[Ed. note: This article is part of our weekly series of resources for churches and families called Cultivating Community published on Thursdays.]
Large church gatherings usually have (at least) one thing in common: by the end of them the trash cans are always full. Let’s pretend the contents of one of those trash cans exactly matches the overall waste produced in America in a year. If that were true, then about 28% of the trash can would be filled with paper, 14% with food scraps, 14% with yard waste, and—coming in fourth place—would be plastics. Plastic accounted for 12.5% of the 243 million tons of trash Americans produced in 2009. That is about 60 billion pounds. Thats a lot of plastic.
Flourish has created guides to help you steward resources at church by saving energy, cutting down waste, composting, and even storing rain water. This guide is dedicated to helping you think through how your church can care for creation by reducing plastic waste. But first let’s answer a few basic questions.
Q: What is the problem with plastic?
A: The major problem with plastic is that it is not biodegradable; it never becomes soil again like paper or organic substances. It only breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces of plastic.
Q: Where do plastics go when I throw them away?
A: Plastic accounts for 25% of the content of all landfills, so there is a good chance that if you don’t recycle it your plastic bottle it will end up in a landfill. It might also be incinerated or end up in the sea.
Q: Why are some plastics difficult to recycle?
A: Plastics are made from a variety of polymers; some of these polymers don’t mix well, requiring different recycling processes. Most of these processes require a lot of energy and sometimes the final product is of a lower quality than the original plastic.
What Can Your Church Do?
When it comes to plastic, recycling only goes so far. Reducing and reusing are the most important steps because they have the power to affect how much plastic is actually produced. To that end, here are some practical ideas for how your church can reduce its plastic use by swapping out plastic items for non-plastic substitutes.
- Eating utensils: Cups, plates, knives, spoons, and forks probably account for a lot of the plastic your church throws away. A great way to reduce plastic use is to find biodegradable or washable substitutes. Convenience is the obvious benefit of plastic; however, the benefits of reusable substitutes are even greater, if less instantly apparent. For one, cleaning up dishes is a great way to spend time with people in your church; talking while performing a simple activity like rinsing dishes is a good way to build relationships.
- Storage: Glass jars—such as Mason jars or repurposed jam, salsa or apple sauce jars—are a good replacement for plastic Tupperware. If you use jars of identical size you can even avoid the eternal problem of not having the right lids to fit your plastic containers. Glass jars store food well and can be used for small craft supplies like Crayons and markers. Then, instead of using plastic bins for storing large items, build wooden storage shelves and use wicker baskets. If you must use plastic storage containers don’t buy new; buy used or borrow.
- Trash: Use metal trash cans for areas with a lot of trash like the lobby, and use small baskets for classrooms and offices instead of plastic bins.
- Food waste: If your church does not compost here is some advice on how to get a pile started. While you’re at it, don’t choose a plastic, store-bought bin; make a wooden one of your own. Here is an easy design idea.
- Coffee cups: If your church serves coffee in the lobby on Sundays encourage the congregation to start bringing their own ceramic mugs, rather than plastic travel mugs. You can even have a mug drive and ask everyone to donate one of their extras. Setting out mugs on the table next to the coffee pot is a good way to reduce paper and plastic waste in the form of single-use cups and expensive travel mugs.
- Craft supplies: Switching out the plastic craft supplies is easy; it just takes a little forethought. Use crayons and colored pencils instead of markers and chalk instead of Dry-Erase markers. For glue, rubber cement comes in a glass bottle and can be a good substitute for Elmer’s or glue sticks. Other non-plastic crafts supplies include: pipe cleaners, colored paper, metal scissors, paper clips, and clothes pins. You might be surprised by what can be turned into a fun craft item. Get creative!
- Office supplies: The same goes for office supplies. Staples and paper clips work as well as binder clips do. Use wooden clipboards instead of plastic ones and blackboards instead of whiteboards. Use wooden chairs and tables in offices and classrooms.
Figure out what other areas are in your church where you can cut back on plastic use. Get a notebook out and do a walk-through and make a list of everything that could be changed. Have a drive at church to collect non-plastic items and to build a culture of sharing and reusing in your church. Let us know what you come up with on our Facebook or Twitter pages.