Plastic-Free WNC

​​Plastic pollution: we’ve all seen it littered on the side of the road, blowing in the wind, floating down rivers and streams. Plastic pollution is a global problem, but we all have to be part of the solution.

Watauga Riverkeeper Andy Hill on plastic pollution: “We’ve spent years conducting river cleanups, engaging hundreds of volunteers and partner organizations. We spend a lot of time on the Watauga, New, and Elk Rivers collecting water samples, planting trees, and tracking pollution. I thought we had a good handle on the plastic problem. A watershed change and paradigm shift for how I considered the issue came about when we partnered with the Town of Boone and Asheville Greenworks to install a passive litter collection device known as a Trash Trout. The data we began collecting on the type and amount of single-use plastics — including styrofoam and other littered items — truly blew us away.” 

MountainTrue Watershed Outreach Coordinator Anna Alsobrook clearly remembers the day she and French Broad Riverkeeper Hartwell Carson were confronted with the dismal reality of the plastic pollution crisis: “It was the final straw — figuratively and literally. A few years ago, Hartwell and I were paddling the Swannanoa River. Plastic was everywhere — thousands of plastic shopping bags littered the trees around us, and plastic bottles floated in the river like rafts of ducks. These weren’t new sights for us by any means, but they were the ultimate kick in the gut to start making more permanent changes to protect our rivers and streams.”

Following their experience, Anna and Hartwell started researching the plastics industry. The more they learned, the more they disliked. The strategy of the plastics industry is akin to the tobacco industry — both forced themselves on unsuspecting populations, fully aware of their products’ adverse health and environmental impacts. Both marketed themselves as “cool” and continue to disproportionately burden our most vulnerable populations with hazardous health concerns. 

Cigarette usage has been on the decline since the tobacco industry’s regulation. The plastics industry, to this point, has gotten a free pass. Wrapped up in the oil and gas industry, Big Plastic is cozy with the idea of buying politicians and bullying consumers into buying their products. With few sustainable, affordable, and accessible plastic alternatives, we — the general public — remain Big Plastic’s captive audience.

Some places have started implementing their own rules on plastic — eight states have implemented their own single-use plastic bans, along with 345 municipalities across the nation. We at MountainTrue want to follow their lead, hopefully inspiring others to do the sameWe based our proposed ordinance on the various successes of existing single-use plastic bans. It’s intended to mitigate plastic pollution in Western North Carolina by addressing the single-use plastic problem at its source. 

Now, let’s get into the details:

We begin the ordinance with a whole slew of “Whereases” — a standard practice in bills and ordinances. Our Whereases spell out atrocities of the polluted reality perpetuated by the plastics industry: a reality characterized by environmental injustice, rife with increasingly negative impacts on human and environmental health. 

The ordinance’s first section defines key terms and concepts, like what makes an item single-use, compostable, reusable, etc. We based these definitions on best practices across the country.

The following sections are the figurative meat of the ordinance:

Section two details prohibitions on: 

  • Polystyrene as a primary chemical additive in styrofoam food and beverage containers
  • Plastic shopping bags at points of sale
  • Plastic stirrer sticks and splash guards
  • Plastic straws (we recommend a request-only policy, though nursing homes and hospitals are exempt from this policy)

Some items in this section have built-in exceptions: the ban on plastic shopping bags excludes bags used for produce, bulk items, meats, seafood, flowers, small hardware, live animals (like fish or insects), dry cleaning, or hotel-provided laundry bags. It also excludes yard waste, pet waste, and garbage bags.

With the ban on plastic shopping bags at points of sale, we hope to encourage people to bring their own bags to the store. But, people are human and will forget sometimes. To cover those times, stores can provide paper bags for a fee of $0.10 each. They can also offer reusable bags for sale at checkout. Some locations already provide empty cardboard boxes for customers to use, and that’s ok too. The purpose of the paper bag fee is to discourage customers from relying on paper bags — which have their own environmental impacts — each time they shop. Anyone with SNAP or WIC benefits will be exempt from the fee.   

Section four highlights our proposed bans on disposable plastic service ware. The ban differentiates dine-in versus take-out operations. We recommend that no disposable plastic service ware be provided for dine-in customers and encourage businesses to provide reusable service ware instead. Should a business lack the dishwashing capacity to provide reusables, they are exempt and can provide alternative sustainable service ware. We recommend businesses provide no disposable plastic service ware for take-out operations and instead provide sustainable service ware at the customer’s request. 

The next sections highlight the ordinance’s implementation and enforcement criteria: 

From the passage of the ordinance, businesses will have a set amount of time to source new sustainable alternatives and exhaust their current stocks of and contracts for single-use plastics. Businesses that fail to comply with the ordinance after that period will face penalties of $100 for a first offense, $200 for a second offense, and $500 for a third offense. 

You can read our proposed ordinance in its entirety here

Together, we can stop plastic pollution at its source. Let’s enact common-sense laws at the state and local levels to limit the use of single-use plastics before they end up as litter in our rivers, lakes, and streams. Visit our Plastic-Free WNC site to learn more and take action against plastic pollution in WNC. And join us at 7 p.m. on January 26 for our virtual screening of The Story of Plastic.