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