If you have read this column before, you know that I have a personal mission to reduce the amount of waste I generate. I don’t always succeed, in fact sometimes I fail spectacularly. But I try, and I encourage others to do the same. Individual behavior change is important, but large-scale reduction is what has the biggest impact in the short term. The most effective way to change what we toss out is by regulating things before they get to the consumer. This is often referred to as extended producer responsibility.
When I was younger, I used to like collecting the little shampoo and conditioner bottles from hotels. It seemed so novel to someone who rarely stayed in hotels growing up, but as I learned more about our waste cycle and the complexities of recycling, I realized those were just adding to the single-use waste stream. In recent years, several hotels I’ve stayed at have had refillable containers with those same amenities. The first time I saw them, I happily mentioned it to a friend that I was traveling with, and I can assure you that they were amused by my level of excitement over hotel shampoo dispensers.
Soon, all California hotels will be following suit. The small plastic bottles that have become ubiquitous in hotel rooms will no longer be provided in the room when you arrive. And hotels are not the only ones who will need to change their practices; Assembly Bill 1162, which regulates those small plastic bottles, applies to all lodging establishments. While it does not take effect until 2023, places are already transitioning to the larger refillable dispensers as a way of not only reducing waste but also saving money.
Looked at from a product lifecycle view, this shift will not just reduce the amount of plastic waste generated but could also result in fewer delivery truck trips. That is important because transportation is one of the largest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions on the planet. It is also important because we are having to think a lot harder about the lifecycle of our products due to changing recycling market availability.
I’ve written about recycling as a commodities market in the past, and the changes that have been causing recycling market drops, which will eventually cause trash rates to increase. For years, those of us lucky enough to live somewhere with curbside recycling have felt like we were doing a great job at not throwing things away because we put them in our blue bin. But the reality is, most of the plastic was being shipped overseas (primarily China), where it was either turned into something else, or…not.
The end-of-life trail of our plastics recycling is murky at best. There are large, well-run plants that take plastic recyclables and turn them into pellets, which are then turned into something else. But there are also plenty of smaller, illegally operated plants that are often major contributors to environmental hazards. Plastics recycling is a very dirty business when it comes to both water and air pollution, and poorly run recycling practices in economically depressed countries are too often associated with a rise in health problems for the local community.
The end of little plastic bottles in your hotel room will help with this problem. While they could still be available upon request depending upon the place you are, fewer single-use products means less trash. And reducing waste at the source is the most effective way for us to get a handle on the global trash problem. I love our little beach community, and the people here who take pride in keeping it clean. The more we think about the life of those small throw-away items, the greater chance we have of keeping beaches around the planet clean.