We must respond right now to Sligo Creek’s cry for help – and we have to think bigger.
The Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act of 2020 represents a monumental opportunity to tackle the problem at the federal level. We need to do all we can to support that bill. Rolling up our sleeves and doing more volunteer work is a great way to treat the problem at a micro-level.
Through individual and group action, though, we can do so much more to help our creek and other Anacostia River tributaries Break Free From Plastic Pollution – joining a global movement that reverses the way we view and solve the plastic crisis.
Let’s go to the top of the food chain and prevent plastic pollution from attacking Sligo Creek in the first place, instead of only dealing with it after it arrives. Let’s demand changes in corporate behavior — from Silver Spring companies that act as street-level plastic dealers all the way up to the global kingpin brands that produce and distribute the poison.
The actions we can take are almost limitless, but let me share some starting points for consideration. I’ll continue to add to this post and section of our site regularly, so please keep coming back for updates. Let’s also take advantage of the comments section here to get a conversation going. Feel free to contact me directly if you like.
The impact of these initial thoughts could be multiplied many times over if we could start convening groups of Montgomery County citizens and organizations to develop a formal public awareness and action campaign. Does anyone reading this have a place where such a meeting could be held? Anyone interested in attending and getting the word out? It may well be worth just lining up a meeting space and date to mobilize whoever shows up.
An excellent homework assignment we could all do beforehand is reading the Plastics Policy Playbook produced by the Ocean Conservancy and Trash Free Seas Alliance. We can also study the Break Free From Plastic movement website.
Here’s my first draft of a battle plan. What do you think? Anyone interested in helping to organize a meeting to start brainstorming?
Make plastic producing companies more aware of the plastic pollution problem and demand that they fix it.
The next time the Friends of Sligo Creek or even a group of a few neighbors conduct a creek cleanup, let’s perform a “brand audit” to identify the pollution producers. “Big Plastic” does as much damage to our wild lands and natural resources as “Big Oil,” — and it’s not a coincidence that both are often one in the same. We can conduct audits with simple pen and paper, or use the Break Free From Plastic Brand Audit Toolkit.
Once we identify the leading offenders:
- Write letters, e-mail and call the companies. Let them know that we have identified them as leading offenders and that we want them to stop producing so much plastic. Tell them that they need to develop sustainable alternatives to the needless waste they produce.
- Call out all the companies on social media. If you publish or a blog, produce a podcast, or have friends in the media, share the information there.
- Contact your personal representatives on the Montgomery County Council, Executive Marc Elrich, and your reps in the Maryland General Assembly. Tell them you want them to contact the companies, too.
- Contact your congressional delegation with the information. Tell them to demand that the leading offenders reduce their plastic attacks on our tributaries. Encourage them to sign on to the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act of 2020, too. (Rep. Jamie Raskin is already a co-sponsor in the House. At press time, I have not seen that Sen. Chris Van Hollen or Sen. Ben Cardin has taken a position.)
Make local retail stores aware of the problem and demand that they start taking action.
It’s sometimes easier to make local business owners and managers – and management of our national chain stores — change their ways because we can see them face to face. We can:
- Target grocery store and convenience stores – starting with Safeway at 11201 Georgia Avenue, Giant at 2900 University Boulevard West, and 7-Eleven at 11445 Amherst Avenue. Report audit findings and simple first-person observations to management at those stores. Write, e-mail, call and use social media to demand that they reduce their use of plastic. Speak to a manager the next time you’re there. Do you personally know management at those places? If so, ask to speak to them in more detail, convey your knowledge, and ask them to identify ways their own stores can reduce their use of plastic. Also ask them to call on their top offenders to find more sustainable packaging for their products.
- Organize some good-old-fashioned picket lines and protests, following all local ordinances, at the big grocery stores and convenience stores. Use environmentally friendly ways to educate shoppers – simply carrying signs and talking to people rather than handing them any kind of pamphlet. Encourage people to purchase reusable bags available at the stores. Maybe we even raise a little money and give custom-made bags away for free. Each bag could contain educational information.
- Contact the real estate companies that own and manage the land the stores are on and demand that they do more to clean up their lots. Too many shoppers treat commercial properties like personal dumping grounds. 7-Eleven, among others, is always a pigsty. County services are not enough to keep these sites litter-free. Property owners must do better jobs of keeping their lots clean — stopping pollution from blowing into our creeks and streams.
Call on fast food and regular restaurants to become “throwaway-free” establishments.
I remain astonished that so many fast food companies and sit-down restaurants are so hostile toward the natural world. They seem to take pride in flaunting their irresponsibility in our faces. My jaw fell open when I visited one of my favorite restaurants recently. A waiter brought all three adults at my table glasses of Coke with plastic straws in them. I looked around in disbelief, wondering if someone was playing a joke on me. It wasn’t. Let’s:
- Personally speak to managers at restaurants and encourage them to adopt more earth-friendly practices. Write and use social media to reach management at national chains. I was too angry to speak to a manager about my straw, which broke this camel’s back. I recognized that lashing out is not a useful tool for persuasion, so I wrote an old-fashioned letter after I got home and calmed down. Restaurants can:
- Adopt a company policy that forbids wait staff from giving patrons plastic straws unless straws are explicitly requested.
- Convert to straws made from other materials. I’ve heard a few fully grown adult crybabies complain that paper-based straws aren’t as good as plastic straws. Why they’re using straws in the first place, I don’t know, but I do know that I tried other kinds of straws to test them out. I sucked. Fluid came up. End of story.
- Reduce their use of all kinds of plastics and other throwaway products. I recently listened to a great podcast (The Indisposable Podcast: Culture Hacking the End of Plastic) that conveyed great hope on this subject, equating our ability to stop using so much plastic to the way that we stopped smoking cigarettes. The percentage of American adults who smoke, by the way, fell to an all-time low of 13.7 percent in 2018 – representing an astonishing drop of approximately 66 percent since the Surgeon General first warned of the health risks of smoking.
- Take an immediate first step toward responsibility by at least instituting company-wide recycling programs. Most of us in Montgomery County have blue bins outside our doors so that we can recycle – yet every McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Burger King, Subway, Chic-fil-A, and almost every other fast food restaurant I’ve ever seen refuses to recycle? They force pollution on us; they should have to take it back. Conversely, we should all patronize and celebrate restaurants like CAVA in downtown Silver Spring. It’s as close to a throwaway-free restaurant as I’ve seen. It even composts. Incredible! If CAVA can do it, so can every other restaurant.
Persuade state, local and national officials to pass legislation at their respective levels.
I can’t emphasize enough that we need to do everything we can to fight for the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act of 2020. But let’s not wait on Washington. We can lead from Maryland.
- Support Maryland House Bill 209 – the Plastics and Packaging Reduction Act. Authored by Delegate Brooke Elizabeth Lierman (D-46-Baltimore City), the bill seeks to accomplish several important objectives. It would:
- Ban the use of carryout bags at all stores in Maryland.
- Require stores to charge and collect at least ten cents for each durable carryout bag they provide customers.
- Establish a single-use plastics workgroup to study and make recommendations on reducing single-use plastics production.
The bill currently has 44 sponsors in the Maryland House of Delegates. Even Maryland Retailers Association President Cailey Locklair told NPR earlier this year that her organization supports the bill – noting that the patchwork of different local laws makes life difficult for business owners who operate in multiple jurisdictions. The Maryland House of Delegates passed the plastic bags bill on March 11. The measure now heads to the Senate.
- If the Maryland General Assembly and Gov. Larry Hogan can’t get the job done, Montgomery County needs to step up again. We need to call on the Montgomery County Council to pass a new law with much stiffer fees for one-time plastic bag use than even the ten cents that Lierman’s state bill proposes. I’m not sure that a dime is near enough to cause more people to change their bag-use behavior. Making exceptions for low-income residents, the county needs to send a message with a much bigger bag fee of perhaps 25 cents. It could increase that number annually until either a state law is passed or until the county achieves specific, measurable results in bag-use reduction, bags counted in county waterway traps, etc.
- We must also focus on national solutions, including the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act. The legislation would among other things ban the production of certain types of plastic, make plastic producers design and pay for waste and recycling programs, and inspire private-sector innovation to develop more reusable products.
Conduct a community-wide education and action campaign that causes Sligo Creek-area residents to reduce our own plastic consumption — and support local, state and national efforts to break free from plastic pollution.
We could organize a campaign, raise funds, and accomplish a wide range of tasks. To name just a few to start the conversation, this campaign can:
- Develop and disseminate key messages, language, and materials encouraging people to reduce significantly the amount of bottled water that we purchase, recycle more, stop littering, and support all the objectives stated above. (The health benefits of drinking bottled are widely overblown by the Big Plastic hype machine. Unless you live in a municipality with water quality risks, you’re not doing yourself or the environment any favors by drinking it. You can use any number of products to filter your drinking water to address your health concerns, and opt for reusable bottles to hold your water.) Key audiences include creek-area residents, public officials, media and more.
- Focus in particular on “low-hanging fruit” ways to reduce our consumption of single-use plastics. There’s no need to carry home pharmacy prescriptions in a throwaway bag. Ditto for picking up a few small items at a gas station or convenience store.
- Take out the throwaway plastics when we order takeout. When I order takeout, I tell the restaurant not to put plastic utensils in the bag. I’m home; I have my own knives and forks. When I pick up a pizza or hot wings, I open the containers and hand back dipping sauces I don’t need.
Support the Friends of Sligo Creek and other organizations in all of their efforts to reduce plastic pollution and other garbage in our creek.
Friends of Sligo Creek has formed a new litter committee. Get on its committee email list and start participating in a wide range of efforts to clean the creek. Say yes to organized “Sweep The Creek” cleanup efforts. Making “plogging” your fun new way of exercising — picking up trash while you’re out for a stroll. Support efforts to bring more trash traps to the creek. Donate funds to FOSC so that it can purchase more supplies to help clean the creek. These are all excellent action steps we can take now to make an immediate dent in the plastic pollution problem.
In Short …
Breaking free from plastic pollution is one of the most enormous opportunities we have to make life better for ourselves, our environment, and the natural world. Let’s rally around efforts to pass national and state-wide legislation, do even more to target plastic producers who profit from poisoning us and our planet, and change our consumption habits. We can run all the clean-ups we like to confront plastic pollution after it has already been created. The key solution, though, is to stop plastic from being produced in the first place. Until we accept responsibility for that, we’ll only be applying Band-aids to the problem. We must turn the telescope around to focus on reducing the production and use of the plastic that is wounding Sligo Creek and every watershed in America.
Would you like to get involved in this fight? We encourage you to post comments here to help start a conversation, share this website with your friends, and drop us a note at Eye On Sligo Creek if you’re interested in attending a brainstorming meeting. It only takes a few people to start something powerful.