7 Ways for Cities to Reduce Plastic Pollution

By Jan Dell

Plastic pollution is a blight in our cities and landscapes and is harming our rivers and oceans. Experts estimate that 300,000 metric tonnes of plastic waste from the United States (U.S.) pollute the ocean every year, which is about 65 dump trucks of plastic waste per day. News of plastic pollution in the U.S. continues to make headlines:

The time has come to move beyond blaming litterbugs and relying on volunteers to lead community cleanups after the pollution has occurred. The smart, sustainable strategy is to look upstream at the root of the problem and stop it before it starts.

In the U.S., analysis of items collected during cleanups of beaches and rivers shows that disposable plastic items used “on-the-go” are most commonly found: plastic bags, cigarette butts, bottles, caps, straws, food wrappers and food containers. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the average plastic bag takes up to 1,000 years to break down. Even when broken down, the plastic can remain in the environment and the food chain. The problem is growing worse with the increasing trend to “convenient” consumption and the massive expansion of cheap new plastic production in the U.S. Gulf Coast.

Throughout the U.S., local governments are responsible for solid waste management including litter prevention and collection, recycling, storm drain maintenance, tourism promotion, community health, and protecting the local environment. Plastic pollution negatively impacts each of these community functions and costs precious taxpayer dollars. As the sight of overflowing public trash cans becomes commonplace, it’s clear that existing approaches alone fail to stem plastic pollution. There is simply too much plastic packaging waste generated and cities can’t afford to pay for capture and management of all of it.

Cities can use proven techniques to decrease the amount of plastic pollution generated and capture it before it spreads to landscapes and waterways. While each city’s specific tactics should be customized to local conditions, reduction of pollution at a low cost can be achieved through a combination of leveraging local regulatory authority, requiring retailer responsibility, collaborating with partners and engaging citizens to solve pollution hot spots. 

1. Legislate Restrictions on Single Use Plastic Distribution

Many single-use plastic items are made of low-value material that makes them widely available but economically impractical to collect and recycle. When there are reusable alternatives and better materials available, the best solution is to eliminate the items from use. Plastic straws, plastic bags and expanded polystyrene (EPS) foam food containers quickly fall into the better-to-eliminate category worldwide, as described in the Ban 2.0 List (PDF).

Legislative action to restrict single use plastic distribution is an effective way to decrease plastic pollution. To achieve their responsibilities at minimal costs to citizens, local U.S. governments are enacting plastic bag fees and bans, restrictions on plastic straws and prohibition of EPS foam food containers. The local plastic bag fees and bans have proven effective in cutting litter, reducing taxpayer costs and improving recycling because plastic bags harm municipal recycling systems by clogging machines.

Plastic bag, straw, and EPS foam ordinances have been passed in over 300 U.S. cities and a few states. The National Coalition of Environmental Legislators (NCEL) reports that 32 statesare now considering over 180 pieces of legislation to address plastic pollution.

The ability of a U.S. city to legislate restrictions on single use plastics depends on the state. Due to pressure by plastics and retail industry lobbyists, statewide preemption laws have passed prohibiting about 116 million Americans in 16 states from enacting bag ordinances to reduce plastic waste and pollution in their communities.

Legislation toolkits for communities and states to create ordinances to restrict or ban plastic items have been developed by SurfriderPlastic Pollution Coalition and others.

2. Promote Water Refill Stations and Reverse Vending Machines in Public Places

The best strategy to cut plastic beverage bottle pollution is to make it easy for people to use fewer disposable bottles and to ensure that no bottle is left behind.

Public water refill stations are key to decreasing single use plastic water bottle consumption. Cities and their water agencies benefit from installing water refill stations which offer a filling function in addition to a drinking fountain. People are provided with free sources of high-quality drinking water and plastic waste is reduced.

Eastern Municipal Water District (EMWD) in Southern California, in partnership with other local agencies, has installed nearly 120 water bottle fill stations at schools and popular community facilities. Wall-mounted or free-standing stations are designed to provide local students and members of t
he community with access to safe and reliable tap water to refill personal, reusable bottles. 

Incentivized reverse vending (IRV) succeeds in stopping plastic bottle pollution and is gaining attention around the world. When mandated by container deposit laws, reverse vending machines offer a convenient way for consumers to return their bottles and claim deposit refunds. Voluntary reverse vending programs, led by nonprofit, public and private-sector groups, are also beginning to spring up in diverse locations. Incentivized by cash refunds (London, U.K.), prizes (Abu Dhabi), metro transit tickets (Istanbul, Turkey), or paid telephone cards (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia), consumers willingly return their empty bottles to collection machines. Fewer PET bottles are littered and a cleaner stream of material for recycling is created.

In the United Kingdom where there is not yet a deposit container law in place, research shows 81% of people said they would voluntarily go out their way to deposit a bottle or can. Figure 2 shows an online global map that has been created with examples of incentivized reverse vending programs around the world. Key elements of each program and references are provided. 

3. Recognize Leaders Cutting Plastic Waste to Propagate Their Practices

Recognition for restaurants and retailers that employ reusable containers, such as Just Salad in New York City, rewards efforts that reduce plastic waste, pollution and city sanitation costs. Surfrider’s Ocean Friendly Restaurant program supports committed restaurants with collaborative promotions and marketing materials. Recognized restaurants become influential leaders in their community and models to show businesses can be successful while shrinking their plastic footprint.

4. Require Retailer Rubbish Responsibility

Retail, gas station, and fast food businesses create profits and plastic pollution by attracting consumers to their stores and selling them disposable items to be consumed on-the-go. Figure 3 shows the plastic pollution pathway of items from one overflowing trash can at a suburban retail center in Houston, Texas. The trash is blown into trees, the nearby neighborhood bayou where birds and turtles feed, and a storm drain that leads to the Gulf of Mexico with turtle habitats. Unfortunately, this sight is common at other retail centers across the country and world. 

A survey of the 100 largest retailers and 25 largest fast food companies in the U.S. showed that not a single company reported on their policies and or practices to stop litter in their parking lots or in their urban area. The businesses should be held accountable for the plastic pollution they cause and not rely on volunteers like Newell Nussbaumer in Buffalo, New York who regularly cleans his neighborhood because of the litter generated around stores.

Many retailers refuse to take responsibility for the litter created in their parking lots. When a complaint was made to a major retailer at the Houston retail center shown in Figure 3, the store manager’s response was “Those aren’t our parking lots”. This rationale is illegitimate because the parking lots exist to serve the stores. This rationale is reminiscent of consumer product companies stating “Those aren’t our factories” about sweatshop conditions in supply chains in the mid-1990s. Consumers demanded improvement in supply chain factories then and should demand retailers maintain clean parking lots now.

A simple course of action is a city requirement for all fast food operations to have trash cans at the exit of the drive-through lanes to avoid on-the-go disposal of fast food packaging. It goes without saying that the trash cans must be emptied before they overflow. Retailers and cities can also use new innovations such as smart trash bins to securely capture waste plastics.

5. Identify Pollution Hot Spots & Lead Focused Campaigns

The reality is that litter laws exist, but enforcement can be burdensome and costly if city staff are employed to continually monitor many locations across a wide area. Smart tools, networking applications, and social media can help cities identify plastic pollution hot spots to focus on and address in a cost-effective manner.

Litterati describes itself as a technology company empowering people to “crowdsource-clean” the planet. The free Litterati app allows individuals to take photos of litter on their phones and upload to a public map. The mapped data enables cities to remotely identify litter hot spots. According to Litterati, people in the Netherlands used the Litterati app to map pollution and created such an impact that the local McDonalds promised to clean up the community around their store.

Gallatin City-County Health Department in Montana is using the Litterati app to document cigarette butt litter to push for new policies for tobacco-free parks. As reported by CGN, two Health Department staff members, employees at other departments and members of the community are using the app to document litter related to tobacco use. In eight and a half hours of work, app users documented almost 4,000 pieces of cigarette butt litter: 1,515 pieces in five city parks and 2,400 in a five-block area of Main Street in downtown Bozeman.

Social media is another efficient method of identifying litter hot spots in communities. TwitterInstagram and NextDoor are regularly used by residents to lodge litter complaints. Monitoring of these sites by city officials is smart stakeholder engagement and an effective way to find major sources of litter in communities.

6. Support Container Deposit and Extended Producer Responsibility Laws at the State Level

Container deposit laws are made at the state level and should be supported by cities to increase return of plastic beverage bottles and cut plastic pollution. Container deposit laws (also known as bottle bills) require the collection of a deposit on beverage containers at the point of sale and refund the deposit when the container is returned. According to NCEL, ten states and Guam have a deposit-refund system for beverage containers.

Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) laws put significant responsibility on manufacturers for the end-of-life management of their products after they has been used. EPR legislation is designed to decrease source pollution and require manufacturers to use recyclable and recycled materials and develop recycling programs. EPR laws are now proposed for plastic packaging in California (AB1080) and Washington (SB5397).

7. Monitor Microplastic Pollution Levels and Emerging Innovations

In addition to visible plastic pollution, microplastic pollution to waterways and the ocean is a growing concern. It is an issue that cities and their water agencies should closely monitor to possibly act at the city level and to advise residents on what they can do at home. The Plastic Pollution Coalition has published a list of 15 Ways to Stop Microfiber Pollution Now aimed at individuals. As research progresses on the sources of the microplastics and the impacts on human health, further solutions will be invented, tested and made available to the public.

The City Changing Magic of Tidying Up

“The objective of cleaning is not just to clean, but to feel happiness living within that environment”… Marie Kondo, author of bestselling The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up.

It’s time to make community cleanup days a relic of the past and celebrate clean cities every day instead.

Jan Dell is an independent engineer on a quest to The Last Beach Cleanup working with investors and non-profit organizations to lead catalytic initiatives to reduce plastic pollution around the world


By Sandra Curtis

The buzz of anticipation was audible in the Brower Center theater awaiting the start of the evening’s program – Sea Change: From Plastic Straws to Local Laws on Wednesday, March 20.  The presenters did not disappoint, in fact, the crowd erupted in a standing ovation for the first presenters, ten year olds Sam (Domingo) and Fiona (Groth Reidy).  Students of Jacqueline Omania’s Zero Waste classroom at Berkeley’s Oxford School, their inspiring presentation chronicled the students involvement in passage of Berkeley’s groundbreaking Single Use Plastic and Waste Reduction Ordinance.   

The program featured some of the most passionate and persistent activists responsible for the strategy, language, surveying and implementation of Berkeley’s innovative ordinance, as well as those involved in the plastic pollution movement from gateway and global issues to health impacts.  The evening reflected the collective efforts of a grassroots movement begun almost ten years ago to stop plastic pollution.  It focuses on a system wide shift from disposable to reusables. The current disposable one is not only unsustainable, but unhealthy.

Dianna Cohen, Co-Founder and CEO of Plastic Pollution Coalition, introduced Open Your Eyes, a short video laying the foundation for the global problem of plastic pollution, followed by Jackie Nunez, founder of The Last Plastic Straw, who introduced the Straws film.  Labelling plastic straws as the “gateway issue” into plastic pollution, Jackie has been credited with sparking a global movement towards action to eliminate single-use plastic straws.

The informative panel included:

Council Member Sophie Hahn (Berkeley City Council Member, District 5) who co-authored introduced and shepherded the ordinance.  She provided a brief background on why it was important to sponsor the ordinance and the specific elements included.

Martin Bourque (ED, Ecology Center), Berkeley’s local champion for all things waste related and in particular, this ordinance.  He gave the local history of how the ordinance evolved.

Miriam Gordon (Upstream Policy Director) – a passionate leader and policy wonk on source reduction for much of her career.  Working mostly out of the limelight, she focused on crafting strategy and writing the ordinance language.  

Samantha Sommer (Waste Prevention Program Manager, ReThink Disposable) – turned the idea for reduction into quantifiable data and demonstrable financial savings for businesses. Her team surveyed businesses and customers, collecting valuable opinion data on elements of an ordinance that would have support.

Jacqueline Omania (Green Educator Leadership award, Oxford Elementary School), a passionate third grade teacher who has been running a Zero Waste classroom for five years, inspiring students like Sam and Fiona.  She took issue with who inspires whom, insisting that the students inspire her.

Dr. Barbara Cohn (ED Child Health and Development Studies) – Berkeley epidemiologist doing seminal research on the effects of toxic chemical exposure across generations and co-principal investigator with Dr. Sandra Curtis (PPC) on ReThink Plastic.  She acknowledged how positive the impacts of the foodware ordinance will be on upcoming generations, reducing the health impacts from the chemicals in plastic in such diseases as cancer, diabetes, obesity, and infertility.  

The audience engaged in a Q&A with the panelists, including Dianna Cohen and Jackie Nunez. The panelists engaged in Q&A among themselves. Guests circulated with the panelists, continuing more in-depth conversation while enjoying light desserts and drinks.

“Live Plastic Free” stainless steel cups were generously provided by John Borg of Steelys Drinkware.  

Notable PPC member Wavy Gravy attended, as did a number of the PPC’s fiscal sponsor, the Earth Island Institute.

The David Brower Center generously co-hosted the event.

Helpful links:

  • Plastic Pollution Coalition’s video Open Your Eyes, narrated by Jeff Bridges.

  • STRAWS film trailer – For showing the STRAWS film with speaker Jackie Nunez, please email her at jackie@plasticpollutioncoalition.org.

  • Berkeley’s Ecology Center. – A great resource to help you start living plastic free.  And for a fun fact, listen to Pete Seeger’s If It Can’t Be Reduced, ©2008 Pete Seeger and Martin Bourque – the lyrics are just as relevant today as it was when written.  

  • For help crafting an ordinance for your town modeled on Berkeley’s, contact Council Member Sophie Hahn here.

  • The work of many Coalition members has come to fruition this week with the BETA launch of the Global Legislative Toolkit for Plastic Pollution Reduction. Be among the first to explore and give feedback the toolkit, an online web-portal for policymakers and advocates to advance policies that reduce plastic pollution. The toolkit is the next step in working toward source reduction for plastic pollution globally.

More than 125 students from 8 countries and 6 U.S. states gathered in Dana Point, CA, February 22-24, for Algalita’s POPS International Youth Summit. The 3-day empowerment experience held at the Ocean Institute has helped support 181 grassroots projects in 21 countries since its inaugural year in 2011.

This year’s teams represented the U.S., New Zealand, Africa, and Tunisia, in both coastal and inland, rural, and urban, communities. From providing food banks with reusable bags to instituting reusable utensils in their school cafeteria, these teams are addressing plastic pollution locally and with culturally and regionally specific solutions.

Experts and workshop leaders included: Dr. Wallace “J” NicholsThe New York Times best selling author, scientist, and ocean conservation enthusiast; Stiv Wilson, Director of Campaigns at The Story of Stuff Project; youth eco-conscious-raising powerhouses from Bahamas Plastic Movement Kristal Ambrose and Will Simmons; Dianna Cohen, CEO of and co-founder of Plastic Pollution Coalition, Jackie Nuñez of The Last Plastic Straw, 5 Gyres Institute, Surfrider Foundation, Bureo; and Algalita’s Captain Charles Moore, who won the Peter Benchley Ocean “Hero of the Seas” Award, and whose best-selling book Plastic Ocean has brought worldwide attention to the phenomenon.

“We believe responsible solutions to plastic pollution are within reach, and we believe youth will accelerate the process,” said Katie Allen, Executive Director of Algalita. “Our team is 100% committed to preparing this new generation to take on the challenges ahead.”

Watch more videos of the Summit here.

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Plastic pollution is a growing global problem, and recycling rates for plastic are dropping across the U.S. and the world. The concept of using discarded plastic to pave roads has been hailed as a solution by viral videos and think pieces alike. But is using plastic for roads a viable solution to our global plastic pollution crisis?

Plastic Pollution Coalition’s Scientific Advisor, Pete Myers, Founder and Chief Scientist of Environmental Health Sciences calls it a “quintessentially bad idea.”

“For this to make a difference, it would have to go to scale, with massive numbers of roads being made of recycled plastic,” said Myers. “If it didn’t go to scale, it would become a boutique band-aid, allowing us to feel good about a faux solution but not really solving anything.”

According to Dr. Myers, using plastic for roads would even contribute to the problem:

“Roads degrade because they get abraded by vehicular traffic. That becomes massive amounts of micro and nano plastic particles as plastic dust. Storm runoff would carry it into the wastewater system or directly into surface waters. Air currents would transport it in the wind … Sooner or later a lot of it would wind up in the oceans. It would become even more of a problem than what we have today. Exactly how much of a problem would depend upon what mix of polymers were used and what additives might be in the plastics, as that would determine the particles’ toxicity. It’s terrifying to think about, frankly.”

The ultimate solutions to plastic pollution are the systemic ones that require individuals, businesses, and government officials working together, said Dianna Cohen, CEO Plastic Pollution Coalition.

“The idea that we can recycle our plastic into roads is just another false solution promoted by industry that does nothing towards source reduction,” she said. “It’s time to turn off the tap. We need a systems shift away from toxic plastics and towards systems of reuse.”

Don’t miss the top news on plastic pollution – Subscribe to Into the Plasticene.

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In a groundbreaking show of support for the planet and future generations, the Berkeley, CA City Council unanimously passed an ordinance focused on reducing waste and limiting single-use plastic on Tuesday, Jan. 22.

The Single-Use Foodware and Litter Reduction Ordinance will be fully implemented by January 1, 2022. A phase-in plan begins Jan. 1, 2020.

Community supporters filled Council chambers and cheered for the local elementary school students, who were dressed in vests attached with single-use plastic items. The students delivered speeches to garner council members’ support.

Martin Bourque, executive director of Berkeley’s Ecology Center and chief strategist for the ordinance, noted, “We cannot recycle our way out of the disposable foodware problem. We have to focus on reduction.”

Backed by a coalition of more than 1,400 local, national, and international organizations, a lineup of speakers in support of the measure addressed council for almost two hours.

Supporters included Plastic Pollution Coalition (PPC) members and partners UPSTREAM, The Story of Stuff Project, the GAIA (Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives), Steelys Planet, and the Surfrider Foundation, among others. A letter of support from PPC Notable Member and chef Alice Waters was mentioned during remarks.

Speakers included Annie Farman, a PPC Executive Advisory Board member, who worked closely with the business community to garner letters of support; Sandra Curtis, PPC’s Director of Innovative Projects, who focused her remarks on the health risks of single-use plastic from exposure from foodware; Annie Leonard, founder of The Story of Stuff Project and current Executive Director of Greenpeace USA; Angela Howe, Legal Director of Surfrider; Samantha Sommer, Waste Prevention Manager, ReThink Disposables, Clean Water Action; and Miriam Gordon, program director for UPSTREAM; in addition to members of the community.

Council member Hahn explained the need for the ordinance. Single-use disposable foodware and packaging (SUDs) – including plates, cutlery, cups, lids, straws, “clamshells” and other containers – are a major contributor to street litter, ocean pollution, marine and other wildlife harm and greenhouse gas emissions. The use of disposable foodware has grown exponentially over the past few decades. Because the environmental costs of these products are largely hidden to the business operator and consumer, little attention is paid to the quantity of packaging consumed and quickly thrown away. Reducing the use of these products in the City of Berkeley is a key strategy to achieve the City’s Zero Waste and Climate Action goals, and to address the many environmental impacts and costs associated with the use and disposal of single-use foodware and packaging. SUDs often become litter; therefore, minimizing their use will assist the City with achieving storm water program requirements and could reduce costs for maintenance of full trash capture devices that the City has installed in storm drains.

Initially introduced to Council last April, the ordinance was referred to the city’s Zero Waste Commission who held four public hearings and collected comments from over 60 restaurateurs, environmental advocates, members of the people with disabilities communities, and other community members.  This information was used to revise the ordinance.

While recognizing that change is difficult, Hahn stressed that the business community is their partner in this effort which will save the City and businesses money. The ReThink Disposables program under Clean Water Action provided data to demonstrate cost savings to businesses. City officials validated that they would be able to work within the Zero Waste budget allocation to implement the program.

Here’s what the ordinance will do:

Upon Passage of the Ordinance:

  • Accessory Disposable Foodware (forks, straws, lids, condiment packages and other small disposable items) will only be provided by request or at self-serve stations.

  • Food vendors may refuse to fill unsuitable or unsanitary cups provided by customers.

  • The City of Berkeley may only purchase and use reusable or BPI Certified Compostable foodware at its own facilities and City-Sponsored events.

  • Food Vendors that allow self-bussing will be required to provide three color-coded bins labeled for recyclables, compostables, and other waste.

Starting January 2020:

  • Disposable Foodware will be required to be BPI Certified Compostable (the City will post a list of suppliers offering compliant foodware).

  • Food vendors can seek waivers to use recyclable alternatives for foodware items not available or reasonably priced in compliant compostable formats.

  • Food vendors will show a charge of  $0.25 for disposable hot and cold cups (total price of the beverage can remain the same or increase – the charge simply must be broken out, and if a customer supplies their own cup, the charge is not applied).

  • The charge must be visible to customers on media such as menus, displays and receipts.

Starting July 2020:

  • Food vendors offering eating “on the premises” (eat-in) may only use reusable foodware (durable/washable) for eating-in.

  • Food vendors may either provide cleaning and sanitation facilities on-site or contract with a service (similar to a linen service) for off-site cleaning.

  • Technical Assistance and Mini-Grants will be available to support food vendors in establishing new facilities and practices to meet reusable eat-in foodware requirements.

  • Hardship waivers will be available.


The spirit of this legislation is to partner with food vendors to make transitions workable – and effective. Implementation is phased, and enforcement of each phase will focus on helping businesses make the transition. All enforcement must be preceded by a notice of non-compliance and the opportunity to cure or to request a waiver, and receive technical support.  

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Courtenay-Alberni Member of Parliament Gord Johns’ Private Members Motion to combat marine plastics pollution was passed unanimously (288 to 0) in the House of Commons yesterday. The motion calls for a national framework for the reduction and eventual elimination of plastic pollution in aquatic environments.

Plastic Pollution Coalition and The Last Plastic Straw publicly supported the motion and sent letters of support to MP Gord Johns.

“The passage of this motion with a unanimous vote is a tremendous victory for our oceans and coastal communities,” Johns said. “It is a firm acknowledgement that direct and immediate action is required to fill the legislative and regulatory void related to marine plastic pollution in Canada.”

The motion drew on a University of Victoria Environmental Law Centre study, “Seven Reforms to Address Marine Plastic Pollution,” and identifies essential actions to fill what is currently a legislative and regulatory void when it comes to preventing and disposing of plastic pollution in our oceans and other bodies of water.

The recommended actions in the Johns motion include regulatory action aimed at reducing plastic debris discharge from stormwater outfalls and the consumer and industrial use of single-use plastics.

Programmatic actions contained in the motion focus on the need for dedicated, annual funding for the cleanup of derelict fishing gear, community-led projects to clean up plastics and other debris on shores, banks, beaches and other aquatic peripheries, and education and outreach campaigns on the root causes and negative environmental effects of plastic pollution in and around all bodies of water.

“This is the first step in the journey to rid our oceans, beaches, and shores of plastic and other debris,” said MP Johns. “I look forward to continuing this important work on behalf of the people of Courtenay-Alberni and in a continued collaboration with the many environmental groups, local governments, the business community and Canadians everywhere to address this crisis in our marine environment.”

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