Single-Use Plastic Is a Big Pandemic Problem. Environmentalists and Local Leaders Have a Plan

Takeout accoutrements are piling up in our homes, landfills, and on our coasts, but the #SkiptheStuff campaign is pushing for legislation to curb it
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Do you have a drawer filled with a stash of plastic knives and ketchup packages that you’ve inadvertently collected by ordering takeout and delivery during the pandemic? “We all have one. I absolutely have one too,” says Emily Parker, coastal and marine scientist for Heal the Bay and co-chair of Reusable L.A., by phone. Parker and her colleagues refer to these items as “zero use.”

Unlike single-use plastics, these won’t be used at all. They’re more likely to sit in that drawer until you decide to throw out everything. Right now, Heal the Bay and Reusable L.A., along with some city and county legislatures, are working to curb that waste, which reports have shown has increased since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Reusable L.A., a coalition of local organizations that includes Heal the Bay, recently launched the #SkiptheStuff campaign to urge legislative action to require restaurants and delivery services to only provide items like straws, utensils, napkins, and condiment packs upon request. In January, Los Angeles City Council members Paul Koretz and Paul Krekorian motioned for the city to draft an ordinance to do just that. With the County Board of Supervisors, Sheila Kuehl made a similar motion. Meanwhile, Reusable L.A. has a petition that locals can sign to support these efforts.

“This is part of a larger, more comprehensive approach to limiting single-use plastics,” says Krekorian by phone.

Back in 2018, Krekorian and Koretz introduced a motion to develop a broad policy to reduce single-use plastics in the city. The following year, L.A. County, which is working in collaboration with the city on this effort, commissioned UCLA Luskin Center for Innovation to report on the impact that plastics have on our wastestreams. The findings, released in February of 2020, showed that single-use food service had a significant presence, which poses an issue given that these items are not recycled. “The answer has to be use reduction, not recycling,” says Krekorian.

 

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The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic brought about changes in our trash and it wasn’t necessarily for the better. Heal the Bay saw that when the organization hosted its Coastal Cleanup Month last year. “For the first time ever in the 35 years we’ve been conducting these cleanups, we found personal protective equipment in the top ten items,” says Parker.

But, they saw more than just the increase in PPE. Single-use foodware products, like cups, utensils, and straws, climbed higher in the list of items spotted during the cleanup as well. “We’re not only noticing anecdotally that our use of plastics have gone up, but we’re seeing it in the data as well,” says Parker.

It’s decreasing the use of plastic foodware that is the more attainable goal at the moment. Krekorian says that it’s become more difficult, even for those who are mindful about their plastics use, to cut back on single-use plastics since the pandemic began, in part because of a switch to takeout from in-person restaurant dining. “That means that you’re going to get a dramatic increase in the use of these plastic utensils that go with takeout meals,” he says, “and that was part of the motivation for this motion.”

A by-request system would mean that those who do need items like a straw or a few extra napkins, can get them. However, customers won’t automatically find several sets of cutlery in their delivery order when they plan on using what they already have at home. This may also have a benefit for restaurants. Both Parker and Krekorian say that the move could help restaurants save money spent to stock up on these items.

Some delivery apps are already going in this direction. In late February, Grubhub issued a press release that they will be moving to a by-request system in the coming months. The takeout and delivery platform has been collaborating with L.A.-based Habits of Waste on developing this plan.

Beyond the immediate goal, #SkiptheStuff is a way to keep the conversation about single-use plastics going during the pandemic and a chance to re-engage people in making long-term changes in the Los Angeles area.

“We are at a crossroads right now and we have an opportunity to make some really big changes,” says Parker. “I feel those changes coming down the pipeline soon and they need to happen. It’s now or never.”


RELATED: The Pandemic Is Making L.A.’s Recycling Problem Much, Much Worse


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