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Why We Are Thinking About Non-Toxic Reuse

Given that the entire lifecycle of plastic is toxic, if we can reduce the amount of plastic being manufactured, used and disposed of, we will be reducing harmful chemical exposures – especially for frontline communities which bear the brunt of it. With 36 million tons of plastic being produced by the US in 2018, this is a lot of opportunity to reduce toxics!

Single use plastics, such as plastic bags or forks, are of concern since, in addition to their toxic footprint, they also pose massive waste and ecological issues. Half of all plastic is designed to be used only once and then thrown away. Eight million tons of plastic end up in the world’s oceans every year, harming wildlife and piling up on beaches around the globe. If current trends continue, our oceans could contain more plastic than fish by 2050. The scope and severity of the single-use plastic problem is so large that it is gaining significant international attention, including from the United Nations.

So let’s imagine that we get to work, are successful in reducing disposable plastic plate production and use, and declare victory. But wait. What if those single-use plastic plates are replaced by PFAS-coated disposable paper plates? (And yes, this has happened – it is not a hypothetical problem.) Drat. We have solved one toxic problem only to create another. We know this issue well: regrettable substitution.

But what is that you say? What our society really needs to do is to move away from disposable products and focus on incentivizing reusables and creating systems for reuse that can help bolster local economies? We couldn’t agree more! But there’s a catch: we need to make sure that those reusable products are non-toxic and sustainable too. Because otherwise we are still stuck in the cycle of regrettable substitution.

It is going to take a lot of work to transition to an economy where products and processes are truly safe and sustainable. Phasing out single-use plastic will be critical, as will phasing out the use of the most toxic plastics such as polystyrene and polyvinyl chloride (PVC). Yet equally important will be ensuring that what products that are used in their place are truly safer. Which is why Safer States is thinking a lot about non-toxic reuse and is working with UPSTREAM, Break Free From Plastic, and other organizations to ensure that we are pursuing real solutions to the toxics and plastic crisis.

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