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Plastic isn't getting recycled. Can South Florida's package-free stores be part of the solution?

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photo courtesy of Elana Smith
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Elana Smith owner of One World Zero Waste, a package-free store with locations in Tequesta and Delray.

In 2016, the equivalent of one garbage truck's worth of plastic leaked into the ocean every minute. This is set to increase to two trucks in 2030 and four in 2050 and the resulting trend would mean there is more plastic than fish in the ocean by 2050, according to the World Economic Forum.

Plastic. Almost everything we buy and use on a daily basis is packaged in plastic. And we can’t seem to get away from it. To-go meals, specialty-made coffee drinks, laundry detergent, rice, beans, fresh produce — you name it — it’s covered in plastic.

According to a paper published at Florida International University, the United States produces the largest per capita plastic waste in the world.

But aren’t we recycling all of this plastic?

According to the newest report released in October from Greenpeace, the environmental nonprofit, the answer is no.

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“So most plastics in this country are not being recycled right now,” said Lisa Ramsden of Greenpeace. “And, we’re producing even more plastic waste right now, and we’re recycling even a smaller percentage of it.”

According to the report, only half as much plastic is getting recycled now — compared to 2014.

“Even when we were shipping our plastic waste to China, we were counting that as recycled plastic — and we don’t actually know what was happening to it once it got to China. We think a lot of it was being incinerated or landfilled,” Ramsden said.

Ramsden said there's another problem — it’s not very economical to make things out of recycled plastic. “You can’t take a plastic bottle and recycle it into another plastic bottle. Plastic always has to be downcycled. So it gets turned into something else, like a fleece jacket or a carpet but it’s not going to be a plastic bottle again.There’s not a huge market for it because it’s very expensive to sort and collect and clean and reprocess all this plastic,” she said.

In July, Vinai Sewaliah, a senior at Florida International University, published a paper titled, "Combating the Local Plastic Packaging Waste Problem" in the Journal for Global Business and Community.

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Vinai Sewaliah
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Florida International University

Sewaliah said that the solution lies with big companies — they need to make the changes.

“Who has the influence? It’s definitely the large companies that dictate how we buy and what we buy,” he said.

Lisa Ramsden agrees.

“Coca-Cola, Nestle, PepsiCo, Unilever, these are some of the worst plastic offenders … they’re putting millions of tons of plastic out into the world every year,” she said.

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Vinai Sewaliah
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Florida International University

Ramsden adds, “And, these big corporations worked with industry groups to create plastics recycling so that they could shirk responsibility for the plastic waste that they are putting out into the environment, and they put the onus on the consumers, on the people buying their products.”

But Miami resident Pamela Barrera didn’t wait for big corporations to make the change. In 2017, she started noticing how much plastic waste she was creating at home. “The dish soap bottle, the laundry detergent bottle, the shampoo bottle, the body lotion bottle … my house was full of containers that were in perfect shape,” she said. “And we did some research about recycling, and we discovered that basically, recycling requires a lot of water, a lot of energy, and we don’t recycle.” So, she opened her first package-free store, Verde Market, in Midtown Miami. She now has three locations–two in Miami and one in Fort Lauderdale.

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Photo courtesy of Yvonne Bertucci zum Tobel
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Verde Market in Fort Lauderdale.

Barrera’s concept is simple — a package-free store that sells a variety of dry goods, body care and plant-based cleaning products that you buy in bulk, using your own containers.

In Tequesta, Elana Smith’s package-free store is like going back in time — it feels like an old-fashioned dry-goods store from the 1930s. Handwritten cardboard labels are fastened to shelves that contain a variety of loose pastas and grains, flour and dried beans.

“We opened the store because we really wanted to reduce our waste personally and found that it’s just really hard without this resource. It’s hard just like going to Publix and going to the regular grocery store because there’s just not a lot of options without plastic,” Smith said.

Smith opened her shop, One World Zero Waste, four years ago. She opened a second location in Delray this month.

“So you can come in with your container, we weigh it first, write the weight on the jar, and then you fill it up, and we weigh it again and then we can take the weight of the jar off, so you’re never being charged for your jar,” Smith said.

The store also sells items that help reduce plastic waste such ashomemade reusable paper towels, snack bags and cloth diapers.

Smith offers weekly plastic-free packaged meal kits and CSA boxes — community supported agriculture — containing locally sourced vegetables. Smith orders from local farms and it's only as much produce as she needs to fill customers' orders, which are placed in advance, so there's no leftover food waste.

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Photo courtesy of Elana Smith.
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One World Zero Waste in Tequesta.

“Grocery stores, in addition to wrapping everything in plastic, they also massively overbuy. So, you know, our whole system here eliminates that problem,” Smith said. About 30% of food in American grocery stores is thrown away.

According to the Greenpeace report, U.S. households generated an estimated 51 million tons of plastic waste in 2021, and only 2.4 million tons were recycled. Research shows that plastic use worldwide is expected to quadruple by 2050.

Package-free stores are only part of the solution. Greenpeace is calling on big companies to commit to selling half of their products in refillable and reusable containers before the end of the decade.

“We’re not asking individuals to make these grand changes because not everyone can afford to shop at package-free stores … so that’s why we’re really calling on these corporations to make the change,” Ramsden said.

Both Verde Market and One World Zero Waste sell mostly organic and plant-based products, and these tend to be more expensive than conventional products.

Later this month, members of the U.N. Global Plastic Treaty are meeting to develop a legally binding commitment on plastic pollution. Ramsden hopes that this will put a cap on plastic production.

Yvonne Bertucci zum Tobel discovered public radio during a road trip in 1994 and has been a fan ever since. She has experience writing and producing television news. As a freelance reporter for WLRN, she hopes to actively pursue her passion for truth in journalism, sharpen her writing skills and develop her storytelling techniques.