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Some time in 2016, on a warm summer day, a patron entered Santa Rosa’s D Street Starbucks, ordered an iced drink, and when they were finished, thoughtfully dropped the plastic cup with a straw into a plastic recycle bin.

By late 2017, the straw was likely revolving inside the Giant Pacific Garbage Patch, the infamous pile of mostly plastic waste twice the size of Texas floating in the middle of the ocean. It’s a scenario, Fred Stemmler, General Manager of Recology Sonoma Marin, the area’s waste management company, says, is all too probable.

How a recycled straw finds its way from green Northern California to the desolate middle of the Pacific involves the strange and complicated path our recycled waste takes in the global economy.

Until recently, as much as 60 percent of Sonoma County’s recycling waste was baled and trucked to Oakland, then loaded onto ships to cross the ocean to Chinese and other Asian facilities. Massive processing plants there sort the re-usable plastic into feed stock which is sold and made into new products and packaging that are eventually exported back to us.

But tons of the recycled plastics that California exports aren’t easily or actually reusable. Only certain specific types of plastic can be remelted and remolded. All the rest, along with plastic that’s dirty or contaminated, or comes mixed with other waste, gets kicked out as trash and simply ends up being dumped.

In China, vast amounts of that disposed plastic waste, according to a recent environmental study, end up in rivers, headed to the ocean. Each year, an estimated 1.5 million metric tons of plastic waste flows down China’s Yangtse River alone, the study reported, and into the sea.

And since plastic straws can’t be reused, it’s likely ones recycled in Sonoma County are now floating in the great plastic patch in the Pacific.

Taking action, kind of

Starbucks has recently announced they will stop offering plastic straws, and replace them with plastic adult sippy lids. But the ongoing problem is much, much larger, and the solution is a bit more complicated.

The problem is partly due to ‘wishful recycling’, says Patrick Carter. He’s the executive director of the Sonoma County Waste Management Agency, which oversees local recycling, compost and waste education programs. A significant amount of the plastic waste residents put into the recycle bin — which Recology’s Stemmler estimates is 30 percent — can’t actually be recycled. Styrofoam, any container with food on it, metallic-looking plastic snack wrappers, dishwasher safe plastic bowls: none of these are recyclable.

Many people prefer to err on the side of ‘recycle it’ if they’re not sure whether it’s garbage or not, Stemmler said, out of legitimate concern for the vast amounts of waste headed to rapidly filling landfills.

His recycling staff regularly encounter needles, toxic materials, and other nasty surprises in what should be a plastic recycling load.

That’s actually worse for the landfill, Stemmler said, because contaminated plastic is hard or impossible to sort, which means it’s likely just going to end up being dumped.

So does all this mean people should cut back on recycling plastics?

“No, definitely not,” Stemmler said.

As it is, only a surprisingly tiny amount of the total mass of plastic generated by residents gets recycled. According to a 2017 study in Science, an average of 270 lbs of plastic waste is produced per person per year in America — more than a ton for a family of four. Of that, “only about nine to 14 percent of the total plastic we consume ever gets recycled,” Stemmler said.

Meaningful steps forward

So, recycling less would only add to the problem. But Stemmler and Carter are among a growing number of experts suggesting it’s time to rethink plastic recycling, in light of the bigger, growing problem: despite decades of recycling programs, we’re generating tremendous, and ever larger amounts of waste.

“It’s time to step up our game”, Stemmler says, whose company is taking extensive efforts to educate their customers.

Increasingly, that means putting a much heavier emphasis on the first two parts of the three “R’s” of pollution: reduce, reuse, and recycle. While the global plastic industry continues to expand, those who work on the waste side of the equation are now warning consumers, they need to find ways to use less plastic, and generate less waste less overall.

That’s also the business model of the Petaluma-based company World Centric. By design, the products they develop and sell, unlike plastics made from fossil fuels, are made to break down. That means they can be digested by nature’s handy microbes, and turned into perfectly useable compost.

In World Centric vice president of marketing Mark Marinozzi’s own backyard composter, the company’s bowls, plates and other fiber products become usable soil in about 45 days, although the company says to expect 2 to 4 months. In commercial recycling facilities, their plant based plastic forks, knives and spoons take about 3 to 6 months to break down, he said.

In 15 years, the innovative company has developed more than 250 compostable and recyclable products using plant based materials, including plates, utensils, carry out containers, cups, bowls, trays and, yes, straws.

The company just updated the label for its retail products, highlighting the World Centric name, and adding more colorful artwork. The new package features a woman planting a sapling. “We like the proverb,” Marinozzi says, “one generation plants the tree, the next enjoys the shade.”

Demand for compostables

The label change comes just as the company’s products are getting a wider audience. While they’ve been available for years in natural grocery and health food stores, this month Target and Costco have picked up the World Centric line, in addition to Whole Foods and Cost Plus World Market. Compostable products, Marinozzi says, are going mainstream, as retailers and take-out food businesses respond to consumers’ environmental concerns.

Demand for such compostable and plastic alternative products is expanding rapidly, driven by world attention to the plastic waste accumulating in the oceans and landfills. According to industry sources, markets for such goods are now growing by 11 percent annually.

World Centric is pushing the market envelope by designing their own products in-house, to exacting specifications. The company won a Best New Natural Products award in 2017 for a new line of single use plates made from waste wheat straw, instead of wood pulp, which requires cutting down trees.

This spring they launched a first: a 100 percent compostable round pizza carry out tray made from sugarcane and bamboo, and designed with innovative features that reduce waste and labor. They don’t need plastic inserts to protect toppings, they’re unbleached, which saves energy and water, and they’re ready to go without folding. It also keeps the pizza warm 3 to 5 times longer, and is even durable to reheating at 450o in the oven.

Staying ahead in a highly competitive market means keeping their patentable R&D secret, Mark Marinozzi, VP of Marketing explains. Within months of their breakthrough pizza tray rollout, a competitor was touting a copy.

That’s not surprising, considering 3 billion pizzas are sold in the US each year. And those old familiar pizza boxes? They can’t be recycled: once they’re dirty, they’re landfill.

Cost to consumers

Does the decision to buy compostable products mean consumers pay more?

In a word, yes, Marinozzi says. The economics are similar to those for solar power and other sustainable products: there’s a premium to pay initially, but as sales grow, and production ramps up, prices fall. Fossil fuel based plastics are so cheap because they have so many practical uses, come in so many varieties, and are being turned out in such vast volume.

The difference in price for World Centric’s single use dinner plates, bowls and hot cups is now “pennies to dimes more,” he said. “But the slight increase in cost hasn’t slowed our sales at leading mainstream retailers.”

And, Marinozzi notes, in the last two or three years, they and other sustainable product makers have seen exponential market growth. “Restaurants, cafés and stores are interested in attracting customers, and earth friendly, bio-degradable alternatives to plastics are very much of interest to consumers. They want to be doing the right thing, and look like the good guys.”

That kind of thoughtful, multi-benefit planning sets World Centric apart from many of its larger and latecomer corporate competitors, like Chinet. It also reflects the background and interests of Aseem Das, the company’s founder.

A successful software developer with a career path that took him to NASA, Boeing and Silicon Valley, Das speaks with a deliberative concern for what he sees as troubling global trends: waste of finite resources, growing social disparities, and how the choices we make as consumers affect everyone, and everything, else in the value chain, from the source of the materials, the people who manufacture them, and their ultimate fate when we’re done.

The initial organization he launched to promote a sustainable vision and information was nonprofit, but he concluded the effort would have greater leverage and traction as a profit making company, creating useful products that also happen to constructively tackle many of those issues.

World Centric is a California Benefit Corporation, a legal designation for profit making, mission driven companies. Each year the firm takes one quarter of its profits to fund carefully screened sustainability or environmental projects around the globe.

Das says his business model is advised by concern with the future, and what we’ll be leaving our children. ”We are pushing the planet and system boundaries in a number of ways, while increasing social disparities. People who have fewer resources are going to have a tougher and tougher time dealing with what’s coming.”

Replacing the ubiquitous

Plastics are fantastically useful materials. The average American touches dozens of plastic products each day, from credit cards to shoes to table tops. Most of those plastics will be around hundreds to thousands of years from now.

To Das, it’s becoming increasingly important that, above all, consumers make choices to avoid creating waste.

“Before buying any single-use disposable product, even compostable ones, consumers should pause and think. Can I reduce the amount that I buy? Is it something I can reuse again? Finally, is the product something I can recycle when I’m are done with it? If after all those considerations, if you still decide to purchase a single-use disposable product, we encourage you to choose a single-use disposable product that is also compostable.”

For Das, Stemmler and Carter, the ultimate challenge isn’t figuring what to do with the flood of plastic waste: it’s how to get people to turn down the tap, and reduce the flow.

“That,” Das says, ”will mean becoming more mindful of what we’re actually consuming.” His company is committed, right down to the last straw.

Stephen Nett is a Bodega Bay-based Certified California Naturalist, writer and speaker. Contact him at snett@californiasparks.com

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