Scientists estimate that by 2050 there will be more plastic than fish in the world’s oceans. The northern Pacific Ocean is already home to the notorious Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a vast floating collection of debris estimated to be at least the size of Texas.
Plastic Free July is a campaign that began on the other side of the world – Cottesloe, Western Australia – to help turn the tide against humanity’s over-reliance on single-use plastic products. It has since spread across Australia and the world, and now it’s come to Gulfport.
The campaign challenges individuals and businesses to reduce the amount of single-use plastic products they consume. When it launched in 2011, only 40 participants signed on; that number has since exploded to more than 1 million worldwide.
Terry Foster is leading the Plastic-Free Gulfport campaign, and it looks to be gaining traction. A number of local businesses have taken up the cause, including Tangelo’s Grille, Red Hot Tiki Spicy Gourmet Market, Little Tommie’s Tiki, Mangia Gourmet, Stella’s, O’Maddy’s Bar & Grille and Neptune Grill.
“I first became aware of the movement in June,” Foster said. “I knew that a lot of local businesses were trying to implement [plastic-reduction strategies], but weren’t really talking about it.”
Foster, a social media expert and member of the Gulfport Merchants Association Board of Directors, set up a Facebook page for the local movement, dubbed Plastic Free Gulfport. She has also begun promoting events that trumpet the plastic-free cause. The first, organized by Gulfport City Councilmember Yolanda Roman, is a screening of the award-winning documentary “A Plastic Ocean.” It will take place next Thursday, July 27, at 6:30 p.m. at the Gulfport Public Library.
Though inspired by Plastic-Free July, Foster wants her campaign to extend indefinitely.
“It started out as just no plastic straws because of the harm that they can do to marine life,” she said. “Since we’re so close to the ocean here in Florida, that was really something that was bothering me. Also, seeing the landfills filled with non-biodegradable items going in … just how wasteful we are. So I took it upon myself to do Plastic-Free Gulfport Florida but try to make it a lifelong commitment, not just the month of July. I’ve spoken to a lot of businesses in person, sent emails asking, ‘Hey, what are you doing [to reduce plastic]?’ I’ve gotten a lot of good responses.”
Foster said several restaurants are putting an end to automatically offering plastic straws to customers, while some are phasing out Styrofoam containers and plastic to-go bags in favor of biodegradable alternatives. Also, efforts are underway to find alternatives to plastic cutlery.
While good for the planet, such changes aren’t necessarily beneficial to the businesses’ bottom lines, so Foster encourages people to show their support for a plastic-free Gulfport by patronizing the shops and restaurants that are trying to do the right thing.
“It’s hard for them to go in this direction because it’s really not cost effective,” she said. “But a lot of them are really making the effort to make changes.”
One of those businesses is O’Maddy’s Bar & Grille. Manager Michelle Owen said the restaurant has been eschewing plastic straws for “a few months now.” O’Maddy’s got involved with the One Less Straw Pledge, a campaign founded in 2009 to rid the world of plastic, single-use plastic drinking straws. Taking the pledge has made O’Maddy’s eligible for discounts on paper straws, Owen said, but the transition has not been without hiccups.
“We started to try to eliminate straws and only hand them out on request,” she said. “Most people are really good about it and completely onboard, but the lack of straws has been a problem with some customers. Some people think we’re just doing it to try to save money but it’s actually more expensive.”
However, now that the Plastic-Free Gulfport campaign is in full swing and other local businesses are joining the cause, Owen said it’s been easier for O’Maddy’s to “sell” its changes to customers.
“It’s been much less of a struggle for us,” she said, adding that, in addition to straws, O’Maddy’s has also opted to phase out plastic cups and plastic takeout bags.
“It’s been hard, because Gulfport has all family-owned businesses,” Owen added. “Large corporations can afford to go plastic-free overnight, but here it takes time. But it’s cool how much support we’re getting.”
Gulfport residents are also getting in on the act on an individual level. In a post on the Plastic Free Gulfport Facebook page, MG Stewart stated, “I carry my reusable Gulfport Tuesday Fresh Market bag in the trunk for my work stuff, gym clothes and to throw in odds and ends I pick up from the store. I keep two to three more reusable bags in the trunk for bigger shopping trips and to use for the beach. I’m also now using a Yeti instead of buying bottled water. Small changes make a big difference!”
For tips on how to reduce your use of single-use plastic products, visit plasticfreejuly.org.