This nonprofit wants to reduce plastic waste one Austin business at a time
Picture this: You’re standing over the blue bin, trying to figure out if this plastic cup can be recycled. There’s a small label on it with arrows and a number, but you can’t remember what this particular one means. It’s frustrating.
Not long ago, Sean Winn found himself in a situation like this. He wanted to know what plastic could be recycled and what couldn’t, so he started researching. And he was amazed by how broken the system is.
“A lot of the consumer packaged goods are sort of … defective from a recycling standpoint,” he said. “They're not really designed to then flow through the materials stream.”
Because of cost and other issues, only a small fraction of the plastic we use — and even throw in our recycling bins — actually ends up being recycled. According to a Greenpeace report, just 5% of the plastic waste generated in the U.S. in 2021 was transformed into new items. The rest ends up in landfills or winds up polluting our environment.
One solution is to use less plastic. Last year, Winn started a nonprofit called the Plastic Reduction Project. The goal is to get people in Austin to rely less on single-use plastic — the plastic containers, forks, cups and bags we use once and then toss out.
At first, the Plastic Reduction Project started a website sharing information about what individuals can do to make a difference, like how to make better decisions at the grocery store.
“But our thinking started changing pretty rapidly that it’s actually a little bit unfair to put all that burden on the consumer,” Winn said.
Winn and the Plastic Reduction Project felt they needed to move their efforts up the ladder. They landed on restaurants.
“If the diner never gets handed a plastic fork, then that’s good for everybody, not just the green tree huggers,” Winn said. “Everybody gets a proper fork and a proper plate and, therefore, you’re moving the needle much more than just preaching to the choir.”
Getting big chains like McDonald’s to change their ways felt impossible. But Austin has a lot of local restaurants. The ice cream shop around the corner? The bakery up the street? In those places, the group felt it could make a change.
“With a local restaurant, I think we can get to a decision-maker much more easily,” Winn said. “If he or she likes what you have to say, then they can implement it right away, and we can talk to them as a peer.”
The Plastic Reduction Project began offering free consultations to restaurants to help them find ways to use fewer plastic products. Winn said the group takes a dollars-and-cents approach, showing restaurants how replacing disposable dishes and utensils with reusable ones can save them money.
“We feel like that’s speaking the entrepreneur’s language, and, quite frankly, just taking culture wars off the table,” he said. “We don’t know what the political persuasions are of the manager or the owner. And fortunately if the financial case is compelling, it just shouldn’t matter.”
The consultations show local restaurants how to access the City of Austin’s zero waste rebate programs. Businesses can apply for funds to support their waste-reduction efforts. For example, the city offers up to $1,800 to businesses that ditch single-use plastic and switch to reusable and compostable items.
Some businesses operate on a to-go model, so using things like ceramic dishes and silverware isn’t an option. That’s the case for Casey’s New Orleans Snowballs.
The locally owned shaved ice shop, which has been at the corner of 51st and Airport for nearly three decades, sells up to 65,000 snowballs a year. Casey’s co-owner Mars Chapman had a consultation with the Plastic Reduction Project a few months ago.
The group showed Chapman ways to make his business more sustainable, like giving out straws only when customers ask for them and taking the plastic bags they use to transport ice to proper recycling centers when they’re done with them.
Before the consultation, Casey’s was already using compostable products. The business stopped using Styrofoam in 2014.
“I became tired of the fact that we were sending thousands and thousands, tens of thousands, of cups to the landfill that are just going to be around for forever,” Chapman said. “That's not the legacy that I want to leave.”
He said switching to compostables was more expensive for the business. But it was important to him, so he found ways to make up for the cost elsewhere, like raising prices and adding more service windows so the business could sell more product.
But using compostable cups isn’t a cure-all. Casey’s uses Greenware Cups to hold its icy treats. They’re made of PLA, or polylactic acid, a compostable material derived from plants. They look like clear, plastic cups. Someone ordering a snowball might think the cup is recyclable and toss it in the blue bin, which then contaminates the recycling stream.
Only some cup sizes Casey’s offers tell customers in plain letters that the cup is compostable. Others just have symbols on the bottom, like “PLA” and the No. 7. This signals they’re compostable, not recyclable, but not everyone may know that.
The Plastic Reduction Project recommended Casey’s put signs up to inform customers the cups and serviceware are compostable. Chapman says he’s working on getting signs posted.
But ensuring the cups and spoons actually end up being composted will still be a challenge. For one thing, there aren’t compost bins at Casey’s. Chapman said Casey’s used to contract with a compost hauler in the past, but customers would often throw other non-compostable items in the bins, which caused problems for the business.
“No amount of signage resulted in us not having to dig through every single trash bag to pull out things,” he said. “Otherwise, for each item we were being hit with a $50 fine, and we're already having to pay a premium to work with a private compost hauler.”
These cups break down only in industrial facilities, like the City of Austin uses. A backyard compost pile won’t get hot enough to do it. So, for these cups to actually end up being composted, a customer would need to take them home and toss them in their city-issued curbside compost bin, if they have one. The rest will end up in the landfill, where it’s not totally clear what happens to them.
Still, Chapman said he prefers using these compostable products because he’s supporting companies that don’t use plastic.
“By buying it, we’re increasing demand for it,” he said. “And demonstrating demand for alternative solutions or products eventually helps bring down the overall price for those products. So to me, it’s very much worthwhile to buy it, even if it’s just getting thrown away, because hopefully it’s going to be easier for then other people to make the jump to buy compostable products as opposed to traditional.”
Vote with your wallet
That feeling of wanting to do better — and putting your money where your mouth is — is something a lot of people can relate to. That’s where the other half of the Plastic Reduction Project’s efforts come in. They encourage Austinites to use a smartphone app called PlasticScore.
Users rate restaurants based on their sustainability practices. You select a restaurant and then answer a series of questions about your experience, like: Did your food come on a reusable plate or not? Were you handed a paper to-go bag or a plastic one? It then gives the restaurant a rating that other app users can see and make their dining-out choices based on.
“The app helps people find more sustainable restaurants where they can sort of vote with their pocketbook to give business to the folks that are trying to do better in this space,” Winn said.
The Plastic Reduction Project has been around for only about a year, but it has gotten more than 700 reviews up on the app. People can join by following these steps.
The reviews can be useful for consumers, but the data collected could also be helpful for policymakers. Winn said the Plastic Reduction Project is sharing the data with the City of Austin to help it understand what products restaurants are using, like what percentage are relying on Styrofoam versus compostables. He hopes all of this will help lead to real changes in the city.
“Our little ‘ant colony’ is kind of the way I look at it. You've got all these people running around doing a very small amount of volunteering, but it all adds up and it compiles into this database,” he said. “Hopefully then that finds its way into policy.”