Meg Boyd: Howard County's plastic problem [Commentary]

Howard County has a single use plastic problem, as does the world.

The ubiquity of these non-recyclable, or under recycled items, is an expense, an environmental problem and in some places, a crisis.

Unfortunately recycling does not prevent plastic waste, it just delays its entry into the landfill or the environment. Plastics that end up in the landfill will take more than 400 years to break down.

Nationwide only 9 percent of plastic is recycled. Data from the World Economic Forum predicts by mid-century the ocean will contain more plastic than fish, ton for ton. Worldwide we use 1 million plastic bags every minute. Some countries are at a breaking point. Lebanon, facing a crisis with nowhere left to dispose of its garbage, has dumped a mountain of trash in the ocean.

Although we produce 30,500 tons of residential recycling a year in Howard County, you cannot recycle plastics such as utensils (knives, spoons and forks), straws and most packaging. Plastic bags jam the recycling equipment so if placed in your curbside recycling, they will become trash. In total, 11 percent of our recycling in Howard County ends up as garbage, but this number does not include the recycling deemed “contaminated” when it arrives at its destination, which is often overseas.

Some jurisdictions are dealing with the environmental and financial burden of plastics with legislation. Montgomery and Prince George’s counties have both banned polystyrene (sometimes called Styrofoam) containers.

According to Blue Water Baltimore, the trash wheel in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor has collected 623,374 Styrofoam containers, the second most prevalent type of trash it collects, after cigarette butts.

Montgomery County and Washington, D.C. also have a 5-cent plastic bag fee, helping to reduce one of the largest sources of pollution in our waterways. Other organizations such as the National Aquarium have eliminated plastic bags and straws from their facilities and pledged to eliminate plastic bottles by 2020.

At the Howard County Conservancy we have a three pronged mission – education, responsible stewardship and preservation.

To model responsible stewardship we have long used compostable sugar cane plates and vegetable starch forks at large events, and we incorporate recycling education into our school and public programs. But, that is not enough. Last year we began to offer a discount to weddings and events at our facility that certify they are single-use plastic free. We no longer use single-use plastics at any of our sponsored events. We offer a reusable “spork” for sale in our gift shop at cost – $1 (or 50 cents for more than 50). And, we have replaced our water fountains with bottle filling stations.

What can you do? Think about your plastic use — it is not hard to make a change. Pass on the plastic utensils with your carry out. Say no to plastic straws and use cloth bags. Paper plates and straws are a better alternative to plastic. In all these cases re-use, the second of the three R’s of recycling, is a great option.

When you cannot use silverware, wood or compostable sugarcane break down faster that plastic. Although trash in a landfill does not compost well, these compostable products are often made of renewable materials and are a better option than plastic, which accounts for 6 percent of global oil consumption in its production.

Plastic waste is a problem that we are leaving for our children. We need to do more locally to find creative solutions to this local and global problem. With 313,000 people in our county, imagine the impact we could have by taking small steps to reduce our use of disposable plastics.

Meg Boyd is executive director of the Howard County Conservancy in Woodstock.

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