Refill Not Landfill: No-Plastic Challenge

Lebanon mayor’s proclamation ceremony at Lebanon’s Recycling Facility

The week leading up to Earth Day on April 22 was a challenge for a group of Upper Valley folks who had taken the No Plastic Pollution Challenge – we were committed to not buying plastic. No plastic. Do you have any idea how challenging that can be? Bread bags, cheese wrap, ketchup bottles, yogurt cups, chip bags, cider jugs, peanut butter and mayonnaise jars, take-away cups, frozen food bags, maple syrup jugs, you name it, all soon-to-be-disposed-of plastic.

Two million single-use plastic bags are distributed every minute throughout the world – used for a moment, tossed, and then remain in the environment for centuries as they break down into tiny particles that infiltrate our soils and waters and bodies. In spite of years of the mantra Reduce-Reuse-Recycle only 9% of plastics is actually recycled, and with China’s recent ban on foreign waste, unprecedented amounts of plastic are ending up in landfills and oceans. And production of plastics is a massive contributor to climate warming.

Forty people committed to a week-long experience of not buying plastic, sixteen being from Lebanon. Why?

“I reluctantly got on board with this Challenge, said Lebanon’s Suzanne Church. “I thought we were doing okay bringing cloth bags to the store, washing plastic bags for store-recycling programs, tossing all hard plastics with the reassuring symbols into the appeasing recycling bin. Then we learned that only a small percentage of plastics are actually recycled, and about the devastating impacts of plastic on marine life. The structure of the challenge creates a powerful awareness exercise that helps you see myriad environmental issues with a new lens. We were inspired learning about the many ways people are putting time, energy, creativity, and caring into this issue.”

“I’ve been concerned about the rise of plastic waste for years,” says Cindy Heath, former Director of Lebanon Recreation and Parks. “Six-pack rings, retail store bags, outdated electronics, out-of-fashion textiles, plant pots, cheap lawn furniture, broken toys, media, food packaging – the list goes on. Joining the NPPC is a way of expanding my actions on a personal level.”

“Like other participants in this challenge, I have been alarmed about environmental degradation and ill effects on health from the production, use and disposal of plastics all around the globe, “says Rainie Kelly of West Lebanon. “Of the many steps we’ve taken in our household to reduce the plastic in our lives, none brings us greater pleasure than shopping at farmers’ markets and participating in Community Supported Agriculture. We have a CSA share at a local farm. For six months a year, we rely on baskets and reused bags to bring home organic produce, meats, eggs, honey, syrup, and other products from the farm . It’s only a partial solution to the plastic problem, but one that is easy to implement and quite economical.”

“The deciding factor for me was a photo of a whale sculpture displayed in London,” says Lebanon resident Pat McGovern. “It was huge and made entirely of plastic debris depicting the amount of plastic that enters our oceans every second. 100,000 marine animals die from ingesting plastic debris each year, and one million seabirds. It has to stop.”

Marc Morgan, Manager of Lebanon’s Solid Waste and Recycling Facility, was up for the No Plastic Challenge and suggested the theme Refill NOT Landfill: Refill your water bottle, your take-out travel mug, your cloth shopping bags, and your own containers for buying in bulk. We can reduce the flow of debris by not taking new containers. When asked what motivated him to take the challenge, Marc said it was his faith in “God who made this beautiful place we call Earth. In response to that faith and love for Him we should care for it.”

Mayor Suzanne Prentiss joined the effort with a proclamation ceremony at Lebanon’s Recycling Facility, declaring April Refill NOT Landfill month.

Challenge-takers were delighted to find that many businesses in Lebanon were already encouraging waste-reduction by offering discounts to those who brought their own travel mugs. (See sidebar.) We found that Lebanon Diner no longer automatically serves straws with beverages. Some businesses use take-out cups made with plant-based plastic, avoiding petrochemicals in the production phase. Those cups still end up in the landfill with all the other disposables: eliminating the single-use cup, by bringing one’s own, is the most effective solution.

The Lebanon Co-op proved to be a valuable resource because of the extensive Bulk Department. “We could bring our own jars and bags and fill them with rice, flour, nuts, coffee, olive oil, freshly-ground peanut butter, dried beans, loose tea, fig bars, granola, etc.” says Pat McGovern.  “It helped to shop without a specific meal or recipe in mind. Shop the non-plastic offerings and be creative!”

“The best thing about the challenge is that it asks each of us to do something,” said Harrison Drinkwater, an Enfield resident and board member of the Co-op Food Stores. “Everyone can commit to at least one less plastic bag or one less water bottle or one less single-use coffee cup a day. I really like the ‘refill not landfill’ emphasis!

There were many conversations about the problem of plastics in Suzanne Church’s household: “Doing the challenge has helped my family consider packaging as part of the equation in deciding whether or not to buy something.” As part of the planning for a week without plastics, her twin 10-year-old boys, Lindsey and Augie, learned to make tortillas. Lindsey explained why they were not buying tortillas wrapped in plastic: “There’s this type of material we invented, and next thing you know a sea creature has died.”

For Suzanne, this family conversation has extended to her 81-year-old mother in Maine. Her mother, Jan Church, writes: “The main driver for my participation in the plastics project is guilt felt not only every time I forget to bring my alternative bags into the store, but also the many times each day I use or reuse plastic that will soon be in the garbage. The image of the ocean’s vast floating whirlpool of trash often invades my thoughts. Turning those thoughts to tackling the problem was a relief.”


Whale sculpture depicting amount of plastic debris entering our oceans every second.

Whale sculpture depicting amount of plastic debris entering our oceans every second.

Avoiding the huge array of plastic yogurt containers in the dairy case, Rainie Kelly made her own yogurt and found it easy to do with just a pan, a thermometer, 2% milk, and a bit of plain organic yogurt as a starter. “This was so easy and delicious, I’m probably never going to buy yogurt again.”

Elizabeth Borowsky-LeBlanc observed, “I’ve felt good about utilizing reusable ‘beeswax wrap’ for keeping items covered in the fridge, and am using the Tupperware that I have (alas, even the glass containers have plastic lids). Much of the produce (e.g. premixed salad, or even frozen veggies) comes in a plastic container or at least a bag. Meat is in packaging. It’s not easy… awareness is helpful and sobering, and it’s hard to imagine how much has already been consumed in my lifetime.”

“This plastics challenge has changed my life!” says Kathleen Beckett of Lebanon. “Reading that Marc Morgan had given up plastics for Lent challenged me to move from a somewhat casual mentality about waste to a deeper concern about my everyday choices and their environmental effects. Being conscientious about how I limit what ends up in Lebanon’s landfill has become a key element of what matters to me in my day-to-day life. This is definitely not easy, but I am finding it to be a rewarding experience!”

Judy McClure of West Lebanon agrees; “I am so much more aware than I was before participating in this challenge, and I am thankful for this opportunity.  I have learned to ask myself, before purchasing something, if there is an alternative that is better for our earth.”

“This has been a great process,” says Lebanon’s Devin Wilkie. “I’m remembering to take my reusables to tea shops and restaurants, and my shopping bags and water bottles are fully stocked. (I’m) hoping to keep up with it even after this week, as much as possible if not completely!”

When asked what they gleaned from the challenge, Mary and Tom Martz say, “the main lesson we’ve learned: be more mindful of the constantly present plastic problem, and little by little together we’ll make a difference. That’s our anti-plastic focus and we’re sticking to it!”

Yes! We need to work together to solve the plastic problem. The No Plastics Challenge offers a structure that gets wheels turning, ushers in reflection about habits, and brings about shifts that will pay forward for the health of our environment. Positive momentum builds as we take concrete action. It’s a valuable experience, and can even be a life-changer! We’ll reduce our consumption even more knowing we’re part of a community that is striving together. Join the movement: try foregoing plastic for one week and see where the experiment takes you. And stay tuned for the UV No Plastic Challenge 2019!

Refill NOT Landfill!


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