Plastics Reduction: A Resource Guide
As a follow-up to our December webinar, we’ve put together the following guide to explain and provide more information about the methods that Monterey Bay Aquarium and Phipps Conservatory Botanical Garden used to reduce their single-use plastic waste. This article describes different approaches and tools to reducing plastic, including both top-down and bottom-up approaches, waste audits, and staff engagement via a plastics hackathon.
Plastic is pervasive in the retail and service industries, from bags and utensils to containers and packaging. Not only does plastic pollute our ecosystem, but it also produces a significant carbon footprint to create, destroy and/or recycle. Plastic production contributes 232 million tons of CO2 emissions per year. Plastic is also subject to a poor chain of custody, in which much plastic that is thought to be recycled is actually thrown into a landfill. Sadly, less than 9% of all plastic is recycled or reused. The average amount of plastic waste that is discarded into landfills each year is 300 million tons. Even when we do recycle, the process involves emitting immense amounts of carbon; recycling (or incineration) produces about fifteen million tons of greenhouse gases. No matter how you use plastics, carbon emissions are being released. You can find this information and more details on the contributions of plastics to climate change in the report The New Coal: Plastics and Climate Change, a resource from Beyond Plastics.
Where to Start
In a world where plastic is so ubiquitous that it’s easy to ignore in day-to-day operations, finding a place to start to reduce your consumption can be difficult. One of the best ways to start a project is to think about is your approach to reduction.
A top-down approach is where managers and executives make decisions that trickle down throughout the system; a bottom-up approach is where employees create ideas or projects that can trickle upward. These methods complement one another, allowing an organization to both make immediate, effective change when possible and help ensure commitment and enthusiasm throughout the workforce to catch details that fall outside the purview of high-level planning.
Phipps Conservatory used both top-down and bottom-up approaches to reduce their plastic usage. From the top-down perspective, Phipps leadership worked directly with management of its café to mandate a holistic approach to plastics reduction. Through this collaboration, Phipps was able to eliminate all plastic utensils, cups, water bottles, lids, silverware, and plates with compostable or reusable alternatives. One of the biggest components was the elimination of soda and plastic water bottles and the installation of water refilling stations throughout the conservatory.
To complement a bottom-up approach, Phipps embraced the hackathon event format to create an opportunity for employees to brainstorm solutions to plastic reduction. A Hackathon is an event that allows employees to create solutions to problems. Hackathons began as an opportunity for technology professionals to collaborate and solve technical problems; today, schools, businesses, communities, governments and nonprofits are using hackathons to design solutions to numerous problems, including the issue of single-use plastics.
Justin Stockdale of the Pennsylvania Resources Council served as an expert advisor for the six-hour hackathon event. Thirty-one employees from across all Phipps departments voluntarily signed up to participate. Employees were split up into groups focusing on subjects including compostable alternatives, plastic consumption and redistribution, plastic waste in horticulture, plastic usage by guests, plastic used for distributing flowers, and plastic signage and packaging materials. The event generated forty-two innovative ideas about how to reduce plastics within all departments. The list of ideas is attached below. Some of these thoughts are small and some larger, but hackathons support all ideas.
The event ignited a will to continue to reduce plastics, and eight employees decided to create a Plastic Reduction Team to continue honing these efforts. Phipps employees have successfully implemented nine of these ideas into the horticulture, marketing, events, and education departments, with more to come.
Monterey Bay Aquarium is a leader of sustainability and climate-related education; their mission is rooted in sustainability and their projects go beyond the walls of the aquarium to model best practices for their guests and communities. Monterey’s relationship to plastic reductions starts with the ocean; about 9 million tons of plastic pieces are estimated to be thrown into the ocean every year. Claudia Pineda Tibbs, sustainability manager of Monterey Bay Aquarium, describes how a waste audit was used to evaluate and reduce their plastic consumption, overall findings from the audit, and challenges and opportunities of their plastic consumption.
“The Monterey County recycling plant stopped receiving certain types of plastics, so our zoologists had to rethink how and what we were feeding our animals. Sadly, what our animals eat falls under veterinary diet, so this was difficult to make any changes. Our staff decided to complete a waste audit at the beginning of 2020 to evaluate our waste sorting. Waste was collected for 24 hours all over the campus including areas such as visitor, café, parking lots, and employee restricted areas. Waste audits are an assessment of a facilities’ waste program, usually to see if there are any misconnections about how to sort the trash or to gage what your employees or guests are bringing to your site. Audits are helpful tracking tools to establish a baseline of your institution’s waste consumption, how you are sorting, and to see if you need another trash avenue.”
|Type of Trash||Generation %||Pounds||Amount that could be diverted||Contamination|
The overall findings of the waste audit are shown above. “Very insightful, fascinating, and disgusting” is how Tibbs describes the process. As you can see, composting efforts represented the highest amount of generation with the lowest amount of contamination. “About 40% of our trash is going to a landfill of which 80% could be diverted depending on the county. Education amongst our guests and our staff is extremely important to help encourage correct sorting. Our staff has worked diligently to sort café waste into their correct bins and reduce our waste. Retail and culinary partners have been super helpful; some of our retail suppliers have stopped wrapping their products in plastic and instead use cardboard which is compostable.” Monterey Bay Aquarium reached out to their culinary suppliers including Mission Creamery who now have changed the way they ship their product to reduce plastic consumption.
One of the most challenging issues that most institutions who serve guests face is reducing the waste that visitors bring onsite. Institutions can reduce the amount of plastic they produce but will still have to try to divert the waste that their guests bring onto their site. At Monterey Bay, student lunches were observed to contain a multitude of plastic wraps. Another prevalent issue is that the waste collection site controls what can and cannot be recycled. “The county used to have an anaerobic digester that can break down less nutrient-filled products such as paper towels, but it is not in use anymore. Because we cannot control what the county takes, our plastic diversion depends on the county.”
For more on waste auditing, check out Harvard University’s Sustainability at Harvard article, “How to Host a Waste Audit.”
As we are reducing and changing waste systems, keeping our guests involved and engaged is essential. Some of the ways to encourage visitors are to reduce their plastic consumption include signage, education, items selected to feature in your gift shop, and more.
Both Phipps Conservatory and Monterey Bay Aquarium are using two different approaches to encouraging their guests to reduce their plastic. An educational gyre exhibit made of recycled plastics explores the idea of plastic getting stuck within the ocean. The aquarium is committed to encouraging our guests to also reduce their plastics consumption by selling reusable water bottles, bags, and other plastic replacements and not providing plastics within the café and retail shops. Refill water stations are accessible throughout the exhibits encourage reusable water bottles. Phipps Conservatory uses signage to educate its guests about what they can throw away, including 3-d depictions of each common item and where it should go. The signage is important to our guests who might not know what is compostable and what is not.
For more on engaging others to reduce single-use plastics, check out these resources.
- On Plastic Waste:
- The New Coal: Plastics and Climate Change
- (Beyond Plastics)
- More Plastic Is on the Way: What It Means for Climate Change
- (Columbia Climate School)
- 10 ways your zoo or aquarium can reduce plastic use
- (The Ocean Project)
- How to reduce your single-use plastic at your zoo or aquarium
- (World Zoo and Aquarium Association)
- The New Coal: Plastics and Climate Change