partners to forgo superfluous plastic packaging.
#2 - Target the “Top 4”
While there is no official ranking for the worst of the worst, there’s a general consensus that the largest environmental and recycling challenges come from single-use plastics used in the restaurant takeout and retail sectors.
Plastic Free July names a “Top 4”, essentially a blacklist of items you should go to lengths to avoid for this month and beyond. On the list: single-use plastic straws, takeaway coffee cups, grocery/retail bags, and plastic water bottles.
Why reduce these in particular? For one, these single-use plastics wreak havoc on the ocean, especially plastic bags. An estimated eight million metric tons of plastic enter the ocean each year and contribute to concentrated polluted zones like The Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
Another problem is how these plastics degrade. Built to last, these synthetic polymers are known to fragment into tiny pieces known as microplastics. In the natural environment, they trickle into our seas, embed in our soil, float through the air, and end up in the food and drinking water we consume.
Sent to landfill, where solid waste is compacted tightly in oxygen-deprived pits, plastic bottles can take 450 years to decompose, plastic bags linger for nearly 1,000, and in the right conditions, polystyrene cups and containers will endure indefinitely.
[More from RoadRunner’s Waste Watchers blog: The Decomposition Clock]
Recycling, too, isn’t a perfect solution. Traditional haulers won’t accept plastic bags in your recycling cans, as they can tangle and wrap up in the machinery at recycling facilities (called MRFs), often jamming or breaking the whole process. Meanwhile, the coffee cups from your local coffee stop are listed as contaminants, whereas the paper exterior is very difficult to separate from its leak-proof plastic liner on the interior.
Thus, targeting the Top 4 is about refusing the materials at the source and being prepared with alternatives.
•One reusable metal straw could replace 540 disposable plastic straws per year.
•Using one reusable coffee cup can replace 500 disposable cups per year.
•One reusable shopping bag could replace 170 plastic grocery bags per year.
•Using one reusable water bottle for an entire year can save the average person 167 plastic bottles.
Many organizations have found success in supplying reusable alternatives to their employees, learning that it not only helps them reduce their environmental footprint but also helps save money too! RoadRunner discovered this firsthand...
#3 - Conduct a Waste Audit
Studying your trash doesn’t seem like the most glamorous job, but knowing how much and what kinds of waste your business is producing is a huge opportunity to not only reduce your organization’s reliance on single-use plastics but also improve your recycling rate and save on operational costs.
For example, if your audit discloses a bunch of disposable coffee pods in your company’s waste, simply choosing to switch to a reusable coffee pod or a drip coffee machine could help save hundreds of plastic pods from reaching landfills every year.
A routine waste audit can be revelatory, and to aid the process, we have a step-by-step guide. Once completed, bring the audit’s findings to your procurement, or sustainability team, and discuss how best to replace some of your largest single-use plastic contributors.
#4 - Take (and Share) the Challenge
Plastic Free July is not about cutting plastic out completely, but more so about recognizing the sweeping changes we can make as a society, as businesses, and as individuals to alter our habits in a way that reduces plastic and avoids unnecessary pollutants in our everyday lives.
Whether it’s educating your colleagues on which plastic numbers are recyclable or taking a moment to reflect on your own plastic usage with Plastic Free Foundation’s “Pesky Plastic Quiz”, being able to take action—individually or at an organizational level—and influence change is what this is all about.
As such, we invite you to share in RoadRunner’s own challenge for plastic reduction this July. In addition to Plastic Free July’s pledge, see how many boxes you and your colleagues can tick off throughout the month.
How to Handle Unavoidable Plastic Use
As we mentioned, this will not be an easy challenge—and for all of your efforts, some plastic may still be unavoidable. When that happens, you need to consider what responsible end-of-life management looks like for that product or packaging. And the best option for unwanted plastic is to recycle it.
RoadRunner partners with businesses across the United States to make recycling more accessible, more streamlined, and more cost-effective. It’s with even more pride that we can boast raising our clients’ recycling rates over 60% and ensure that 99% of recyclable materials (including plastics) are actually recycled. For us, it’s a commitment we stand by every month, every day, and every year—reach out to get started.