December Cover Story: Initiatives Look to Stem the Tide of Plastic Pollution

The movement to clean up the environment has grown from grassroot initiatives targeting consumers, to looking to the business community to adopt “greener” practices, as the concern about climate change grows.

One of the most vexing challenges is plastic. While the current advice to consumers and businesses is to reduce the amount of plastic in homes and businesses, such as using reusable bags when you shop, ditching single-use water bottles, bags and straws, and avoiding products made from or packaged in plastic whenever possible, our landfills and our oceans are drowning in plastic.

CARE for the Cape & Islands recently held a summit to address plastic pollution. “Take Care Cape Cod Summit – The Rising Tide of Plastic Pollution: Sustainable Business Solutions” looked at ways communities and businesses can play a larger role in stemming the tide. Coastal communities are particularly concerned about plastic pollution and are looking into ways to reduce it and protect the ocean and its creatures, while sustaining its tourism economy.

The Problem

Throughout their lifecycle, plastics have a significant carbon footprint and emit 3.4 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. According to the Center for Biological Diversity, ​​at least 14 million tons of it ends up in the ocean annually, making up 80 percent of all marine debris and killing ocean animals. The 10 worst single-use plastic products for ocean animals are many items essential to the seasonal restaurant industry – so important to the Cape and Plymouth region. They include: plastic cutlery, straws and drink stirrers, bags, bottles, take-out containers, and coffee cups and lids. Single-use plastic is the largest component of plastic waste. Some 75 percent of plastic waste ends up in landfills, much of which cannot be recycled.

Businesses can save between $3,000 and $22,000 and reduce 110,000 pieces of disposable items weighing 1,300 lbs. every year, according to Amber Schmidt of Clean Water Action/ReThink Disposable. “Fast food and take-away packaging accounts for up to 88 percent of the world’s coastline litter.”

“Our landfills are running out of space. Recycling is good, but we produce too much plastic to recycle our way out of it,” said Stephanie Murphy, of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Sea Grant Program.

Some Recent Initiatives

All 15 Cape Cod towns have passed a municipal plastic bottle ban and it’s not just for water bottles; formed or molded containers made from plastic under one gallon are also banned. Commercial sales of plastic water bottles (which means they can’t be sold at grocery stores, convenience stores, etc. and only applies to water) have been banned in most towns.

Towns are also stepping up to develop regulations to eliminate plastic containers and utensils. The town of Falmouth’s Plastic Reduction Advisory Committee is developing regulations after a ban was rejected by town meeting this year. Bylaws regarding  takeout containers were passed this year in Harwich and Yarmouth, taking effect September 2024. 

A “Compostable Food Serviceware Buying Guide,” created in collaboration with the Wellfleet Recycling Committee and Woods Hole Sea Grant and released by CARE for the Cape & Islands, provides restaurants and other food service businesses alternatives to plastic take-out containers and serviceware, like cups, plates, bowls and utensils. The guide grew out of a series of Cape-wide summits aimed at decreasing the amount of waste, particularly plastic, in the  environment.

Sustainable Plymouth promotes practices that mitigate the degradation of the natural world and prioritize the needs of our ecosystem. Recently, the town adopted a regulation permitting customers to bring their own reusable containers for restaurant takeout.

A nonprofit organization called Island Eats MV offers a circular reuse system that offers free and paid access to its reusable and returnable stainless steel bowls that replace single-used plastic containers in 20 participating island restaurants. An app tracks the impact on reducing plastic waste realized by both consumer and business.

Mac’s Seafood operates five restaurants, and six seafood markets in Chatham, Eastham and Wellfleet, as well as two wholesale distribution markets. The restaurants all use reusable serviceware, takeout containers are compostable and the condiments and disposable silverware are available on request. 

“I feel it’s my obligation as a business owner to do everything we can to start the process,” says owner Mac Hay, who has been coming to Cape Cod since he was a youngster and understands the importance of maintaining a healthy environment.  

The mission of Jessica Georges’ Green Road Refill  business in Brewster is to offer a “retail and refill experience: promoting natural and earth-conscious products for a better body, home, and planet.” Bring in one of your own used bottles from home (it can be as big as a laundry detergent gallon to a tiny perfume or lotion bottle), or purchase one of their glass or aluminum containers and refill it with a product of your choice, such as laundry detergent, hand soap or body lotion, among other products. Georges also offers products for sale that are environmentally friendly including refillable, natural soy candles handmade by a local artisan (see this issue’s Anything But Ordinary feature).

“I’ve always believed that we had to start somewhere and there would be hiccups along the way,” she said. “Businesses can start by looking at where you source your everyday usage items, what do you use over and over again? One of my long-term goals is to make a larger impact and be a consultant for businesses and evaluate what they are doing.”

The knack restaurants in Hyannis and Orleans have gone beyond the popular “skip the straw” campaign that recommended replacing plastic straws with paper ones. 

“We have focused on sustainability since we opened the knack,” says Michael Haidas, who owns the business with his brother Van. “At first, we focused on keeping our packaging minimal, and mostly paper-based (the take-out bags and food trays). Over the years we have found more eco-friendly products to greatly reduce our plastics usage. Our shake cups, straws, lemonade bottles, and utensils are all plant-based and are compostable in a certified composting facility.”

The Haidases attended the CARE for the Cape and Islands conference and came away with possible sustainability initiatives that they are evaluating.

“This is an important and pressing issue on Cape Cod and beyond and will continue to focus on improving our sustainability practices in our business,” Michael said.

One major issue with compostable containers as an alternative to plastic is that to be effective they need commercial composting. Compostable products also need to be certified compostable, so that they aren’t lined with things that contain PFAS or other chemicals.

Black Earth, who presented at the summit, offers such a service. However, many businesses don’t even know they exist and it’s all hauled off-Cape.

CARE for the Cape & Islands Executive Director Jill Talladay met with County Commissioner Mark Forest and Kari Parcell about this a couple of months ago.

“There has been a feasibility study but it hasn’t gone very far,” she said. “Mark said one of the issues is funding as well as securing land space. I am encouraged by the interest on behalf of our community to work collaboratively to find solutions. To be truly successful, however, we need to be able to offer commercial composting throughout the Cape. By simply switching from single-use plastic to alternative compostable products, the system fails without taking the next step to commercially compost these materials.”

Helpful links:

Video “Rising Tide of Plastic” Seminar:

Tips and information:

Compostable Food Serviceware Buying Guide:

Foster a sustainable business:


Takeout without the trash:


Facts about plastics:

Alternatives to disposables: