The Howard County Conservancy is launching a campaign to urge residents to take a stand against the single-use plastic products that have become a staple of everyday consumerism.
Called “Take a Pass on Plastic,” the initiative will focus on ways citizens can combat the negative effect of disposable plastic shopping bags, utensils, straws and water bottles on the environment, wildlife and human health, said Meg Boyd, the conservancy’s executive director.
To that end, the nonprofit center will give away two reusable items to all visitors to its Woodstock headquarters on Frederick Road to mark America Recycles Day this Thursday.
Organizers hope that handing out cloth shopping bags and “sporks” — utensils that double as a spoon and a fork — will encourage people to make permanent lifestyle changes.
The reusable shopping bags will be labeled with the conservancy’s name and the sporks are made of heavy-duty plastic that can eventually be recycled, though they’re intended to be used “thousands of times,” Boyd said.
“This effort is about raising awareness,” she said, noting that some experts predict there will be “more plastic than fish” in the world’s oceans by mid-century.
“Our county alone produces 30,500 tons of recycling [annually], but 11 percent of that still ends up as garbage in landfills,” she said.
Some items collected by the county during weekly curbside pickup in residential areas end up being discarded because they don’t qualify as recyclable or because they’ve been contaminated by waste residue, she explained.
Boyd said the conservancy has been building toward the campaign for a year.
Staff brainstorming sessions on ways to get event-holders at the conservancy to follow green practices led the nonprofit to begin offering a financial incentive last year to any caterer that could certify that no single-use plastics would be used on site, she said.
That decision in turn prompted the conservancy to purchase 50 sets of silverware and break-resistant dinnerware to use when it hosted its own non-catered events.
“We wanted to model what stewardship of the environment looks like by not adding to the waste stream ourselves,” she said.
Eventually, the conservancy chose to launch the new campaign by tying the giveaway to America Recycles Day, a nationwide initiative of Keep America Beautiful, a nonprofit in Stamford, Conn.
The conservancy is coming at “Take A Pass on Plastic” from other angles as well.
Boyd said the nature center has created waste stations, which she described as well-signed areas that use color-coded bins: blue for recycling, black for trash and green for compost materials.
“If you watch people use a waste station, you observe that something is triggered in their brain [by the signs and color-coding] and they really think through what they’re doing” instead of dumping everything into one bin, she said.
Boyd said the conservancy’s new campaign is an extension of a philosophy that’s already in place.
When the conservancy holds school’s-out programming, for instance — as it did Nov. 6 and 7 when public schools closed for Election Day and a staff professional work day — students often participate in a Recycling Relay.
Children on each team must run to the waste station and place the item they were given in the proper color-coded bin before returning to the starting point and letting the next player on their team take a turn. The fastest team to correctly toss in the most items before time is up wins the race.
“It’s a lot of fun and the students learn something as they compete,” Boyd said.
Along with single-use plastic, the conservancy is encouraging consumers to ask for alternatives to polystyrene foam, which has been banned in some jurisdictions in the state, though not in Howard County.
Boyd said she wonders if the county’s switch to single-stream recycling — in which all recyclable materials are tossed into the same bin without sorting — meant an increasing percentage of contaminated recyclables ended up in landfills instead.
The practice of mixing in questionable items with known recyclables in the hope that they’ll be accepted for processing is known as “wishful recycling,” said Gemma Evans, recycling coordinator for the county’s Department of Public Works.
“Residents think they’re doing a good thing when they put plastic bags in their recycling bins, for instance. But the bags, which we call ‘tanglers,’ get caught up in the gears and then the machines have to be shut down while the bags are cut loose and thrown out,” Evans said. “This happens every day.”
Evans said residents who are unsure which items qualify for curbside recycling can view “Know Before You Throw” on the Bureau of Environmental Services page at howardcountymd.gov.
“Eleven percent waste [within the county’s recycling program] is lower than in many other communities, but there’s still room for improvement,” she said.
Boyd said the conservancy encourages visitors to allow time to view the nature center’s exhibits or to enjoy the four miles of nature trails open to the public from dawn to dusk when they stop in to pick up the free items, which will also include a handout on green practices.
The giveaway will take place from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Thursday or while supplies last. Residents can learn more at hcconservancy.org or by calling 410-465-8877.
“Some people say there should be a fourth ‘R’ added to ‘Reduce, Reuse and Recycle’ that should stand for ‘Refuse,’ ” Boyd said. “We want people to stop and think about the products they’re using.”