Rethink Single-Use Plastics at Festivals

TerraCycle Include USA ZWB
This summer, many of us are missing those quirky and unique celebrations of Ithaca — our festivals.   While I’m devastated that our community is missing out on our festivals this year, let’s take this as an opportunity to pause, to rethink and to make sure that when the festivals return, their focus is on celebrating what makes Ithaca so special: a town of caring, community-minded and forward-thinking people who are connected to their landscape.   Before the pandemic occurred, I observed increasing single-use plastic waste at these events, specifically the Chili Cook-Off, Chowder Cook-Off and the downtown concerts, but not limited to these events. I was especially disheartened after the Chili Cook-Off this year and wrote the following plea:   “On Feb. 8, we braved the cold to participate in our annual Chili Cook-Off. As ubiquitous as long lines and puffy winter coats, single-use plastics piled up in trash cans everywhere. Drawing visitors from both hills and beyond, the Chili Cook-Off is one of the festivals that introduce our students and visitors to Ithacan traditions.”   When I first came to Ithaca as a college student, it was a place where a progressive future seemed possible. I remember seeing compost bins at CTB and Wegmans and thinking, if we can make sustainable habits commonplace, there’s hope.   The sight of brightly dressed volunteers directing festival visitors on how to compost was quintessentially Ithaca. Our town seemed to be populated with caring, educated people acting to make the world they believe in, even when it’s not glamorous, being the change. But that is not the case. Instead, we’ve made ourselves disposable.   In the last few years, we have gone backward from compostable portion cups and wooden spoons being a common sight to nonrecyclable sample cups and wine glasses proliferating at every downtown concert. (The Tompkins County recycling center does not accept #6 plastics, and the center recently issued a warning statement that the level of contamination in recycling bins is too high.)   Unrecyclable #6 portion cups and spoons are given out at many Ithaca events like Chowder Cook-Off and Chili Cook-Off. Unless someone takes on the revolting and tedious job of gathering up, washing out and drying each cup and then purchasing an expensive TerraCycle box to send these cups for recycling, these items are landfill fodder.   When their useful life is over (15 seconds on average), they have nowhere to go but to take up space in a local landfill or to pollute our waterways.   It’s time to reverse that disposable mentality and act to remove single-use plastic disposables from our festivals and events. Seasoned Ithacans know the perks of bringing your own mug (bigger portions, supporting local artisans, showing your swag, no guilt!) and can be seen with gloved hands wrapped around a variety of colorful, handmade mugs, at times even balancing multiples in muffin tins. But let’s make it easier for our visitors to do the right thing and be a role model for sustainable cities once again.   For their part, I believe the downtown Ithaca crew would prefer not to continue purchasing single-use plastics. But change hasn’t come, and who is working with them to make this possible?   It takes everyone to break the plastic habit, from those who implement reusables and representatives who demand top-down policies to vendors purchasing better containers and a system of responsible waste management.   The city is culpable in this. There needs to be somewhere for compost and trash to go, and the current system is especially cumbersome for events.   I understand that nonplastic options are expensive. Doing the right thing is expensive, but bending to the throwaway economy is more expensive in the long run.   And we don’t have to. We have options, whether it’s a returnable system like the Dish Truck, zero-waste services such as Impact Earth or compost haulers like Natural Upcycling.   We have vendors who take the initiative to be creative, like serving samples in mini bread bowls or clamshells. We should celebrate this creativity and incentivize reusability.   If we want change, we must not only appeal to moral, earth-loving sensibilities but also to wallets. We must incorporate the real cost of creating and disposing of plastics into our equations so that they are no longer the cheapest option.   Anyone who follows the news can see how far behind we are when it comes to single-use plastics. We tout the beauty of our gorges, and our local waterways are an essential part of our local environment and economy.   We can see the impact of plastic pollution firsthand when visiting Stewart Park, Treman Marina or Myers Point, as colorful bits wash up on our lakeshores. A bit farther away, Casella is in the process of expanding upstate New York landfills. We don’t have to look as far as people suffering from burning plastic trash heaps in Indonesia to see the effects of our actions — this is our backyard. This is our problem.   Plastic litter should be everyone’s concern. It breaks down to microplastics, which we consume. The average person eats an estimated credit card’s worth of plastic in a week, subjecting ourselves to unstudied health effects.   Purchasing plastics funds the fossil fuel industries and contributes to climate change and injustice as poor countries struggle with mountains of our trash. We took a stand against fracking in New York, but as Ithacans, we’re poised to support it in the coming fracked-plastics boom unless we find alternatives to single-use plastics at our festivals.   Communities across the country are taking action to stop plastic, and we are not the progressive icon any longer. Many towns have passed ordinances to reduce the use of single-use plastic, launched public education campaigns on the issue and stopped using single-use plastic items like plastic water bottles at municipal facilities. We should be one of them.   I love our festivals, but a single bite of chili or a sip of craft beer is not worth the guilt of knowing that my cup will pollute our landscape for the next thousand years.   We know better. It’s time to do better. Let’s give students and visitors a taste of what it’s really like to be an Ithacan.   The advent of the COVID-19 pandemic creates additional challenges around reducing waste. The plastics industry is lobbying hard to reverse plastics bans and funding studies to make single-use plastics and wrappings seem like the only safe option, but that is not the case. We know that washing is the most effective way to stop the virus.   The pandemic has brought us closer together, with many community members and organizations stepping up to help one another in this time of need. Ithaca is a community of intelligent, creative and innovative people. I know that if we work hard, collaborate and stick to our ideals, we can create solutions to the problem of waste at our festivals. The next time we celebrate together, it should be both safe and sustainable.