Woodstock tackles the scourge of single-use plastic

“One coffee to go.”

“Sure. Did you bring your own reusable cup, or do you need a disposable cup?”

This conversation may become standard at Woodstock cafés, as the Rethink Disposables Working Group rolls out an initiative to reduce the quantity of single-use plastic littering our environment. 

You’ll welcome the chance to change your habits if you’re appalled by such phenomena as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, an accumulation of plastic that covers a surface area of nearly one million square miles, over twice the size of Texas. Researchers estimate the patch, which swirls across the ocean between Hawaii and California, contains 80,000 tons of plastic, and it’s only one of several massive accumulations in our seas. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the patches include microplastics, tiny shards that break away and are mistaken for food by wildlife, with the potential to enter the human food chain.

Advertisement

Scientists and explorers, having studied the garbage patches, say the best way to keep them from growing is to reduce the amount of plastic we throw away. So it comes down to individuals who make simple yet challenging shifts in behavior — bringing their own takeout containers, rejecting plastic straws, carrying water bottles instead of buying bottled water. Since such steps are easy to forget until they become habitual, the Working Group wants businesses to gently remind customers they have a choice.

Businesses also need to be educated. “I have a shopping bag full of reusable containers in my trunk,” said Iris Marie Bloom, a Working Group member who is also the director of the grassroots nonprofit Protecting Our Waters. “When I go to a shop or restaurant for takeout, I bring in a container. At Emmanuel’s [supermarket in Stone Ridge], I still have to insist, but at Yum Yum and Santa Fe, if I provide a nice clean container, they’re happy to put the food in it.” 

David Gross of the Woodstock Environmental Commission said the Woodstock Apothecary allows him to reuse prescription bottles. “At CVS, they said it was illegal. I called the Health Department, and they said that was untrue. I said they should let pharmacies know it’s legal and environmentally wonderful.”

Jo Schwartz, a Transition Woodstock member who has been working for years to help local residents and restaurants compost food scraps, said plastics and composting go hand in hand, with food as the common denominator. “Sunfrost is way ahead of the pack,” she noted. “They’re not carrying all those packaged fruits and vegetables that are on the market.”

Sharon Burns-Leader of Bread Alone is already moving away from single-use disposables at the bakery’s four area restaurants, while trying to wean customers off such items as takeout cups and straws. The issue is often emotional. “My staff have been called both ‘communists’ and ‘turtle killers,’” Burns-Leader reported, “sometimes on the same day.” Staff support is clearly needed as well.

The Woodstock Rethink Disposables initiative began when Bloom brought a resolution to the Environmental Commission, which recommended it to the town board. Passing a law against disposables would be a challenge. Instead, the board approved the resolution, which recommends that businesses and individuals avoid single-use plastics. It suggests that restaurants ask first instead of automatically supplying customers with straws, stirrers, to-go cups, lids, plastic cutlery, chopsticks, and clamshell containers. Businesses are also encouraged to serve food and drinks in plates, bowls, cups, or glasses whenever possible. Residents are advised to bring their own containers, avoid buying items packed in single-use plastic, and refuse plastic cups and straws when dining out.

When the resolution was passed in April, there were objections to the prospect of businesses being forced to purchase compostable takeout items, at a significant increase in cost. Bloom emphasized that the resolution does not carry the force of law, so no business will be required to replace disposables with biodegradables, which are not the ideal solution anyway. The goal is to save business owners money by changing the habits of staff and customers.

If, for example, instead of automatically handing out a certain number of napkins or straws, staff ask customers what they need, restaurants will find their usage of those items reduced, said Gross. Research has shown that over 72 percent of the people who are given straws they don’t ask for, do not want the straws. “We are working hard to think creatively together with the business community and the general public,” said Bloom. 

However, habits die hard, and it’s become clear that a firmer push is required to persuade people to make changes. “We want to get away from ubiquitous paper coffee cups, which are lined with polyethylene,” Bloom said. “It’s toxic, and it comes from fracking, which is bad for the air, the climate, and water. I see people sitting in a coffee shop for two hours, sipping from a disposable cup, and then throwing it away.” 

By way of further encouragement, the Working Group has drafted a letter from the town to businesses, outlining steps they can take. The minimum measure is to “ask first” before providing single-use items. The next level is to provide them only on request, while a more radical step would be to ban disposables from the premises. A graphic designer is working on an attractive decal that shops and restaurants can put in the window to affirm their basic “ask first” practice.  

An email or two will also go to businesses, and then Working Group members will visit in person to see how they can help. “Each business has different kinds of challenges,” said Bloom, “whether they serve pizza or ice cream, offer fancy dining in or a lot of takeout. We want to help them find resources to hopefully save money as well as protect the environment, which we know they all want to do.”

Most businesses that habitually serve with disposables have never done the math to determine the cost, as compared to washing dishes. Bloom said the savings can be dramatic. One school district that made the shift ended up saving $22,000 a year.

When it comes to reducing the use of plastic bottles containing shampoo, lotions, dish detergent, laundry soap, and other cleaning and beauty supplies, Woodstock already has a resource. Bring Your Own, a shop at 33 Tinker Street, offers these products in bulk. Just bring in a container, have it weighed, and fill it in the shop. An abundance of other items are for sale, from substitutes for plastic wrap to washable flannel squares for removing make-up.

Ulster County has banned single-use plastic shopping bags and recently passed a “skip the straw” law forbidding businesses to give out plastic straws unless requested by the customer. On October 15, the county legislature voted to add cutlery, stirrers, and condiment packets to that list. Bloom would like to see an ordinance like one passed in Berkeley that requires businesses to charge a 25-cent fee on any single-use cup to encourage a bring-your-own cup habit, with the fee supporting the businesses in their efforts.

Schwartz is hoping the trend will reach the state level, now that the legislature has a Democratic majority. “It’s time to push and catch up to Nepal. They banned single-use plastics in the Mount Everest region. They removed three metric tons of trash from Mount Everest in May of 2019. Isn’t Overlook Mountain just as good as Mount Everest?”

But change is difficult, so the Working Group is starting with “ask first” and hoping to build up to stronger measures. “People will take pride in this,” said Schwartz. “It’ll be a wonderful thing.”


What about recycling?

“Don’t stop, but don’t have the illusion that it’s a solution,” said Iris Marie Bloom of the Woodstock Rethink Disposables Working Group. “Only nine percent of all plastics ever manufactured have been recycled.” The toxic process of making plastic also requires a high level of fossil fuel energy, much of it provided by fracking. Meanwhile, many plastics can’t be recycled, including those clamshell containers.

Instead of going by the numbers in the little recycling symbols, the Ulster County Resource Recovery Agency (UCRRA) tells people to consider the shape of the item when deciding whether it’s recyclable. “If it’s a bottle, jug, tub, lid, or jar, we would accept it,” said recycling coordinator Angelina Peone. “We can’t take single-use plastic straws, forks, or cold cup drink containers.” Items that have no market for recycling end up in the already overburdened landfill, where they don’t break down. 

Keep recycling those bottles and tubs, which are sorted and pressurized into giant bales for sale to manufacturers that further shred them or create pellets, fibers, or flakes. Some resins can then be converted back into containers. Others are downcycled into products such as park benches, picnic tables, sleeping bags, or clothing. “These objects can’t be recycled further,” said Peone, “so it’s important to reduce our use of plastics.”

The UCRRA offers tours of its Kingston recycling facility. Community groups, schools, and groups of private citizens are welcome to make an appointment by contacting the recycling coordinator at apeo@ucrra.org.