19. How to get to zero waste? Begin with single-use plastics!

This show aired on Friday July 12, 2019 on PhillyCAM’s radio station WPPM 106.5 LP FM in Philadelphia. Hear the audio afterwards as a podcast. The script is below. Produced by Tanya Seaman & Meenal Raval.

Hello and welcome to Philly Talks Climate — where we talk about the climate crisis, how it affects Philadelphia, and how we solve this for our region. 

This is a rebroadcast of our April 19th show as Meenal will be at the Netroots Nation conference this week and will be presenting a climate question to the presidential candidates on Saturday afternoon. For more about this convergence about progressives across the United States, see netrootsnation.org

This week, we’ll talk about how to get to zero waste in a City most recognized by our litter. So much litter that our government has developed a litter index for our neighborhoods! 

Looking at the litter index as well as Philly311 complaints about illegal dumping, we learned that districts 1, 2 and 5 — Greater Center City and South Philly seem to be the most littered. These Council district seats are held by Mark Squilla, Kenyatta Johnson, and Darrell Clarke

If you have large items, such as old furniture, tires, yard waste, or more than a normal amount of trash, residents of Philadelphia can drop it off at one of the Sanitation Convenience Centers managed by the City. I’m afraid you’ll need a car to do this, which may be one reason why so many residents resort to dumping.

What does litter and trash have to do with the climate crisis? 

Great question! Most of our trash gets incinerated, which means it ends up back in our air and water in the form of ashes and noxious fumes. These fumes overload the atmosphere, make the air unbreathable, and kill off a lot of marine life in the process. Even much of our recyclable material is getting incinerated these days. So we need to “produce” less of it – less trash, less litter and fewer recyclables. 

What is zero waste? 

Per Wikipedia, the goal of a Zero Waste philosophy is for nothing to be sent to landfills, incinerators, or the ocean. 

Zero Waste refers to waste management and planning approaches that emphasize waste prevention as opposed to waste management. It is a whole-systems approach that aims for a massive change in the way materials flow through our society, resulting in no waste. Zero waste encompasses more than eliminating waste through recycling and reuse; it focuses on restructuring production and distribution systems to reduce waste.

Zero Waste provides guiding principles for continually working towards eliminating waste, similar to the way that resources are reused in nature. 

Our city has goal to achieve zero waste by 2035.

Sadly, this has been interpreted as zero waste to landfill. This is why the current administration considers sending waste to incinerators to be acceptable. 

What zero waste should mean is…  no trash goes to landfills or incinerators, not even those dubbed to be waste-to-energy plants. These end up emitting toxins into our already polluted air.

Zero waste also means that no recyclables, especially plastics — whose fumes are toxic — are incinerated, as they would further erode our air quality and worsen public health. 

Zero waste also means that food and yard waste — collectively called organic waste — are not considered trash and are not disposed of, but turned into compost and used to create soil, fertilizer, and biogas. This is soil and fertilizer we can use for our parks and urban farms. Biogas could be used as a substitute for fracked gas, without the fracking.  

What are we doing about Zero Waste in Philly? 

While our City has developed a litter index, we have organized a citizens campaign called Litter Free Philly where we educate neighbors about our litter problems and offer some solutions. A current focus of the Litter Free Philly campaign is working with Council member Mark Squilla on legislation for retailers to charge a fee on single-use bags. They have a petition on their website that you could support; see litter free philly dot wordpress dot com.

[insert Squilla video]

Why are we working to reduce single-use plastic bags? 

Plastic bags are problematic for many reasons. First, they are made from fossil fuels, usually petroleum. Second, they are not biodegradable, and they pretty much live forever without breaking down into organic matter the way other materials do. When they are not disposed of “properly” — by which I mean put into a landfill — they end up in our oceans, and choke sea life. You’ve probably seen them trapped in tree branches too.

It’s just wasteful when we use items for a few minutes and then throw them away. 

What do we hope to achieve? 

By charging a fee for single-use bags we expect people will shift to bringing their own reusable bags to the checkout counter. The bright side is that reusable bags are stronger — so they are able to carry more and won’t break. Their cloth handles are more comfortable too than plastic bags, especially with heavier loads.

What have other cities, states, even countries done about single-use plastics? 

Single use plastic bags are banned in 62 countries around the world. 31 countries charge a fee for single-use plastics. 

Bangladesh was the first to implement a ban, back in 2002. After the two biggest supermarket chains in Australia banned single-use plastic grocery bags, the consumption of plastic bags in Australia dropped by 80% in three months.

Some states have, or a considering a ban; notably… 

California has had a ban since 2016 on large retailers offering single-use plastic bags 

Hawaii prohibits non-biodegradable plastic bags at checkout. 

New York is the state with the most single-use plastic bags given out by retailers. They’re planning on a ban, state-wide, by 2020. 

Some states are charging a fee. 

In 2016, California implemented a minimum charge for recycled paper bags, reusable plastic bags, and compostable bags. Washington DC has had a 5 cent charge on all paper and plastic carryout bags since 2009. And in New York State, counties can charge a 5 cent fee for paper bags. 

So should Philly have a Fee or a Ban on Single-use Plastic Bags? 

When bans are in place, people will choose the free option, which is usually a paper bag or a heavier plastic bag. Unfortunately, both of these end up being used only once. 

A fee for any type of bag discourages people from paying for a single-use bag.

Chicago moved to a 7-cent fee after initially banning single-use plastic bags.

Bans of free paper bags cuts into grocers’ profits as paper bags cost over 3 times as much as thin plastic ones we want to get rid of. San Francisco has a bag ban and charges 10-cents for any other single-use bag.

Seems like these hybrid options are much more effective than outright bans of free single-use bags. Washington DC saw a 60% decrease in single-use bags, and a commensurate decrease in bags floating down the Potomac River. 80% of the residents there felt positive or neutral about the fee.

A  fee makes people think twice about whether they even need a bag. Many people reuse them for their trash cans and dog waste, and paying for them at the checkout counter could be cheaper than buying other bags.

It is common for the plastics industry to sue municipalities that attempt to implement a tax. This is really just a tactic to keep a city from banning their products. So cities have gotten around this by requiring retailers to charge a fee — a fee that the retailers are able to keep. Municipalities can set minimum per-bag fees.

Some retailers in Philly don’t have a free bag option. Buffalo Exchange (in Philly) doesn’t have a free bag option. I went in the other day and could have hand-carried my item, but didn’t. It just didn’t occur to me!  I instead paid $2.00 for a sturdy, reusable bag.

What is the State doing about zero waste?

“Every day, unwitting Pennsylvanians are barraged with products that we’re expected to purchase and use, and then throw away. Only, there is no ‘away,’” said Penn Environment Executive Director David Masur. “Instead, it ends up in landfills where it can cause water pollution, in incinerators that cause air pollution, or blowing around in our neighborhoods in the form of litter. Nothing we use for a few minutes should pollute our environment, neighborhoods, rivers and oceans for centuries to come.”  

Well, here’s some News You Can Use… 

Last week, Penn Environment led a state-level initiative called Zero Waste PA. Zero Waste PA is a package of bills introduced by 15 state house members. What’s included in this package? 

The first 6 bills would affect most of us in our daily lives. They would: Ban Polystyrene Containers (which we know as Styrofoam), Increase Penalties for Littering, Limit Plastic Straw Use, Charge a Fee on Single-use Plastic Bags, Charge a Deposit on Beverage Containers, and Encourage the use of Reusable Water Bottles. 

The other 4 bills affect the City more directly. They would — Increase the Waste Disposal Fee at Landfills, Increase the Recycling Fee, Authorize Local Recycling Fees, and Divert Organic Waste from incinerators and landfills. 

And then there are bills to — Recycle Cigarette Filters, Recycle Plastic Packaging, and Update the E-Waste Recycling Law. 

These are all worthy of our support. Let’s go into each one a bit.

  1. Banning Polystyrene (or Styrofoam) Containers: This ban would prohibit food establishments from using polystyrene containers to distribute prepared foods. Polystyrene is a problem for several reasons.

    First, it is suspected to be toxic to humans, containing carcinogens and neurotoxins. Since styrofoam is often used as an insulator for hot foods, when heated, these toxins can be released into our food and absorbed into our bloodstream and tissues.

    Second, non-humans don’t recognize styrofoam as an artificial material and mistake it for food, which causes them harm if they eat it in significant quantities.

    As it is light, it blows in the wind and floats on water.

    Berkeley, CA banned styrofoam containers as early as 1987. This new styrofoam bill has been introduced as House Bill 627 by Representative Tim Briggs. 
  2. Increase Penalties For Littering: This bill is meant to dissuade litterers and illegal dumpers by increasing the fines and penalties for those caught illegally throwing away their garbage. We have weekly curbside trash pickup in Philadelphia, and it’s reprehensible that we throw trash with abandon in our own neighborhoods. This bill is expected to be introduced by Representative Donna Bullock. 
  3. Limit Plastic Straw Use: This bill would to prohibit establishments from offering plastic straws, but would allow them to respond to customer requests for straws. What’s so bad about plastic straws? One, it’s a single-use plastic product. Two, straws end up in the nostrils and bellies of sea creatures, starving them of the nutrients they need to survive. This bill has been introduced as House Bill 1176 by Representative Mary Jo Daley. 
  4. Charge a Fee on Single-Use Plastic Bags: This bill would charge a fee of two cents on each single-use plastic bag used by purchasers of consumer goods at retail establishments that sell more than $1 million worth of goods every year. The fees collected would be used to support recycling. This bill is expected to be introduced by Representatives Brian Sims and Jared Solomon. 
  5. Charge a Deposit on Beverage Containers: This bill would create a 5-cent beverage bottle and can deposit program in Pennsylvania. This should help reduce our litter, since consumers (or someone else) will be motivated to return these containers to reclaim the 5-cent deposit. This bill is expected to be introduced by Representative Wendy Ullman. 
  6. Encourage the use of Reusable Water Bottles: This bill would encourage the use of reusable water bottles by requiring that newly constructed state buildings as well as existing state buildings undergoing plumbing renovations install water-bottle filling stations. We’d sure love to see this expanded to all public buildings in Philadelphia, because, well, water is a human right. And single-use plastic bottles end up on the street, sometimes in recycling bins, but mostly in incinerators and landfills. We have water pipes bringing water to each building; we don’t need bottled water trucked to us also. This bill is expected to be introduced by Representative Perry Warren. 
  7. Increase a Waste Disposal Fee at Landfills: This bill would increase the disposal fee for municipal waste landfills from $4 per ton to $8 per ton to help support important conservation and environmental protection programs. This bill is expected to be introduced by Representative Elizabeth Fiedler. 
  8. Increase the Recycling Fee: This bill would increase the recycling fee that landfill operators pay from $2 per ton to $5 per ton on waste received at their landfills, the first increase in 30 years. This bill is expected to be introduced by Representative Mary Isaacson. 
  9. Authorize COUNTIES TO collect Recycling fees to maintain existing recycling programs, clean up illegal dumping sites and litter, and/or programs for alternative energy. This bill is expected to be introduced by Representative Patty Kim. 
  10. Divert Organic Waste: This bill would significantly divert organic waste from our landfills and incinerators, and spur a market for organic waste composting. Currently, Philadelphia’s compostable food waste is being incinerated in nearby Delaware County, affecting their local air quality. This bill is expected to be introduced by Representative Danielle Friel Otten. 
  11. Recycle Cigarette Filters: This bill would establish a statewide cigarette filter upcycling initiative, where a 20-cent, partially reimbursed deposit on each pack of cigarettes sold in Pennsylvania would be used for collection centers and safe reuse. This bill is expected to be introduced by Representative Chris Rabb. 
  12. Recycle Plastic Packaging: This bill would require that producers of plastic packaging cannot sell or distribute their products in Pennsylvania unless they are part of a recycling program that takes it back. This bill is expected to be introduced by Representative Melissa Shusterman. 
  13. Update the E-Waste Recycling Law: This bill address Pennsylvania’s failing electronic waste recycling law by taking from best practices implemented in other states to make Pennsylvania’s law effective. This bill is expected to be introduced by Representative Mike Zabel

We intend to be on the lookout for these bills, and will be supporting them. Details for you to engage with your elected representatives will be posted on our website, at Philly Talks Climate.

What else could we be doing for a Zero Waste Philadelphia? 

We need to make sure that everyone recycles. 

Today, everyone is required to recycle and dispose of trash properly — in every building in the city. However, the City only collects trash and recycling from residential properties. Commercial buildings, including apartment buildings, are left to decide for themselves if, and how, they recycle. With not much enforcement by the City, this, unfortunately, means that many, if not most, office buildings, even institutional buildings,  do not recycle. If the City were the sole contractor for trash and recycling, and manage an operation that efficiently makes use of our current private haulers, reducing harmful truck emissions and street congestion. 

We need better-educated constituents

The City should teach everyone how to recycle, including school children, office cleaning crews, and its own staff — consistently. For example, we’ve been told pizza boxes can’t be recycled. But when we place them in the trash can, our trash doesn’t get picked up! Consistent education. That’s what we need. 

We need to stop using single use plastics and encourage reusables

The first step to achieving zero waste is to reduce the amount of single-use plastics, including checkout bags, take-out food containers, bottled water, styrofoam cups and packaging, and plastic straws. 

The City could give away cloth and mesh bags, similar to how they give away recycling bins now.

Consumers need to be able to use their own reusable containers in stores and take-out eateries. 

Bottled water should not be available in municipal offices, schools, or at street festivals — and should be replaced with water-filling stations and water fountains. 

Building and landscaping codes for institutions and public spaces must include water fountains with refilling stations, and they should be available year round. Government buildings such as City Hall, Council Chambers, and our courhouses should allow personal containers with food and liquids.

For delivered food, companies could make use of durable food containers that can be washed and reused. This could be developed into a new, local industry, like linen-washing for hotels and restaurants. Today, when you buy delivered food, it comes in containers that were produced far away, with plastic and paper — or wood from forests and plastic from petroleum. They were then trucked to the restaurant, filled with food, and minutes later, consumed by you. Their useful life was maybe an hour. When you are done with the food, the container will go in the trash and live forever as that container, without ever decomposing. All of this for maybe an hour of use. Until the last couple of decades, this sort of throwaway culture did not exist. While this would be a major shift for most people, we think that people would very quickly appreciate leak-proof containers — as well as the huge reduction in trash to haul to the curb every week.


The City could also reduce the waste sent to landfills and incinerators by distributing compost bins and teaching residents how to compost.

For people without backyards, the City could organize community composting programs and offer curbside pickup of compostable items such as food waste, leaves, tree branches, and Christmas trees. Institutions and office buildings, including municipal buildings, schools, and hospitals, should set up food-waste receptacles and have pickups of compostables. 

Other cities have implemented this, notably San Francisco


One third of our food is wasted, and sadly, it ends up getting incinerated or dumped in a  landfill, instead of composted. But before it becomes compost, whatever is edible should be contributed to organizations that distribute it to people who have too little food.

That’s it for our segment of zero waste.

Since we aired this show in mid-April, a plastic bag ban has been introduced by Council Member Mark Squilla. And since then, the state has disallowed municipalities from banning plastic bags. Clearly, we have some work to do. But don’t worry! We’re on it. 

Connect with Others Concerned about the Climate

To connect with concerned others, join Physicians for Social Responsibility for a live-streamed event about the health impacts of unconventional gas development, also called fracking. This will be on Saturday July 13th from 9 till 12.

The details about this forum are on our Calendar page at Philly Talks Climate

Thanks for listening to Philly Talks Climate with Tanya! 

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