This article is from Mobile Baykeeper’s print quarterly, CURRENTS. The magazine is mailed to active members who have given more than $50 in 2023. To get on the magazine’s mailing list, donate here.
by Caine O’Rear
Old habits die hard in America. And one habit that has been especially difficult for Americans to kick is our wide-ranging and unrelenting addiction to single-use consumer plastic.
What makes plastic so insidious, and quite frankly so disturbing as a pollutant, is its omnipresence and longevity in our environment. It’s in the land, it’s in the air, it’s in the water, and now, it’s in our bloodstream, in the form of micro-plastics (which are generally considered to be any form of plastic less than five millimeters in length). And it’s not going anywhere anytime soon. (It is said that a plastic grocery bag will remain in the environment for up to 500 years.)
While plastic’s long-term effects on human health are still the subject of inquiry and debate, according to the Plastic Health Coalition, a research and advocacy alliance, we do know that micro-plastics disrupt endocrine function in humans, not unlike PFAs and other toxic chemicals. And it’s not just humans that fall prey to its poison. It’s been forecasted that by midcentury there will be more plastic by weight in our oceans than fish, a fact that augurs grave consequences for our fisheries and marine life. If that’s not enough, recent reports reveal the skies are now raining micro-plastics at a level much greater than previously thought. That fact alone should be enough to make the multitudes weep.
Plastic arrived on the scene as far back as 1870. The first plastics resin was invented by an American named John Wesley Hyatt who, as part of a competition, developed a celluloid billiard ball that could be used as an alternative to the billiard balls that were being made out of ivory. (At the time it was said to have saved elephants from extinction.) By the 1930s materials like Bakelite and polystyrene (styrofoam) were being developed. But for a long, long time, plastic was hardly a household word.
It was not until the Second World War that the plastic revolution took root. The military had discovered its versatility as a compound (the word plastic comes from the Greek verb plassein, which means “to shape or mold”) and began using it in all manner of war materials, creating in effect a plastic-industrial complex that continues to mushroom to this day. Raw materials like steel and rubber were subsumed for wartime production which created a vacuum for materials needed to manufacture domestic consumer goods. This is when plastic really became a leading player, nearly quadrupling in production. By the 1980s the United States was producing more plastic than steel.
In the past decade, more people have been linking plastic pollution with environmental and human health concerns. In more recent years, concern has grown over micro-plastics and their potential threat to humans. A great deal of alarm has been sounded regarding the levels of micro-plastics that are being ingested by humans. One widely seen study suggested humans were ingesting a credit card’s worth of plastic every week through food and beverage consumption. (This proved to be a misleading report; most experts agree the levels of micro-plastic that we’re ingesting is of a lesser amount, on average). Which means there is no need to panic — at least not yet.
“We don’t even understand where the majority of the micro-plastic is being generated,” Todd Gouin, an environmental research consultant, told the New York Times back in December. “Right now, the leading theory is that it’s being generated as a result of plastic waste that is lying around subject to U.V. degradation that causes it to fragment. So reducing the plastic waste problem is the No. 1 way of addressing the issue.”
Anyone who has logged time on our waterways, whether it be in the Mobile-Tensaw River Delta, Mobile Bay, or the Gulf of Mexico, has no doubt seen the plastic pollution problem first-hand. Birds strangled by fishing line. Sea turtles straitjacketed in grocery bags. Rainbows of Mardi Gras beads choking the source-waters of One Mile Creek, a tributary that flows into Mobile River and eventually the Bay. Indeed, there are parts of the Gulf that carry some of the highest concentration of plastics in waterways on the planet, due in part to the great number of plastic-producing facilities that dot our coast.
Mobile Baykeeper launched its Reduce The Use program in 2020, the same year the COVID pandemic arrived. In order to survive financially, restaurants had to rely more and more on takeout orders, and those orders usually came in a plastic container. Due to the stress and fear that attended the pandemic, it’s safe to say that reducing plastic consumption was not foremost in American minds. Now that some of the dust has settled, we’re starting to make strides in Coastal Alabama, and there is a growing contingent of business owners and citizens who are committed to reducing plastic in their business practices and helping protect our waterways.
Our “Reduce The Use” program seeks to remedy the problem at its source by calling for a significant reduction of single-use consumer plastic in Downtown Mobile. To date, we have nineteen businesses (restaurants, breweries, law firms, et al) that have signed up for Reduce The Use and implemented protocols to curb plastic consumption. They’ve adopted measures ranging from the elimination of plastic straws to forbidding plastic water bottles to offering compostable takeout containers. There are any number of actions one can take. All it takes is the will, and a little ingenuity. Participating downtown businesses include Chuck’s Fish, El Papi, Five, Dropout Bakery, Tom Loper Law, JPAR Gulf Coast Realty, Roosters, Nova Espresso, Downtown Mobile Alliance, Coastal Makers, Braided River Brewing, Noble South, Fuse Factory, Alabama Contemporary Art Center, Hummingbird Ideas, The Battle House Hotel, Joe Cain Cafe, Royal Street Tavern, and The Trellis Room.
Braided River Brewing, a microbrewery in Downtown Mobile, was one of the first companies to adopt Reduce The Use measures. Since its founding in 2020, the microbrew has been committed to sustainability and eco-friendly practices. That commitment to the environment is even embedded in the company’s name: “braided river” refers to the labyrinth of rivers, sloughs, and tributaries that wind their way through lower Alabama and converge to form the Mobile-Tensaw River Delta, often referred to as “America’s Amazon” for its wealth of biodiversity and densely jungled landscapes.
Braided River has taken several measures to reduce plastic use. With the help of its distributor partner Bud Busch distributing, the brewery has replaced the plastic wrap on its outgoing pallets of kegs with reusable rubber bands. Grain sacks that contain hops are given to environmental groups for cleanups. The brewery also replaced petroleum-based, plastic to-go cups with agave cups and those made of a corn-based, more eco-friendly plastic.
David Nelson, the brewery’s CEO and founder, understands that operating as an eco-friendly business is the prudent route this day-in-age, and not the financial sacrifice or hardship that many business owners assume. “Just making more sustainable choices has a payoff long term,” Nelson says. “It is not even about having to make sacrifices. It’s making sensible choices, you know, for your own finances.”
Nelson understands the move to curb and eliminate single-use plastics is a long game. He’s aware that it’s not a problem that gets solved overnight. But he knows that little measures taken can build momentum in a community and lead to substantial change in the future. “You can make an effort and maybe you can’t solve it all in one go, but you don’t have to solve everything in one go. But if you can kind of chip away at little things and make good, small choices here and there, and try to build on those over time, you know, that’s really what we’ve been doing, is trying to chip away at our plastic use to find alternatives.”
Frankie Little, owner of Rooster’s restaurant and another early adopter of the program, likens the transition away from consumer plastics to the movement which led to smoke-free eateries and bars in the ’90s and aughts. “When we were making that transition, there were businesses and bars that said, ‘We’re going to close and go out of business if our customers can’t smoke.’ But any customers they lost from that they gained more when it became non-smoking. And if you ban Styrofoam, you’re probably going to gain some customers.”
Marianne Michallet Gordon, special projects manager at Mobile Baykeeper, has led the Reduce The Use campaign for the past year. A native of Lyons, France, Gordon springs from a culture that is not as wedded to plastic as the U.S.
“Where I’m from, France, we really don’t use plastic utensils or plastic plates at all,” Gordon said. “And it’s not just for environmental reasons, although that’s a big part of it. Plastic doesn’t break down easily and can remain in our landfills for 400 to 500 years, long after our children and grandchildren will have left this world. And recycling only takes care of 5 to 10 percent of the problem.”
A 2020 report from Greenpeace, an international nonprofit, asserts that only a small percentage of plastic products are in fact recyclable. Only polyethylene (PET #1; water bottles, soda bottles) and high-density polyethylene (PET #2: milk jugs, shampoo containers ) can be claimed as truly recyclable in the U.S. today. (The City of Mobile does accept some plastics labeled 4 through 7, but the process to recycle these is long, challenging, and complex.)
For Gordon, eschewing plastic is also about living a more natural and balanced life. “Avoiding plastic consumption is also a matter of self-respect. In France, it’s rare to see people eat McDonald’s out of their cars. We like to take a proper lunch break and eat a well-balanced meal. It would feel disrespectful to the food, and to my body, to have it touch a plastic utensil or a Styrofoam cup. Eating should remain a sensory experience, not just a way to intake food to fuel our bodies. Our planet blesses us with free and available food and we should give it thanks by at least not trashing it with plastic-filled landfills. I would encourage everyone to take their reusable bag to the supermarket and refuse single-use plastic items at restaurants to let them know we don’t need more plastic.”
Earlier this year, France banned disposable plates, cups, and tableware in its fast-food restaurants (single-use plastic had already been banned) for on-site dining. The recent development is being hailed as nothing short of a revolution by environmentalists. The next time you’re in Paris, chomping down at McDonald’s along the Champs-Élysées, that beloved Royale with Cheese will be served on a reusable plate.
“Fast food is a sector that produces a lot of waste,” Alice Elfassi, who works with Zero Waste France, an NGO, told The Guardian last year. “Although single-use plastic had already been banned, it had been replaced by large amounts of throwaway products like cardboard, wood, bamboo, which we consider an unacceptable waste of resources.”
France’s recent move testifies to the fact that single-use consumer plastic is part of a larger conversation about consumer waste, and how best to address it. And while recycling is by and large the right thing to do, it’s long been clear that recycling is not a panacea, and we need to devise more solutions to chip away at the magnitude of the waste problem.
It’s Mobile Baykeeper’s intention that the campaign to reduce plastic-use will continue after the expiration of the NOAA Marine Debris Grant in 2023. The Downtown Mobile Alliance, a nonprofit dedicated to revitalizing the city’s downtown business and entertainment district, has worked with Baykeeper on the campaign since its inception. Recently, the DMA created stickers emblazoned with the motto “Peace Out Plastic: Making Mobile Drastically Less Plasticky” to help raise continued awareness and effect change downtown. Reducing plastic in the Business Improvement District was part of the organization’s five-year management plan that was unveiled in 2019, when it was learned that plastic was the single-biggest source of litter on the streets downtown.
In the weeks to come, the City of Mobile will celebrate carnival. While the pre-Lenten season has always been a monument to excess and a consequences-be-damned mindset, Mardi Gras doesn’t need to represent a war against the environment. You’re not being a curmudgeon or kill-joy by working to keep the beads and plastic toys out of our streets and storm-drains, as we make the move toward a litter-free Mardi Gras. Our turtles, our fish, and our waters will thank you.