As the coronavirus pandemic led to months of stay-at-home orders, Montgomery County residents shuttered inside produced more trash and recycling items than they did last year.
Between March and August, the material sent to the county recycling plant — including glass, plastic, aluminum and tin — increased about 17 percent from last year, according to the Montgomery County Department of Environmental Protection (DEP).
The amount of plastic materials increased 10 percent more than the total commingled waste.
“The COVID crisis has exposed the overreliance of our community on single-use plastics,” Amy Maron, the zero waste lead at the Sierra Club chapter in Montgomery County, said. “It’s a great time for us to take a look at finding solutions that will keep our planet free from plastics that just simply don’t break down in the environment.”
In the spring, at the pandemic’s start, the Montgomery County Council debated a bill to suspend the area’s 5-cent disposable bag fee until 15 days after Maryland’s state of emergency was lifted. The thinking was that reusable bags were a greater risk for contamination because they are not frequently cleaned.
Though the suspension was ultimately defeated, the belief that reusable containers pose a heightened risk persists, said Adam Ortiz, director of the DEP.
Testimony by the Sierra Club in opposition to the planned suspension cited research that shows there is equal opportunity for both single-use and reusable bags to become contaminated with the coronavirus as shoppers and cashiers handle items.
Additionally, research suggests the coronavirus can linger on plastic surfaces for up to 72 hours.
“There’s no data to support that there’s transmission from any reusable item as long as people keep them clean, sanitize and follow all the protocols,” Ortiz said.
Still, chains including Starbucks and Dunkin’ have prohibited customers from bringing in reusable cups.
Additionally, plastic use has increased due to more takeout orders packaged in single-use containers.
Restaurants that have long provided takeout orders in plastic containers have not increased their plastic use per transaction, Maron said. But with more people carrying out their purchases from restaurants, “clearly, that’s going to be a problem,” she added.
Even restaurants that prioritize sustainability have felt the strain.
Founding Farmers, a restaurant and bar chain with D.C. and Montgomery County locations, has won awards for its environmental stewardship. But, it, too, has found itself giving out more plastic containers over the past few months.
“During the pandemic, the increase in plastic to-go containers really concerns me,” Dan Simons, a co-owner of Founding Farmers, said. “But I don’t have an all-paper to-go container that can handle a pot roast, so the challenge is to find something that really works.”
Founding Farmers has opted to package to-go orders in sturdy plastic containers that can be recycled or reused as Tupperware alternatives, Simons said.
Though the restaurant still uses plastic to-go containers, it does not offer plastic bottles. It also has phased out plastic straws, replacing them with a paper straw that Simons believes works just as well.
Simons has launched an organization to allow other restaurants to do the same.
A ban on plastic straws
Our Last Straw started in D.C. Already, 200 restaurants have joined the coalition, which currently includes some businesses in Montgomery County and is expanding.
Now, the business owners are advocating for legislative reform, including a ban on plastic straws and more emphasis on developing sustainable alternatives to plastic utensils and containers.
On Oct. 20, the Montgomery County Council heard a bill on banning plastic straws. The council’s Transportation & Environment Committee is scheduled to discuss the bill further on Monday.
Currently, the bill is aimed at reducing waste, in part by prohibiting the distribution of single-use straws except in certain circumstances. After the committee works on a full version of the bill, it will send it to the full council for a possible vote.
As a business-led environmentally friendly organization, Our Last Straw is unusual, Simons said. The organization is run by people in the business world, which he said has traditionally opposed more environmental regulations.
“My belief is that as a business owner, I need to look at all of the stakeholders,” Simons said. “I think there’s more to business than just profit. Our local community, the planet’s natural resources and the long-term health of people and the environment are also all stakeholders in the business.”
Other well-meaning restaurateurs have also struggled to limit plastic use during the pandemic.
In mid-spring, when the pandemic was beginning and toilet paper was flying off supermarket shelves, many traditional restaurant suppliers ran out of paper carryout products, said Laura Houlihan, owner of Barrel and Crow in Bethesda. Restaurants could not offer indoor seating, so many more people were carrying out.
Houlihan said she always tries to use paper products, but she was forced to use plastic at the pandemic’s start. Now, she has switched back to paper.
Along with the broader shifts towards sustainability, individual consumers can make an impact, Maron said. If people carry out food, they should ask the restaurant not to give them utensils or sauce packets to cut down on the waste, and they should try to bring reusable containers for the restaurant to fill.
Decrease in contamination
Despite the increase in the amount of overall waste, recycling contamination in the county has decreased during the pandemic. Contamination refers to any non-recyclable material put in recycling bins. It is significant because it slows down the recycling process at the county plant.
From March and August, recycling contamination decreased 26.5 percent compared to the same period last year.
At the county recycling facility, all of the raw material that enters is placed on a large conveyor belt. There, workers separate out and dispose of the material that cannot be recycled — including plastic bags, red plastic Solo cups, shrink wrap and plastic films.
Nearly 39 percent of the material being sent to the facility could not be recycled, according to Willie Wainer, the county’s Division of Solid Waste Services Chief.
The flood of messages encouraging recycling can lead people to believe that nearly all materials are recyclable, Wainer wrote in an email to Bethesda Beat. This phenomenon of “wishful recycling” costs the county time and money in separating out the contamination.
“Recycling requires a little bit of attention and education,” County Council Member Tom Hucker said. Number 6 plastic cannot be recycled, even if it has the symbol of three arrows in the shape of a triangle.
All containers must be emptied and rinsed. Lids of glass or plastic containers can be recycled, but they must be removed from the containers.
To reduce contamination, a little more than six months ago, the county launched the Turn the Curve program, which Ortiz dubbed “Contamination Busters.” The program began with a five-week pilot in the neighborhoods with the perceived highest contamination rates, in Area 7 just north of Gaithersburg.
Area 7 includes eight ZIP codes — 20882, 20874, 20886, 20878, 20879, 20877, 20876 and 20850.
Employees sifted through recycling bins outside homes, put tags on contaminated bins so they weren’t picked up, and left behind informational flyers on what can be recycled.
The pilot program reduced contamination in the area about 40 to 50 percent, according to data from Wainer. The county plans to expand the program to the rest of the county, starting with the areas that have the most contamination.
Plastic bags are by far the most common sources of contamination, Ortiz said, but shrink wrap, plastic film, and red plastic Solo cups also find their way into the recycling stream.
Plastic bags usually can be returned to a grocery store. At the recycling center, they can gum up machines and slow down processing.
Ortiz explained the process of converting plastic bottles into bales of raw material, and why contamination can be detrimental. First, a truck retrieves the bins of recycling and takes the waste to the county facility in Shady Grove. There, it is sorted into 12 streams and bundled with its like materials.
The county works with a broker to sell these bundles to the highest bidder. It loses money when some bales sell for less than the $80 operating cost, Ortiz said. But one bale of number 2 clear plastic can fetch $1,200. All of the recycled material the county produces is sold, he added.
Along with the DEP’s efforts to fight contamination, on Oct. 20, the County Council passed a bill to clarify the terms of the county’s polystyrene ban.
The council first passed a bill to ban polystyrene — which many refer to as Styrofoam — containers in 2015, as they cannot be recycled.
But according to Hucker, numerous small restaurant owners were still unaware of the legislation. The new bill widens the scope of the ban to include all #6 polystyrene food-ware — including red Solo cups — and clarifies the intent of the legislation.
Recyclable material is general marked with the logo showing three arrows in the shape of a triangle. The county accepts glass bottles and jars, plastic bottles and containers, cans and foil products, mixed paper and cardboard, and yard trimmings.
“McDonalds got rid of Styrofoam 20 years ago,” Hucker said. “So the fact that we have chicken places using Styrofoam when there are much better alternatives out there and they’ve been illegal in Montgomery County for six years — we’re a little behind the times and we should just help people understand that there are better alternatives.”
The emphasis of the new bill is on education, Hucker said. The DEP will first try to inform restaurants about alternatives to plastic foam before issuing fines as a last resort.
The county’s legislation comes on the heels of a statewide ban of polystyrene containers.
On Oct. 1, the ban went into effect for all of Maryland. It was initially set to launch on July 1, but state officials gave restaurants more time to finish their stock due to pandemic-related shutdowns.
The decrease in contamination is one positive in the county’s work. Additionally, Ortiz said, the pandemic affords an opportunity for the county to learn and innovate and come out of it with a more environmentally focused mindset.
The world at large has been grappling with these same issues. As economies have struggled during the pandemic, the United Nations has called for bold environmental action in the economic recovery from the pandemic. A recent United Nations summit called the COVID-19 pandemic a “wake-up call” and an opportunity to alter how humans interact with the natural world.
On a small scale in the county, local start-up The Paradigm Project, has launched a pilot program to reduce single-use plastic waste. The start-up noted that plastic items are frequently produced, used once and thrown away. The problem became particularly significant during the pandemic, when more people are using takeout containers.
The start-up’s Paradigm One pilot aims to reduce single-use disposable products in the food service sector and to test whether a “circular economy” model — in which items are continually reused and there is no waste — can be successful on a small scale.
Paradigm One has partnered up with the Takoma Beverage Company. The restaurant packages items in durable, reusable plastic containers. After people use them, they return them to a kiosk across the street from the restaurant. There, they are sterilized with alcohol, packaged, and sent to a commercial sanitation facility.
The start-up keeps track of all of the containers. The pilot program examines factors including how long it takes people to return the containers and how many times the containers can be reused.
The program launched on Sept. 14 and will last through Nov. 22, then have a larger formal launch next year, Paradigm Project Founder and CEO John Hansen said.
Hansen said anecdotal evidence suggests that the coronavirus pandemic is distracting people from combating climate change. Because climate change is a slower-moving threat than the coronavirus, it seems less devastating in the short-term, he said, but will end up doing greater damage on a global level.
The “circular economy” pilot program is one example of innovation that has come out of the pandemic, as the increase in plastic use made the issue more pressing.
“There’s a lot of challenging things happening during the pandemic,” Ortiz said. “But there’s also things that we’re learning about how to use less, about how to commute less, how to get work done without driving all over the place, about how to be more efficient. I think we’re going to take those lessons and hopefully be much wiser as we come out of this crisis.”