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July 23, 2008 > Fremont Tackles Paper v. Plastic

Fremont Tackles Paper v. Plastic

By Denny Stein

Like many cities in America, Fremont is grappling with the problem of ubiquitous plastic. As we are often reminded on TV, plastic gives us "better things for better living." But a plastic, whose production creates greenhouse gases and uses up valuable petroleum resources, also give us overburdened landfills, tree debris, highway litter, and fouled waters. Even tiny remnants of plastic can poison wildlife, both waterfowl and land animals.

The Fremont City Council delegated the job of finding local solutions to the plastics problem to Kathy Cote, Fremont's Environmental Services Manager. Ms. Cote and her staff researched the problems involved, the solutions being pursued by other cities, the science behind the concerns and the options for Fremont. On May 6, 2008, Ms. Cote returned to the Council with an Environmental Services presentation, Regulating Polystyrene Containers and Plastic Bags, and recommendations. The presentation to the Council tackled the problems of Styrofoam (expanded polystyrene) and Solid Polystyrene containers (polystyrene), separately from the problem of plastic bags (high density polystyrene).

Look around your house; have you taken leftovers home from a restaurant, bought coffee or soda to go, or used plastic utensils for a picnic? Our everyday lives are filled with polystyrene plastic.i Yes, these cups and boxes and bowls are recyclable, and yes, many Fremont citizens are diligent recyclers. Yet just look out the window to see all the Styrofoam products that are not recycled. Like many of today's environmental problems, though, there are pros and cons to the use of these items. That Styrofoam or plastic cup may be durable and inexpensive, but it is a prime contributor to litter and pollution, wildlife and marine life injuries, greenhouse gases, petroleum use, and yet to be determined human health issues.

So what can we use instead? And what impact will the alternatives have on our lives? The most practical solution seems to be materials that can be composted, such as cornstarch-derived cups, and to-go containers made of paper or other compostable material. The City of Fremont is ahead of the curve on recycling and composting household waste. We have our green bins into which we put household yard waste and kitchen scraps, and an active city composting program. The next step is to extend this program to restaurants, grocery stores, and apartment buildings. Without all of Fremont's citizens, householders, renters, and the business community on-board, a viable recycling and composting program will not work. For this reason, the recommendation to the City Council is to phase-in an expanded Waste Diversion, or Organics Collection Program.

Currently, in Fremont, single family homes can put food scraps and compostable containers into the yard waste can. A few businesses also participate in the program. The expanded program would extend these services to apartment buildings and more businesses. Eventually, the goal of the new Organics Collection Program would be for all businesses, apartment buildings and single family homes collect food scraps and compostable containers in their yard waste cans and have them picked up by the city. The hope is that the program can be a success on a totally volunteer basis.

To get to this point, the Fremont Environmental Services Department will be working with the City's stakeholders to develop specific recommendations for programs, including the necessary infrastructure, and costs. Currently, Fremont has 40 (out of 400) food service facilities on-board with its Commercial Food Scrap Program, and 20 businesses certified as "green" businesses. The initial implementation of environment friendly programs can be costly, but the savings will come soon enough for businesses in lower garbage removal fees, and environmental benefit.

At the State level, pending California legislature, AB 904 states, "Land based litter constitutes nearly 80% of the marine debris found on our beaches and oceans, and 90% of it is plastic." AB 904 will prohibit food providers (starting in 2012) from distributing disposable food packaging unless the packaging is compostable or recyclable.

Plastic bags, made from high-density polystyrene or HDP, are the second prong in the battle to rescue our environment from the overwhelming litter of daily living. The California Assembly has been working on this problem at a statewide level. California's AB 2449, (a bill passed in 2006 requiring grocery stores to offer plastic bag recycling to their customers and encourage the use of re-usable bags) states that "on a global level the production of plastic bags uses over 12 million barrels of oil, and causes the death of thousands of marine animals through ingestion and entanglement."

You have only to look around to see that plastic bags do not biodegrade, but "break down into smaller and smaller toxic bits that contaminate soil and waterways and end up in the food chain" when eaten by animals. This legislation prohibits towns and cities from imposing a fee on the use of plastic bags, in the hope that communities will voluntarily recycle the bags and/or use re-useable bags. Unfortunately, the reduction in non-recycled plastic bags in the environment has not been as significant as hoped.

The City of Fremont's Environmental Waste Department, after looking at the pros and cons of paper bags, compostable bags, and reusable bags, determined that reusable bags are the most appropriate solution. Reusable bags are constructed of fibers, like cotton, or wool, and can be manufactured of recycled materials, such as tires, plastic cups, milk jugs, etc. As a consumer, you can sew or knit your own reusable bag, from tee shirts, jeans, or leftover yarns. Stores can sell reusable bags for $1 or more if decorated or prestigious. The City of Fremont plans to give away reusable bags at City events.

Pending California legislation may allow municipalities to impose a fee on stores that are not meeting recycling or diversion standards, or that would ban the use of plastic bag altogether. The approach of the Fremont City Council, on the recommendation of the Environmental Waste Department, is to work with the citizens and businesses of the community to agree on composting and diversion programs, for Styrofoam and hard plastics that can be adopted in timely phases.
As for the plastic bags issues, the City plans on working with area grocers and retailers to encourage and expand the use of recyclable bags by their customers. Fremont's plans to regulate polystyrene containers and plastic bags are still in the embryonic stage, and suggestions are welcomed from the community. The Environmental Waste Department welcomes ideas and suggestions, and can be reached at 510-494-4570.
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