Reducing the Use of Plastics at Home: Experiences of an ERG Family Member

Until moving to Germany in late 2013, I thought about plastics like most Americans – plastics are a convenient material to use and a persistent environmental pollutant. The solid waste our family generated every day did not bother me very much because I knew it was being properly landfilled, and we were properly disposing of recyclable materials whenever we could (paper, pop cans, etc.).  Upon our return, however, my three-year German experience caused me to reconsider America’s waste problem and to seriously challenge my thoughts on recycling.  Please allow me to explain.

In Germany, each household is responsible for sorting all solid waste and placing it in color-coded bins, usually black, green, blue, and yellow. Black bins are for non-recyclable waste, green bins are for organic waste, blue bins are for paper and cardboard, and yellow bins are for plastics and packaging. Glass waste, including non-refundable bottles, gets two separate bins: white for clear glass, and green for colored glass. There are additional designated bins in each neighborhood for shoes and clothing.  Almost all stores that sell electronics and some grocery stores have bins for properly recycling electronic waste, including batteries. The other hazardous materials, such as paints or used engine oil, should be kept at home until the local municipality collects them. The Germans are very keen to observe the recycling collection schedules precisely.  Cities and towns also do scheduled pickups for large items, such as old furniture.

I returned to Michigan nearly 2 years ago and was deeply struck to view our American recycling programs from a different perspective and to honestly see how poor recycling programs are compared to most European states. There is an appreciable amount of awareness toward recycling in America, but the actual practice is far behind other countries.  Further, it is disappointing that Americans’ first thought is to operate with a throw-away mentality and, even when trying to recycle, they largely disregard pre-separating their solid waste. Some even throw non-recyclable garbage in community recycling bins specific for recyclable material. 

Modern 21st century lifestyles require using some items that are not recyclable. While I understand that part, as an environmental engineer, I am also aware of the importance of sustainable waste management practices to save the environment for future generations.  For example, while the United States recycles approximately 35% of our waste, some European countries like Germany recycle as much as 70 % of their waste. Many Americans aren’t aware that items such as furniture and hazardous waste, such as electronic devices or batteries, don’t belong in the general trash.

Another big difference between the two continents is that in the USA, consumers (both businesses and individuals) are responsible for proper disposal of the trash they generate. In some countries, like Germany, it is the manufacturer’s responsibility for proper disposal of the trash (per the Packaging Ordinance).  According to 2009 statistics, more than 30 million tons of plastic waste was generated annually in the USA and less than 10 % was recovered for recycling. These statistics are disappointing, no doubt, but rather than complaining about the system, consumers can work to change public policy and can also make immediate impacts by reducing plastic use at home.  While it is impossible to eliminate all plastics uses, it is possible to significantly reduce a family’s plastic consumption. Based on my exposure to Germany’s approach toward recycling, I decided to minimize the use of disposables and other plastics used in our household. And by making our children team players in accomplishing the mission, they learned how our actions save the environment.  Since ERG has a mission of helping our clients achieve environmental sustainability, and since our own offices actively practice source recycling of our solid waste, in this newsletter article we want to share some practical tips to reduce the plastic waste in your business and home.

  • Plastic straws are not an essential item. Even young children can drink right out of a glass cup. This can also eliminate the use of plastic cups at home.

  • Using silverware and ceramics for each meal can eliminate lots of non-recyclable and recyclable waste.

  • The lunch boxes and snack boxes that are made of stainless steel are a great alternative to plastic bags or containers.

  • Use tap water (after filtering, if needed) as the sole drinking water source and use re-usable water bottles to reduce the plastic use significantly.

  • Instead of buying soda in plastic bottles, buy metal cans.

  • It’s not easy to find milk packaged in glass bottles. Cardboard containers are a better alternative than plastics. Some grocery stores sell milk from local dairies packaged in glass bottles. Because my family drinks lots of milk, we buy milk in glass bottles and return the empty bottles to the store.  Our kids say the milk tastes much better too.

  • Purchase food, such as butter and ice cream, packaged in paper containers as an alternative to plastic containers.

  • Lots of plastic waste is generated in any kitchen. There are several ways to reduce this waste.

  • Carry reusable grocery and produce bags when food shopping. These bags can be washed many times during their life time, an are much stronger and easier to carry than plastic bags.

  • Buying bulk food is very easy these days. While packaged vegetables may be convenient, many are not pre-washed, so buying bulk vegetables and fruits that are not prepacked or wrapped is a great choice for the environment.

  • Store dry food in glass or stainless-steel containers.

  • Replace plastic storage containers with either stainless steel containers or Pyrex© containers which can be used again and again for many years. 

  • It is not always necessary to use plastic bags for food storage. Brown bags and jars are ideal for storing dry food instead of plastic zipper bags.

  • Buy laundry detergent in cardboard boxes and make sure to dispose of the boxes in a recycling bin.

Bathroom supplies such as cleaners, body lotions, and shampoo are difficult to find in glass containers. Our family checks the bottle label to confirm they are recyclable and once empty, disposes of them properly in the correct bin. In addition, choosing to not buy any products that contain microbeads will help reduce microplastic pollution in our waters.

Involving our children in this family goal has been both interesting and comical. Old enough to recall our Germany experiences, I think their mind-set was perhaps already predisposed to a more hands-on family recycling adventure.  Even as pre-teens, we see them making good choices and using their knowledge to help keep the parents in line.  For example, our neighborhood is close enough to the local grocery store that we can safely ride our bicycles there, when the weather cooperates.  It is a fun family experience to bike to the grocery market and then peddle your own food back home in recyclable grocery bags.  The children have learned how to look for alternatives to plastic use and even raise the subject with their own peers.

Getting rid off all plastics is an impossible mission. However, with some effort and commitment, plastic use at home can be reduced dramatically.  Once accustomed to the routine, it is personally rewarding and a great lesson for our next generation of Americans.

About the author:  As a project-level professional at ERG, Mala Hettiarachchi, PhD, PE is a mother of two elementary school children and resides in Southeast Michigan with her family.   Her family enjoyed the challenges and excitement of raising environmentally conscience offspring, teaching them at a young age that caring for the earth is possible when deliberate choices are made. She works with her ERG colleagues to quantify microplastics in wastewater effluent and sludge and find solutions to control this source of microplastics by developing/upgrading wastewater and sludge treatment technologies.

ERG’s Compliance Division is eager to help businesses reduce their own solid waste stream and thus improve their bottom line profits.  For more information, please contact Bob Reichenbach at (888) 589-1746 or by email at bob.reichenbach@ergrp.net.