Last year, I read the book, From the Bottom Up: One Man’s Crusade to Clean America’s Rivers by Chad Pregracke. It was about Living Lands & Waters, the organization established by the author to clean up trash along rivers. His story was super inspiring, especially because I love to clean up trash (and would even do it for a living if I could make that work). This organization, based out of Illinois along the Mississippi River, performs large-scale river clean-ups. Since 1998, they have worked on 25 rivers in 21 states, and have conducted more than 1,100 community clean-ups.
“[Living Lands & Waters] hosts dozens of community river cleanups each year to help watershed conservation efforts with the assistance of thousands of volunteers of all ages who are willing to roll up their sleeves and get dirty – individuals, schools, community organizations, businesses and more!”1
So when I discovered that I could get involved with local clean-ups along the Tennessee River, I was more than excited! I was too late to sign up last fall, but this month, I signed up when an opportunity came up near my area.
This one was hosted by Keep the Tennessee River Beautiful and AFTCO (American Fishing Tackle Company) in partnership with Living Lands & Waters. Keep the Tennessee River Beautiful is a nonprofit that serves as the first Keep America Beautiful affiliate in the nation to focus solely on a river. Their mission is to educate and inspire people to take care of the Tennessee River and show the impact of trash. Their volunteer cleanups are held along the 652-mile Tennessee River and its tributaries, an area spanning seven states!2
I took my family with me. My son enjoyed riding in the boats and meeting people. He really fed off of the energy of the crew, who took time out to make him feel included. I’m proud that he understood why we were there and that he gets why it’s important at such a young age.
It was a gorgeous day on Nickajack Lake! We picked up so much trash – hundreds of plastic bottles, Styrofoam pieces, tires, broken fishing tackle and line, plastic lighters, plastic bags, food wrappers, glass bottles, and many other pieces of broken plastic items. Even a section of a plastic dock and an entire plastic truck bed liner.
One of the participating kids, Cash Daniels, also known as the Conservation Kid (@theconservationkid), was there with his family. Cash is an avid environmentalist and ocean lover. He has organized many river clean-ups and is also a published author and public speaker. I had read about him before and it was cool to meet him and his family.
The volunteers all worked hard, and the crewmembers were like superheroes!
Their leadership and positivity are what struck me most. Both the executive director of Keep the Tennessee River Beautiful and the crewmembers of Living Lands & Waters were super positive, highly enthusiastic, hard-working, and obviously happy to be doing this!
By the end of the afternoon, we had loaded two full flat-bottomed boats with trash and debris from just a few shorelines.
In the end, it was an awesome experience. I recommend that if you’re able and interested, you join a local clean-up in your area. We can all make a difference!
“That’s how the change for our river will happen: through local partners and individuals who are eager about taking ownership to protect and improve their beautiful river community.” -Kathleen Gibi, Executive Director of Keep the Tennessee River Beautiful3
Remember, the most important thing you can do right now is to stop using disposable items. Especially those made from plastic. Even when you think you are properly disposing or recycling something, so much of it inevitably makes its way into our landscapes. We have to turn off the tap when it comes to disposable items.
I hope to meet you on a future clean-up! Thank you for reading, please share and subscribe!
In October 2022, I received this Starter Kit in my mailbox (wrapped in plastic film). This program claims to be a solution for recycling all of the non-recyclable plastics that come into our daily lives. Items must be rinsed or cleaned first, of course, and they don’t accept everything. Items they will accept include yogurt containers, Styrofoam or polystyrene take-out containers, plastic packaging,plastic straws, and many others. For a full list please refer to the graphic below. They do not accept items that you can already recycle in your area, such as any plastics #1 and #2. They also do not accept #3 PVC plastics.
The program admittedly sounded exciting, but over the years of doing this, I’ve learned to be skeptical. With this program, I could now recycle all my non-recyclable plastics with this mostly convenient Hefty EnergyBag Program and honestly, it felt too good to be true. So I started looking into it. When I first looked up their website, using the QR code from the mailer, they did not include Tennessee – the closest was Atlanta, Georgia.
I started by reaching out to them through their Contact Us page and asked why I received the mailer if the program wasn’t available in my area. A week later, they updated their website and responded to me. They said I could take items bagged in the orange bags to our local recycling center in Chattanooga, Tennessee. They sent the mailers out just a couple of weeks too early.
How does the program work?
Let’s break this down so we can understand how it works. I follow the order on the company’s mailer. This information is also available on their website.1
#1: “Consumers must purchase Hefty EnergyBag product.”
The bags, which you must purchase at your own cost, cost about $10.49 per box of 26. This amounts to under $0.41 per bag. Seems cheap, but when compared to Hefty Strong Tall Kitchen Drawstring Trash Bags in the same size (13 Gallon ), those are about $0.18 per bag. That means these special orange bags are more than double the cost of regular trash bags. So right at the beginning, the company is shifting the cost to the consumers. Hefty makes many plastic products that you’re already paying for, so why aren’t they covering the cost of the bags if they really want to do the right thing?
#2: “Hard-to-recycle plastics get collected in the bag.”
Consumers are once again given the responsibility of not only collecting all the items into the special bags, but also understanding which items are and are not eligible.
#3: “Full tied bags can be dropped off at any of the designated recycling centers in the area.”
It refers to their website for locations. The bags are not collected curbside; they must be dropped off at a designated place. Where I live, I must take the bags to the recycling center. I’m not sure of the reason for this. While some people will participate, many residents won’t recycle anything unless it is picked up curbside.
#4: “The normal recycling truck collects and delivers the bags to a local Recycling Facility (MRF) as a part of normal service.”
This statement is confusing since it seems like they mean the curbside recycling truck will pick it up as part of the normal service, but it means that the orange bags will be collected at the recycling center on a regular basis and taken to the MRF facility.
#5: “Bags are sorted at the MRF and sent to a facility for use as valued resources.”
This is where the process gets muddled because our local Materials Recovery Facility (MRF) does not ship or sell plastics #3-#7. They landfill those materials. I’ve also read that most MRFs will not open and sort recyclables that are in plastic bags. Will they make an exception for the Hefty EnergyBag Program orange bags? I was curious to know if our local MRF, which is WestRock, has made a commitment to participate in this specific program, and if not, what will they do with the orange bags? I emailed Hefty (Reynolds Consumer Products is the parent company) with the following questions:
1) Your website indicates that these bags go to our local MRF for sorting. However, if our local MRF currently landfills plastics #3-#7, how do we know these items will get used for another purpose and not be landfilled?
2) Do you know if our local MRF is now participating in this Hefty program? Have they made a specific commitment for the Hefty EnergyBag Program?
3) Is it up to each individual MRF to decide what to do with the orange bags?
4) Have the MRFs preselected end-of-life partners (this term was extracted from your 2020 life cycle assessment)?
I wish I could include their response, but unfortunately, I have now sent this request 3 times and still have not received a reply.
More recently, I sent a list of similar questions to our local MRF, WestRock, but I have not yet received a response.2
#6: “The collected plastics can become an energy resource, feedstock for fuels or new products, or ground into smaller pieces to make new plastic building products and plastic lumber.”
Hefty indicates that these plastics can be reused to create energy, lowering our need for petroleum or new fossil fuels. On their website, under their header “PLASTIC WASTE IS MORE VALUABLE THAN YOU THINK,” they advertise that these plastics can be used for the following purposes:
Alternative fuel for manufacturing cement, reducing the need for natural resources like coal
Aggregate material for concrete blocks, plastic lumber, and other building products
New plastic products such as park benches, and Adirondack chairs
Feedstocks that can be refined into high-grade fuels or converted back into plastics
I wish plastic waste were actually valuable, because most of the time, it isn’t. Most plastics go to a landfill.
The above information came from a study that Reynolds Consumer Products commissioned, from the Sustainable Solutions Corporation, a company that helps envision and design sustainable solutions for companies. The “intended use of this study is to determine the environmental benefits of alternative end-of-life options currently utilized in the Hefty® EnergyBag® program compared to a traditional trash bag (Flex Bag) sent to landfill.” One of the main goals is “to create a more sustainable future by diverting this waste [from the landfill] and utilizing the material as a valued resource.”3
Does this mean the Hefty EnergyBag Program is a ploy?
Maybe. Hefty indicates that “the function of the Hefty® EnergyBag® orange bag is to serve as an alternative household waste bag to collect and divert difficult-to-recycle plastics from landfill.”4 A worthy goal, but I don’t know that it is actually happening. They are shifting the cost and effort to the consumer and the MRF. It also sounds like they are allowing the MRF to decide what to do with these items. However, most MRFs cannot sell “hard to recycle” plastics to manufacturers because there is just so much of it and it’s of little value.
In my area, I believe the Materials Recovery Facility (MRF) landfills the plastics that the Hefty EnergyBag Program collects. Perhaps that will change soon, and if it does, I will update this article! But it is worth asking your local MRF if they are participating in this program. Be direct and let them know you’ll be spending extra money on these bags and that you’d like to know if they are able to sort and sell or ship the materials.
Marketing (or Greenwashing?)
Hefty wants all of this non-recyclable plastic, including the plastics they manufacture, to stop going to landfills. So they paid for a study showing how these plastics could be used. But they themselves have nothing to do with the recycling or end-of-life use of these plastics. So, Hefty looks like they are doing the right thing, while earning more profits from selling the orange bags. They are not stopping plastic production at the source, even within their own company.
Is this just an excuse to justify the continued production of single-use disposable plastic products?
This is likely just a marketing campaign in order to increase their appearance of sustainability. If Hefty wanted to make a real difference, they would cover the cost of the bags for consumers, and/or cover some of the costs for the MRFs to do the extra collection and sorting. Even more, Hefty could have those plastics sent to them directly and they could reuse them in their own products.
I imagine it will be easy to spot these bright orange bags in landfills 50 years from now.
I hope this is helpful. Thanks for reading, please share and subscribe!
World Sea Turtle Day is a day to honor and highlight the importance of sea turtles. It is on June 16th because that was the birthdate of Dr. Archie Carr, the Sea Turtle Conservancy’s founder and the ‘father of sea turtle biology.’
Sea turtles have been around for at least 110 million years, as far back as the Cretaceous period and the dinosaurs. They spend their lives in the sea, except for nesting, and swim in almost all oceans. Sea turtles navigate through their sensitivity to the Earth’s magnetic fields. All species of female sea turtles return to the same exact beach they hatched on to nest.
Six out of seven species of sea turtles are threatened with extinction, according to the IUCN Red List. The 7th is listed as ‘data deficient.’1
“Humans have caused sea turtle populations to decline significantly all over the world.” -Oceana.org2
“Sea turtles are a fundamental link in marine ecosystems.” -World Wildlife Fund
Sea turtles keep the natural ocean environment and the food chain balanced. Following are specific ways in which they provide this balance.
Balancing the Food Chain
The largest sea turtles, the leatherbacks, consume up to 440 pounds of jellyfish daily. Loggerheads and Green sea turtles also eat them. As sea turtle populations decline, jellyfish populations increase. This not only affects humans, but it affects fish populations. “Declining fish stocks leave jellyfish with less competition for food, resulting in proliferation of jellyfish around the world. The increase in jellyfish is already proving detrimental to the recovery of fish stocks since jellyfish prey on fish eggs and larvae.”3 So the fewer sea turtles, the more jellyfish, and the fewer fish worldwide. This alone could cause devastation.
Certain fish “clean” the barnacles, algae, and epibionts (organisms that survive by living on other organisms) from sea turtles’ bodies and shells, sometimes providing their sole food source. Without turtles, these organisms would have to find another, potentially unsuccessful, food source. “Species associated with a host, such as sea turtles, are important to generating and maintaining diversity throughout the world’s oceans.”4
Sea turtles also provide food to many other species as prey. Many predators eat eggs and hatchlings, and even juvenile sea turtles. Sharks and killer whales sometimes eat adult sea turtles.
Last, but not least, some species, such as loggerheads, consume crustaceans. While eating they break the shells into fragments and create trails in sediment along the ocean floor, practices that both contribute to what is known as ‘nutrient cycling.’
Sea turtles are one of the few animals that eat seagrass, especially Green sea turtles. It needs to be cut short constantly to stay healthy and to keep growing. Seagrass beds are important because they are the breeding and developmental grounds for many species of fish, shellfish, and crustaceans. Those species are consumed by many other species, so lower levels of seagrass impact the food chain, all the way up to humans.5
Additionally, seagrass control provides balance to the ocean. “Without constant grazing, seagrass beds become overgrown and obstruct currents, shade the bottom, begin to decompose and provide suitable habitat for the growth of slime molds. Older portions of seagrass beds tend to be overgrown with microorganisms, algae, invertebrates and fungi.” The Caribbean has seen a sharp decrease in Green sea turtles and thus a loss of productivity in commercially fished species.6
“All parts of an ecosystem are important, if you lose one, the rest will eventually follow.” -Sea Turtle Conservancy7
Dune Protection and Prevention of Beach Erosion
Beaches and dunes do not get a lot of nutrients because sand doesn’t hold them. However, all of the sea turtle nests, eggs, and hatchlings don’t make it to the sea, leaving valuable nutrients behind, such as nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium, that allow the dunes to thrive. Even the eggshells from hatched eggs provide some nutrients. This is called nutrient cycling. “Dune vegetation is able to grow and become stronger with the presence of nutrients from turtle eggs. As the dune vegetation grows stronger and healthier, the health of the entire beach/dune ecosystem becomes better. Stronger vegetation and root systems helps to hold the sand in the dunes and helps protect the beach from erosion.”8 But as sea turtles decline, nests decline, and the beaches start eroding.
Additionally, sea turtle eggs, shells, and even hatchlings provide food for other species, which then redistribute the nutrients through their feces. Those nutrients also feed the vegetation that provides stabilization to the dunes.
Coral Reef Development
Hawksbill Sea Turtles, which eat a lot of sea sponges, help protect the coral reefs. “Sponges compete aggressively for space with reef-building corals. By removing sponges from reefs, hawksbills allow other species, such as coral, to colonize and grow.” Without sea turtles, sponges could start to dominate reef communities and limit the growth of corals, and altering the entire coral ecosystem.9
“These amazing creatures are endangered by human interactions, both intentional and unintentional: fishing lines, nets, boat hulls, propellers, and plastic debris, which the turtles mistake for jellyfish and ingest.” -Joel Sartore10
What You Can Do
There are so many things you can do to help protect sea turtles! Here’s a quick list, but you can check out my article “Sea Turtles are Endangered” for detailed information.
Avoid plastic bags. This is a big one because turtles, especially leatherbacks, mistake floating plastic shopping bags for jellyfish, and ingesting bags kills them.
Stop using disposable plastic straws; decline them at restaurants. If you really must have one, carry a metal or glass straw with you.
Keep beaches clean. Litter on beaches prevents hatchlings from reaching the sea.
Turn off the lights.
Use coral reef-friendly sunscreen.
Buy sustainable seafood.
Do your part to slow climate change.
Reduce the chemicals you use in your yard and dispose of others properly through the hazardous waste collection in your area.
Don’t buy products made from real turtle shells.
Make turtle cookies. I know that sounds funny, but if you have children, cookies are a great conversation starter. Even coworkers would give you a few minutes of listening while enjoying them.
Educate others. Try the cookie trick.
Stop releasing helium balloons.
Recycle, or better yet, don’t buy plastic as much as possible.
There are numerous programs that offer sea turtle nest “adoption” for donation. You can do a quick internet search to find one. I adopt a loggerhead sea turtle nest annually through the Coastal Discovery Museum on Hilton Head Island. For my donation, I receive a certificate, a car sticker, and regular email updates about the general nesting season, and information about the specific nest I’ve sponsored. The funds support their educational programs “which inspire people to care for the Lowcountry and all the plants, animals, and people who call this place home.”11
I hope this information was helpful, and thanks for reading. Please share and subscribe!
Article, “Information About Sea Turtles: Species of the World,” Sea Turtle Conservancy, accessed June 2, 2021. This provides an overview with images of all seven species of sea turtle.
Article, “World Sea Turtle Day: 10 Things you Never Knew About Sea Turtles,” World Wildlife Fund UK, June 16, 2018. This is a quick read and is a great way to introduce the topic to children.
Report, “Why Healthy Oceans Need Sea Turtles: The Importance of Sea Turtles to Marine Ecosystems,” by Wilson, E.G., Miller, K.L., Allison, D. and Magliocca, M., Oceana.org, accessed June 5, 2021.
Article, “Drone footage shows 64,000 green turtles migrating to Cairns rookery,” The Sydney Morning Herald, June 10, 2020. The article shows a migration map for Green Sea Turtles.
Article, “Information About Sea Turtles: Threats to Sea Turtles,” Sea Turtle Conservancy, accessed June 2, 2021. This offers additional information on the many threats sea turtles face.
I haven’t bought trash bags in more than four years.
How on Earth is that possible? I can’t wait to tell you!
Paying for trash
We are intentionally paying for something we are going to throw away.
We all pay for garbage removal in some form, whether through municipal or property taxes or through a waste management service. On top of that, the traditionally accepted way of containing this trash is single-use plastic trash bags. We pay for new plastic bags, made from fossil fuels, to deposit and remove waste from our homes.
Every time consumers purchase plastic, we are supporting the plastics industry and fueling the effort to harvest more fossil fuels. Then we take those bags we paid for and put them in the ground. We are paying to throw stuff away.
“The first plastic garbage bag was produced in 1950. Globally, these bags collect 7.4 million tons of waste each day.”1
I’ve saved quite a bit of money by not buying trash bags. Trash bags range from $4 per box up to $12 per box depending on size, strength, flexibility, and even scent. Advertisers want you to believe that the most expensive trash bags will keep your home clean and sanitary. This is not a new trend, but one that has been accelerated by companies such as Glad Products (owned by Clorox) who conducted surveys and discovered that many Americans believe any bad smell means their home is dirty (or rather, fear that other people will think they’re house is dirty). Worse, scented trash bags likely contain phthalates (commonly referred to as “fragrances”) which are usually endocrine and hormone disruptors that can cause serious health problems over time. These scents may mask the odor of your garbage, but at what cost to your health?
Another marketing trend to be aware of is “biodegradable” or bioplastic trash bags. Don’t be fooled. Nothing, including these bags, breaks down in a landfill. They require an industrial composting facility to biodegrade. “There’s also no telling if harmful additives or chemicals were added during the manufacturing process, and not all bags labeled biodegradable or compostable will actually break down in a compost facility.”2 Recycled plastic trash bags are better than new or ‘virgin’ plastic bags, but I still do not buy these for my home.
“Landfills are not meant to encourage decomposition. They are dry and anaerobic spaces that essentially ‘mummify’ anything contained in them, including plastic.”3
But now you can stop buying them too.
Three years ago, it occurred to me that I was wasting money buying bags just to put in a landfill. Then I read a blog article on myplasticfreelife.com and decided that there really is no need for store-bought plastic garbage bags. “Since we make almost zero trash, and the trash we do make is dry, we don’t have any need for bags to collect it,” the author wrote.[efn_note]Article, “Collecting Garbage Without Plastic Trash Bags?” myplasticfreelife.com, February 15, 2010.[/efn_note] I found that once I eliminated wet garbage, I no longer needed plastic garbage bags.
What is wet garbage?
This mostly refers to food scraps and food waste. If you are able to compost through a municipal service like the ones they have in California, please do so. However, many cities and states do not offer this service as part of their waste management plan, including where we live. My family decided to start our own compost bin, which you can read about here. If you start composting, you will not have wet trash and thus will not need a plastic liner. Best of all, except for the initial cost of implementing a compost bin, composting is free! If you are paying for waste removal directly, you can reduce the amount of trash and frequency of pick-ups (thus cost savings) simply by composting.
About 34% of our waste is food scraps, yard trimmings, and other biological waste.
We’ve noticed that many neighbors fill their 96-gallon city-issued garbage bin almost every week. We’ve only filled ours once, and that was when we had a major bathroom remodel in our home. But every city household is allotted a 96-gallon garbage bin that is picked up weekly. I haven’t done the exact math, but I believe that that is between 8 and 12 million gallons of garbage per week that our just our city is potentially landfilling.
This must stop. Our globe cannot sustain this level of trash.
My family reduced our waste by buying food and other items with as little packaging as possible. We eliminated single-use disposable items and recycled what we could. Striving to be plastic-free and live a minimalist lifestyle reduced our overall trash. With these efforts, combined with composting, our garbage volume went down to about one bag of trash per month!
One bag of trash per month is far from our zero-waste goal, but it’s much less compared to most households. And Chattanooga is not zero-waste friendly.
Is Trash-Bag Free Possible?
It depends on how much trash you create, where you live, and how trash is transported. Some municipalities require garbage to be bagged. I wanted to stop using trash bags completely. But what I discovered with our city waste haulers is that unbagged garbage tends to either not make it into the trucks and falls on the ground in the neighborhood, or it blows out of the truck while they are driving down the road. In fact, I saw it happening so often that I tried to report the incidents to the city. But I could not obtain enough information about specific trucks while driving to provide good reporting, so nothing came of that. Pay attention to the waste hauling trucks in your area, or call your local municipality and find out if they have measures in place to help prevent these problems.
Trash Bag Alternatives
I let our house run out of garbage bags three years ago and haven’t bought any since. However, since we have to use some kind of trash bag, just to keep our trash contained after it is picked up by the city, we use anything that resembles a garbage bag and staple them closed when it is full to prevent spillage. You can use anything! The most common of these includes:
Brown paper bags from the grocery store
Empty dog food bags
Large shopping bags that show up (even though we always use our own cloth bags at the store, these still manage to make their way into my home from shipping, other people, etc.)
Mulch and gravel bags (this is hard to buy in bulk where we live unless you own a truck)
Foil insulation bags (these are from Amazon/Whole Foods – during COVID-19 we had to get grocery store delivery for a while, and this was how they delivered our cold items. We have a couple of dozen of these now and they are not recyclable.)
I also loved finding a use for these items. It felt wrong to buy a trash bag to throw away more bags or paying to bag the bags.
I would like to further reduce my waste through less and better packaging, improved zero waste capabilities, striving for plastic-free living, and minimalism. Ideally, someday, I won’t have so many shipping envelopes around. It would be better if I could purchase items in person and locally, which will take not only getting past the pandemic but businesses increasing package-free/plastic-free/zero-waste options in our area as well.
So free yourself from this practice of buying new plastic to almost directly put in the ground. You can stop paying for trash bags today, and use whatever bags come into your home. Thank you for reading, and please subscribe!