Just say no: As recycling becomes less feasible, efforts turn to reducing plastics

Plastics baled for recycling in 2014. Photo: Ash Daniel Plastics baled for recycling in 2014. Photo: Ash Daniel

By Bonnie Price Lofton

Now that China has closed the door to most of our garbage, recycling plants around the country are closing, or limiting what they’ll accept, and Charlottesville is no different. Starting July 1, the McIntire Recycling Center will no longer take Nos. 3-7 plastics, things like yogurt containers, plastic cups, and bottle tops.

With recycling getting more difficult, it may be time to focus on those other Rs: reduce and reuse (or, as the city of San Francisco has been urging, refuse). Thanks to the Dillon Rule, Charlottesville and Albemarle likely can’t join the hundreds of localities that have tried to stem the flood of plastic by banning single-use plastic bags or plastic straws.

“We can only do community education and awareness,” says Susan Elliott, the climate protection program manager for Charlottesville.

So it’s up to locals to take matters into their own hands.

Take the customers of The Book Room, in the 29th Place shopping center, which practices its own form of recycling by buying and selling used books, CDs, and DVDs. Patrons often bring books to sell in a reusable bag, says clerk Erin Maupin. “They’ll refill that bag with more books and later return with the bag again. Back and forth. At least a dozen folks do this.” 

Maupin herself carries reusable bags in her car but finds it hard to remember to take them into other stores. Sometimes, frustrated at forgetting her Trader Joe’s canvas bags, she’ll just throw her paid-for groceries back into the cart and haul them unbagged to the car, like Costco customers do.

Kroger, which also owns Harris Teeter, has pledged at the national level to stop distributing single-use bags by 2025. In the meantime, however, of 24 shoppers checking out on a recent Wednesday evening from the Kroger and Harris Teeter at Barracks Road Shopping Center, only four filled reusable bags.

On that same Wednesday, our unscientific bring-your-bag count was better at Whole Foods and at Integral Yoga Natural Foods (both of which offer a 5 cent credit for every bag refused), and at Trader Joe’s (which incentivizes the use of reusable bags with a weekly raffle), with one-third to one-half of the customers forgoing plastic.

Wegmans, however, was more like Kroger-—except for one fit-looking guy who packed a grocery cart worth of goods into a massive backpack and set off to hike to his apartment, looking like he was heading out for a week on the Appalachian Trail. “I don’t own a car,” he tossed over his shoulder in response to a hurried query, without offering his name.

For now, the McIntire Recycling Center is still accepting plastic bags in a specially labeled bin. Katie McIlwee of the Rivanna Solid Waste Authority says the bags are hauled to the Trex plant in Winchester to become decking and fencing.

Meanwhile, hometown hero the Dave Matthews Band is doing its part. When the band was in town in December, it offered fans a reusable drink cup, which could be picked up from craft beer stands for a $3 deposit and returned at the end of the night.

And as for straws, the Cville Stops Facebook group, started in April of last year, has 823 members who agree with its mission to “try to avoid using plastic straws and frequent establishments that support the S.T.O.P movement.” Around town, many coffee shops and restaurants have stopped automatically giving out plastic straws, and others have removed them altogether.

MarieBette Café & Bakery began discouraging use of straws of any kind about year ago, with a refuse-the-straw icon on the menu and a sign with a similar message on the take-out counter. Co-owner Jason Becton says he was inspired by Lampo Neapolitan Pizzeria, which he credits for being among the first in the city to try to reduce straw usage.

For customers who want straws no matter what, Becton says he’s bought paper straws, which are more expensive and typically on back order, due to increased demand as people switch from plastic straws to paper ones. “I know plastic straws are not the biggest thing nationally in terms of plastic waste, but it’s a step,” he says. “I think it starts people thinking and makes them want to use less plastic in general.”

So until policymakers come up with better solutions, it’s up to us to just say, “no, thanks” when offered a single-use plastic bag or straw—or even a beer cup.