Plastic Free July: Tips for reducing plastic pollution from your clothing and textiles

Plastic Free July 2024

Plastic Free July is an awareness campaign coordinated by the Plastic Free Foundation which began in 2011 and is geared toward encouraging individuals to reduce plastic waste and pollution through small lifestyle changes, especially through the reduction of single-use plastic. To celebrate Plastic Free July in 2023 on this blog, we focused on a few ‘atypical tips’ for reducing plastic pollution by highlighting some common, non-intuitive sources of plastic. This year, we’ll similarly focus on a source of plastic pollution that you may find surprising—clothing and other textiles.

As always, please remember that ISTC does not endorse, either explicitly or implicitly, any particular manufacturer, vendor, product, or service. Information about specific products, manufacturers or vendors is provided for reference only.

According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), about 60% of material made into clothing is plastic, including polyester, acrylic, and nylon textiles. Every time we wash these clothes, they shed plastic microfibers, a form of microplastics, which are up to five millimeters in size. Think of emptying the lint trap of your dryer; clothes shed material in the washing machine as well but are released along with the wastewater. While water treatment plants can remove a majority of these fibers from water, plants vary in their removal efficacy and none can remove 100% of these tiny particles. Some make their way into the environment when the treated water is discharged to lakes or rivers, or via the collected sludge (aka “biosolids”) from treatment plants, which is sometimes applied to agricultural fields as fertilizer.

Textiles are also increasingly being treated as disposable goods. “Fast fashion” is defined as “an approach to the design, creation, and marketing of clothing fashions that emphasizes making fashion trends quickly and cheaply available to consumers.” This typically means individual articles of clothing are of low quality and likely to wear out quickly, at which point they’re discarded (too often in landfills) and replaced by new inexpensive, less durable items. According to the Illinois Materials Management Advisory Committee Report to the General Assembly (2021), 279,188 tons of clothing were disposed of in Illinois landfills in 2018, along with 235,523 tons of “other textiles.” In that same year, the U.S. EPA reported that nearly 17 million tons of textile waste were generated nationwide, with 11.3 million of those tons going to landfills (3.2 million tons were combusted). The recycling rate for all textiles was 14.7 percent in 2018, with 2.5 million tons recycled. So although clothing and other textiles aren’t “single-use” plastics, they are examples of materials that are not necessarily built to last that contribute to the release of plastics into the environment.

So what can you do to reduce plastic pollution from textiles?

Resist fast fashion and reduce consumption. In general, reduce the amount of clothing you buy. Think about what items you really need and will wear repeatedly, and avoid accumulating more clothes than you can reasonably use. Choose versatile separates that can be paired with multiple other items in your wardrobe to create different outfits. When you must buy something, look for items that are durable and well-made. This will often (but not always!) mean that you’ll invest more money up-front. However, if you need to replace items less frequently, that investment will pay off in the long run. Check out Good on You’s guide to choosing clothes that last, and The Luxe Strategist’s detailed ‘An Actually Practical Guide to Shopping for High-Quality Clothes’.

Second-hand first.  When you do buy clothing, consider used but “new to you” items. Participate in clothing swaps with friends or community members. Shop at thrift stores, consignment shops, or online resellers in search of those interchangeable and durable pieces mentioned above. The Luxe Strategist guide referenced above points out that truly vintage (pre-1970s) clothes are “built like tanks, and the differences between those and lower-quality clothes from today are unmistakable.” Extending the useful lives of textiles that have already been manufactured is important to reduce the demand for new items, keep existing clothing out of landfills, and conserve the embodied resources (e.g. energy, water, labor, etc.) that went into manufacturing those items. Fewer newly produced clothes mean fewer new plastics required to meet consumer demands.

Choose responsibly produced new items, made from non-synthetic fibers whenever possible. This may sound relatively simple, but if you’re concerned about sustainability in general, it’s important to acknowledge that a lot of resources and potentially harmful chemicals go into the production and harvesting of natural, non-synthetic fibers (e.g., cotton, silk, wool, etc.) as well as their processing, dyeing, and distribution. So keeping sourcing and production in mind will always be advisable. If you’re not able to find the particular item you need made from natural fibers, then the next best option would be items resulting from textile-to-textile recycling, as a way to increase demand for responsible management of textiles at the end of their first life. Even better if you find items made from recycled natural fibers! It can feel overwhelming to try to navigate the various factors involved in sustainable production, so check out this recent article from CNN Underscored highlighting 15 sustainable clothing brands, as well as Good On You’s explanation of the relative impacts of various clothing materials, including plant-based, animal-derived, and synthetics. In general, certified B Corporations meet standards for environmental and social impacts, so clothing and textile brands with this certification might be deemed preferable.

Consider your laundry routine and repair your textiles. Fewer chores are a good thing–for you and the environment! One of the simplest steps you can take to reduce plastic pollution is to launder your clothing and textiles less frequently. Fewer trips through the wash cycle mean fewer plastic particles sent down the drain. Plus, you’ll save water and electricity and your clothes won’t wear out as quickly! Unless you’ve sweat profusely, been exposed to harsh elements, or participated in a particularly dirty job like digging or painting, your outer garments might be able to be aired out and worn at least one additional time before getting tossed in the laundry basket. Check out Real Simple’s guide on how frequently to wash various types of clothing. When you do laundry, use cold water unless you have deeply soiled items. Cold water is effective at getting laundry clean, and research has shown that colder wash cycles result in decreased microfiber generation.

Returning to the notion of cleaning your lint trap, air-drying clothes is another option for reducing wear that leads to microfiber shedding.

Mending rips, patching worn spots, replacing buttons, and otherwise altering clothing are great ways to keep your textiles in service for longer, which can reduce the need for new synthetics and keep plastics out of landfills and the environment. If you’re not skilled with a needle, support the local economy by taking your items to a tailoring and alteration shop. If you’re willing to do it yourself but lack experience, an abundance of online guides and videos can help you learn basic techniques. For example, see “Simple Ways To Mend Your Clothing Without A Sewing Machine.”

Trap or filter microfibers released in your washing machine, and consider the washer itself. There are ways to minimize the plastic pollution drained from your washer. First, if you’re in the market for a new washing machine, consider a front-loader. According to Energy Star, not only are these machines more resource efficient, but they’re gentler on clothes, resulting in less microplastic shedding.

Low-tech in-wash plastic pollution reduction options include using a device to collect loose fibers in the wash water, like the Cora Ball, or washing your synthetic fabrics inside garment bags, so you can manually remove collected fibers and put them in the trash. High-tech options include external filters that can be attached to your existing washing machine, or the emerging technology of washing machines with a built-in filter. France became the first country to regulate plastic microfiber pollution from laundry by adopting a law that will require new washers to have microfiber filters by 2025, so such machines will hopefully become increasingly commonplace.

When they can no longer be used, recycle your textiles. When your clothing and other textiles are no longer useful, don’t send them to the landfill! Check with your local government for area textile recycling options or consult the Illinois Recycling Foundation directory. If options aren’t available in your area, consider a mail-in take-back program.

Learn more

USDA accepting applications for Composting and Food Waste Reduction Cooperative Agreements 

Food waste on a white surface.
Image credit: Susannah Townsend from baseimage via Canva for Education

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is accepting applications for Composting and Food Waste Reduction (CFWR) pilot projects for fiscal year 2024. The cooperative agreements, using remaining funds from the American Rescue Plan Act, are jointly administered by USDA’s Office of Urban Agriculture and Innovative Production and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA). Selected projects will develop and test strategies for planning and implementing municipal compost plans and food waste reduction plans and are part of USDA’s broader efforts to support urban agriculture.

USDA’s Office of Urban Agriculture and Innovative Production (OUAIP) – led by USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) – will accept applications on Grants.gov until 11:59 p.m. Eastern Time on Sept. 4, 2024. Projects must be two years in duration with an estimated start date of June 1, 2025.

Cooperative agreements support projects led by local and tribal governments, schools or other eligible entities that: 

  • Generate compost.
  • Increase access to compost for agricultural producers.
  • Reduce reliance on and limit the use of fertilizer.
  • Improve soil quality.
  • Encourage waste management and permaculture business development.
  • Increase rainwater absorption.
  • Reduce municipal food waste.
  • Divert food waste from landfills. 

Eligible applicants include:

  • Independent school districts
  • Special district governments
  • County governments
  • Public housing authorities/Indian housing authorities
  • Native American tribal governments (Federally recognized)
  • Native American tribal organizations (other than Federally recognized tribal governments)
  • City or township governments

OUAIP will prioritize projects that anticipate or demonstrate economic benefits; incorporate plans to make compost easily accessible to farmers, including community gardeners; integrate other food waste strategies, including food recovery efforts, and collaborate with multiple partners. Additional details are available in the  Grants.gov notice.  

In addition to meeting one or more of the above purposes applicants are encouraged to align their project proposals to address priorities on environmental justice, racial equity, climate, investment in disadvantaged communities, and climate smart agricultural practices. Priority will be given for each of the following elements that are included in a project:

  • Anticipate or demonstrate economic benefits for the targeted community;
  • Incorporate plans to make compost easily accessible to agricultural producers, including community gardeners, school gardens, and producers;
  • Integrate food waste reduction strategies, including innovative food recovery efforts such as, but not limited to, food gleaning, storage, and preservation techniques; and
  • Include a robust plan that describes collaboration with multiple partners.

Webinar  

A pre-recorded webinar will provide an overview of the cooperative agreements’ purpose, project types, eligibility and basic requirements for submitting applications. The webinar will be posted at usda.gov/urban.  

USDA, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and the White House also recently announced the National Strategy for Reducing Food Loss and Waste and Recycling Organics as part of President Biden’s whole-of-government approach to tackle climate change, feed people, address environmental justice, and promote a circular economy. 

Contact TAP for assistance if you’re interested in applying for an award. They can help with brainstorming project ideas and identifying potential partners or collaborators.

Celebrate World Environment Day & Pollinator Week through mindful yard maintenance

If you enjoy gardening, or own or rent a home with a yard, you’ve probably already begun regular work to improve and maintain your outdoor haven. This June you can celebrate both World Environment Day (June 5) and Pollinator Week 2024 (June 17-23) as part of your outdoor efforts while also supporting native and resilient habitats.

World Environment Day announcement imageWorld Environment Day is observed on June 5th annually. The event began in 1973 and has been led by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) since its inception. Its purpose is to inspire positive change and raise awareness around important environmental challenges. Each year, a different country plays “host” to the celebration and a different theme is the focus of global outreach efforts. In 2024, Saudi Arabia is the host country and the theme is land restoration, desertification, and drought resilience under the slogan “Our land. Our future. We are #GenerationRestoration.” UNEP’s announcement of the theme explains that it reflects this year as the 30th anniversary of the UN Convention to Combat Desertification. The sixteenth session of the Conference of the Parties (COP 16) to the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) will be held in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, December 2-13, 2024. According to the UN Convention to Combat Desertification, up to 40 percent of land on Earth is degraded, impacting half of the world’s population and threatening roughly half of global GDP (US$44 trillion). The number and duration of droughts have increased by 29 percent since 2000, and without urgent action, droughts may affect over three-quarters of the world’s population by 2050.

Although drought and desertification may feel like issues faced in distant realms, especially given the amount of precipitation we’ve received in Illinois within the past month, drier conditions and increasing odds of worsening drought are challenges faced in many parts of the U.S. due to climate change. In fact, 2023 was a much warmer and drier year than normal in Illinois, and the 2012 drought was a relatively recent example of a severe drought occurring in our state. While Illinois is not currently experiencing drought, multiple areas in the U.S. are already facing moderate to extreme drought conditions, according to U.S. Drought Monitor.

Those of us who have yards to manage can show our solidarity with areas facing drought and desertification by including native plants in our landscaping. These plants tend to require less water to maintain because they’re suited to local conditions and have extensive root systems. They also contribute to habitat restoration and conservation for local insects and other wildlife, making them especially useful for #GenerationRestoration.

The University of Illinois Extension offers advice on “Plants for Dry Areas,” and the Illinois Department of Natural Resources also offers plant suggestions for a native garden. “Illinois Native Plants for the Home Landscape” is a resource available from the Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant. Wild Ones Illinois Prairie Chapter offers a wealth of resources on landscaping with native plants, gardening for birds or other wildlife, creating pollinator gardens, information on specific native plants, and creating/restoring native habitat in your yard.

2024 Pollinator Week LogoConsidering native plants can also be part of your observance of Pollinator Week, scheduled to occur June 17-23, 2024. Pollinator Week is an annual celebration in support of pollinator health that was initiated and is managed by Pollinator Partnership. This year’s theme is, “Vision 2040: Thriving ecosystems, economies, and agriculture.” According to the event website, “This year’s event urges us to envision a future where pollinators not only survive but thrive. These essential creatures, including bees, butterflies, moths, bats, beetles, and hummingbirds, are the unsung heroes behind the food we enjoy and the beauty that surrounds us. As we reflect on the interconnectedness of our world, let’s unite in a collective effort to protect and preserve these crucial pollinators.” Further, “Pollinators provide pollination services to over 180,000 different plant species and more than 1200 crops. That means that 1 out of every three bites of food you eat is there because of pollinators. If we want to talk dollars and cents, pollinators add 217 billion dollars to the global economy, and honey bees alone are responsible for between 1.2 and 5.4 billion dollars in agricultural productivity in the United States. In addition to the food that we eat, pollinators support healthy ecosystems that clean the air, stabilize soils, protect from severe weather, and support other wildlife.” With all that pollinators do for our species and society, the least we can do is incorporate their needs into our garden and landscaping plans! “Pollinator Garden: Native Plants for Attracting Pollinators,” is a great resource developed by Extension and the Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant. Extension also offers a pollinator plant selection tool for various conditions.

Other considerations for drought-resilient, pollinator-friendly landscaping

  • If you don’t already, consider home composting. Not only will you be able to manage yard and food waste on-site, but you’ll create a natural soil amendment that will reduce the need for chemical fertilizers (protecting pollinators, other wildlife, pets, and humans from exposure to potential hazards), and also improve the ability of the soil to retain moisture. Check out last month’s post on International Compost Awareness Week for more information.
  • Consider reducing the amount of lawn in your yard, replacing it with native plants that will support native pollinators and other wildlife. Beyond adding to local resiliency to drought and other environmental challenges, this could have the added benefits of saving you time and money by reducing your need to mow or care for grass with water and fertilizer. Illinois Extension offers suggestions for groundcovers for IL landscapes.
  • Capture rainwater. Reduce your demand for local tap water by setting up rain barrels. In damp areas of your property, consider the installation of a rain garden to naturally manage flooding and reduce associated soil erosion.
  • Use Integrated Pest Management (IPM). Minimize your need for chemical control of pests by employing IPM techniques, such as creating habitat for beneficial insects, such as ladybugs or lacewings, that will prey upon common garden pests such as aphids or mites. See this guide for some tips.
  • Consider electric alternatives to lawn equipment to reduce air pollution and GHG emissions. For areas that still require mowing or trimming, consider electric equipment to reduce emissions associated with using gasoline. This will in general be better for our shared environment and might have the added benefit of less noise to disrupt your outdoor enjoyment, as electric equipment tends to be a little quieter than gas-powered items. Keep in mind that electric items will tend to cost more than gas-powered items, so you’ll want to weigh options and consider how much you need a particular item. You might end up deciding to share tools with neighbors to avoid owning something you only occasionally use. Consumer Reports offers some advice and five reasons why battery-powered tools may be the right choice for you. (Note that these links are provided for informational purposes only and should not be construed as endorsements by ISTC or the University of Illinois).

Celebrate International Compost Awareness Week May 5-11, 2024

Poster for ICAW 2024, showing an illustration of a compost bin in an outdoor scene. The Earth is cradled among the compost in the bin and the bin is labelled "Nature's Climate Champion."

International Compost Awareness Week (ICAW) is celebrated annually during the first full week of May and is a time to learn more about composting organic wastes (e.g. landscape wastes and food scraps) as part of fostering healthier soil and reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), food waste is the “most common material sent to landfills nationwide, comprising 24.1 percent of municipal solid waste. When yard trimmings, wood and paper/paperboard are added to food, these organic materials comprise 51.4 percent of municipal solid waste in landfills.” Within landfills, organic materials decompose without the presence of oxygen (anaerobically), resulting in the generation of methane, which is a potent GHG. Reducing the generation of organic wastes and composting them when their generation can’t be avoided are important strategies for combating climate change. Hence the theme of this year’s ICAW: “COMPOST…Nature’s Climate Champion!”

According to the Compost Research & Education Foundation, this year’s theme highlights the role compost plays in fighting climate change. Besides reducing methane generation associated with landfilling organics, returning composted material to the soil ‘serves as a “carbon bank,” helping to store carbon thereby removing it from the atmosphere.’ Enriching soil with compost also reduces the use of synthetic fertilizers, thereby reducing the emissions associated with fertilizer manufacturing. Using compost can also increase our resilience to climate change impacts such as drought or extreme weather. For example, compost increases the capacity of soil to retain moisture, and compost makes soil more resistant to erosion by improving water infiltration, binding soil particles together, and slowing the flow of water through the soil. Thus, stormwater runoff is decreased.

For a list of in-person and virtual events to learn more about and celebrate composting, check out the Illinois Food Scrap & Composting Coalition (IFSCC) ICAW 2024 web page. New events are being added to the page daily, so check back often. If your organization is hosting a relevant event that you’d like to see promoted via IFSCC, submit information via this online form.

For information on getting started with home composting, check out the University of Illinois Extension Composting web pages. Extension also has great information on vermicomposting (using worms to process your organic waste), compost bins, troubleshooting, and answers to common questions.

For suggested children’s books related to composting and soil health, see the IFSCC’s curated list.

The IFSCC website also provides composting information for local governments and a recognition program for organizations and businesses that compost (on-site or via commercial composting services). You can also search for compost pick-up and processing services (available in limited areas of IL).

Happy composting!

ISTC is proud to be a 2024 Food Waste Prevention Week Partner

Proud to be a Food Waste Prevention Week Partner, April 1-7, 2024

Mark your calendars for Food Waste Prevention Week, scheduled to take place April 1-7 this year. 

In 2019 alone, EPA estimates that about 66 million tons of wasted food were generated in the food retail, food service, and residential sectors, and most of this waste (about 60%) was sent to landfills.  Food Waste Prevention Week is a collaborative effort to raise awareness about food waste and its negative impacts on our society and environment, while also sharing resources to help individuals, families, and organizations reduce their own food waste. Because its Technical Assistance Program (TAP) has experience working on food waste reduction and management projects, the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center is proud to be a partner organization for Food Waste Prevention Week for the second year in a row!

Be sure to check ISTC’s social media platforms during April 1-7, as we highlight some of the past and present work TAP is doing related to food waste, as well as facts and resources to help you on your food waste reduction journey. If you’re not already following us on social media, you can connect with us on:

Throughout the week, several partners across the U.S. will host webinars to inspire action to reduce food waste. For example:

  • Closing the Loop. On Monday, April 1, at noon Central, join an informative discussion on what food waste generators can do to sustainably process their waste via on- and off-site composting, biodigesters, anaerobic digesters, etc. Register here.
  • Harnessing the Power of Food Preferences for Overproduction Reduction. Unveil how individual eating preferences can be a game-changer in minimizing food waste in food services. Learn how culinary IDs are the key to precise production while offering diners a better, personalized experience at scale. This webinar will be on April 1 from 1-1:50 PM Central time. Register here.
  • USDA Programs, Investments, and Innovations to Prevent and Reduce Food Loss and Waste. On April 2, from 11 AM to noon Central, join Dr. Jean Buzby (USDA Food Loss and Waste Liaison) and a panel of leaders from across USDA (NIFA, OUAIP, FNS, and ARS) to learn about some of the ways the agency engages in food loss and waste prevention and reduction across the U.S. food supply chain. Register here.
  • Gleaning: Reduce Loss & Waste at the Farm. On April 3 from 3-3:50 PM Central, join the Society of St. Andrew’s experts on gleaning and learn about its impact. They will discuss the benefits of gleaning crops for farmers, local hunger relief agencies, and volunteers alike, the impact of SoSA’s work over 40+ years, and ways to get involved in your locale. Register here.
  • Food Production and Sustainability. This thought-provoking panel discussion of industry experts will explore the industrial perspective of the fight against food waste and share strategies for implementing sustainability without compromising operational effectiveness. Join the discussion April 4th from 10-10:50 AM CDT. Register here.
  • From Food Scraps to Soil Food: Starting a Drop-Off Program in Your Community.​ Learn how East Hampton Compost is growing awareness of food waste, diverting scraps from the waste stream and enriching local soils. A collaboration between ReWild Long Island and the Town of East Hampton, with local high school students staffing drop-off locations and working on outreach. Dive into the dirt to gain valuable insights into the challenges and rewards of piloting an all-volunteer initiative, as well as actionable strategies for starting one in your community. This webinar will be on April 4 from 2-2:50 PM. Register here.

See the Food Waste Prevention Week “Webinars” page for additional webinars scheduled for Food Waste Prevention Week, and learn more about other ways you can get involved at https://www.foodwastepreventionweek.com/get-involved.

TAP is hiring!

TAP homepage
Screenshot of Technical Assistance Program (TAP) homepage.

The Illinois Sustainable Technology Center (ISTC) Technical Assistance Program (TAP) is hiring! If you’d like to be part of a team that helps companies and communities throughout Illinois (and sometimes beyond!) to make their operations more sustainable, there are currently two employment opportunities for you to consider. Both are remote work options.

Technical Sustainability Professional [Official Title: Visiting Scientific Specialist, Technical (entry-level) 1021853 or Senior Scientific Specialist, Technical (higher level)]. The successful candidate will “collaborate with businesses, manufacturing, and industrial entities as well as municipal agencies, colleges, and universities throughout Illinois to improve sustainability, provide technical assistance in identifying opportunities and implementing sustainable solutions associated with materials, processes, water and wastewater, energy utilization, waste minimization and recycling…For full consideration, please apply by 6:00 p.m. Central on February 5th, 2024; however, this search will remain open until the position is filled.” For more information or to apply, visit https://illinois.csod.com/ux/ats/careersite/1/home/requisition/8866?c=illinois&z4krb695=&m=-5&u=-100.

Sustainability Technician–Academic Hourly. This position is estimated to work 20-30 hours per week, dependent on project and funding availability. The successful candidate will “work on pollution prevention and energy efficiency (P2E2) assistance with ISTC clients, including industrial and manufacturing businesses. Activities include assisting during site visits as well as conducting primary data analysis. This position will work with ISTC clients to promote their successful sustainable efforts by developing case studies, fact sheets, reports, and other material to communicate and highlight sustainability efforts and practices. Some travel required…Application review will commence immediately and continue until positions are filled.” For more information and application instructions, visit https://blogs.illinois.edu/view/7426/416100677.

TAP helps Chicagoland organizations tackle food waste

In an ISTC pilot project, several small organizations in Chicago learned that there are better, feasible options for handling wasted food than throwing it away. Composting, for one, works well for businesses that have access to compost hauling services.

The ISTC Technical Assistance Program (TAP) helps businesses and industry find solutions to reduce waste and use sustainable technologies. For this project, TAP staff hoped to make a difference working with owners of small businesses in disadvantaged communities that lack resources and are often overlooked for funding, according to Zach Samaras, ISTC technical assistance engineer and project director. The project is part of the University of Illinois Extension program, Building a Culture of Composting in Greater Chicagoland.

The five businesses in the case study included the Abiding Love Food Pantry in Zion, IL; Casa Central, a Latino social services agency with a full kitchen on site, located in Humboldt Park; Food He.ro, a Latino-led culinary school and grocery store in the Little Village; Khepri Café, a café and kitchen in Albany Park; and Tom’s Place, a full-service breakfast and lunch restaurant in the Back of the Yards community.

After touring the businesses, Samaras and staff collected, sorted, and weighed two days-worth of waste and recycling to determine how much could be composted. Results showed that more than 60 percent of all material sorted could be handled this way. The waste audit illustrated the amount of waste each day that these businesses produce.

“Most business owners probably think that they don’t waste that much so showing them the data was really eye-opening for them,” Samaras said. “It helped people put into perspective that the amounts get pretty big, pretty fast. It also helped them to get on board, to understand the issue and what they can do about it.”

TAP provided funding for compost hauling services and staff gave individualized recommendations and helped set up compost bins and coordinated services. Some of the challenges to initiate composting and reduce waste by other means were physical space issues in tight kitchens and the importance of staff on different shifts communicating about prioritizing foods for future shifts so less food is wasted.

Samaras did find, though, that kitchen staff were receptive to suggestions. Besides composting, other waste-reduction measures were suggested, such as preventing food waste by highlighting food soon to expire, donating food, and recycling food scraps.

“It tends to be the case that people who work with food are conscious of food waste and want to do a better job, but they are busy folks,” Samaras said. “They don’t have time to be looking up storage techniques.”

One of the five businesses was unable to initiate a composting program because they are located outside of Chicago where there are few compost haulers to service the area. The other four businesses were interested and committed to continuing their program after the funding ends.

For more information, read the case study, Food Waste Technical Assistance for Small Businesses. The project was funded by an NTAE Extension Foundation Expansion Grant. ISTC’s TAP program helps to make companies and communities in Illinois more competitive and resilient.

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Media contact: Zach Samaras, 217-265-6723, zsamaras@illinois.edu.

Holiday gifts with sustainability in mind

Alma mater and block-I shaped cookies on a plate among other cookies
Illinois-themed Alma Mater and Block I holiday cookies. Credit: UI Public Affairs, Fred Zwicky.

Whichever winter holiday(s) you observe, odds are ‘tis the season for gift giving. Even if you don’t observe any of the major winter holidays, you’ll surely think about gifts at some point in the near future to celebrate a special occasion. If you’d like to align your gifts with sustainable values, the following ideas and resources might be helpful. Please note that links and companies mentioned in this post are for informational purposes only, and should not be construed as endorsements by ISTC, the Prairie Research Institute, or the University of Illinois.

Give an Experience

Many of us are fortunate enough to have plenty of “stuff” already, and if that’s the case for your intended recipient, consider an alternative to giving them more material goods. Experiences can often be more meaningful and personalized than physical gifts and presenting them can be an opportunity to start a conversation about consumption and its impacts on resource use, though one should not equate gifting experiences with avoiding consumption. Experiences still involve the use of material goods and consumption of resources; e.g., cooking someone their favorite dinner still requires the use of cookware, energy, and ingredients that themselves require natural resources to grow, raise, or manufacture. However, some gifted experiences may use items or resources that you or your recipient already own or would consume regardless of the special occasion. Continuing the previous example, you’re not likely to buy new pots or appliances to cook dinner, and since your recipient would need to eat anyway, there would always be impacts associated with the ingredients for the meal. Of course, other experiences may involve situations outside normal day-to-day circumstances that necessitate the use of resources (e.g., fuel for travel) we would not otherwise consume. Taking a spouse on a dream vacation or treating your best friend to a concert performance by their favorite band are examples. In such instances, it’s important to remember that giving an experience is less about avoiding resource use than shifting human attitudes and focus. The goal when gifting an experience is not to completely avoid consumption–we all consume resources as part of being alive. Rather, giving an experience shifts the focus away from material items as ends in themselves toward human interactions and the associated memories that will endure longer than most physical gifts possibly could. Memories are durable gifts! As a person who cares about sustainability, you can still try to incorporate responsible consumption into the equation if possible—perhaps by using local, sustainably harvested ingredients for the special dinner you’re preparing, buying carbon off-sets for the travel to that dream destination, or taking public transportation to the concert. The key is sharing or fostering experiences fulfills the human need for authentic connection rather than human desires for material goods, and reinforces the idea that relationships matter more than stuff. Valuing relationships between living things (in this case between people) is essential to thinking about ecosystems and the mindset that humans are a part of, rather than apart from, the rest of the natural world. Valuing relationships/connections can build a foundation for more sustainable behavior.

Give to Charity

Another option is to make a donation in honor of your loved one to a charitable organization that resonates with their interests and values. If you aren’t already aware of a specific group dear to their heart, you can search Charity Navigator at https://www.charitynavigator.org/ to find organizations by cause. The results display ratings, if Charity Navigator has adequate information to calculate one, based on “the cost-effectiveness and overall health of a charity’s programs, including measures of stability, efficiency, and sustainability.” You can filter the results by ratings, different aspects of performance (called “Beacons” on the site), state, organization size, and other factors. For example, I entered the term “sustainability” into the site’s search bar with the state filter “IL.” Charity Navigator also produces curated lists of charities, including “Where to Give Now,” “Popular Charities,” and “Best Charities.” As examples, check out the List of Best Women’s Charities, the “Where to Give Now” list for the Hawaii Wildfires, the List of Most Popular Charities. You can of course always enter keywords into Google or another search engine, but you might appreciate having Charity Navigator do some of the virtual “leg work” for you and having their expert analysis.

Note that your donation need not be monetary—you could donate your time or skills through volunteering. You might use your social media experience to help with promotion and online engagement for the literacy program for which your wife works, for example. You might even combine supporting a good cause important to your loved one with gifting an experience. For example, you might arrange to volunteer with an animal-loving friend at the local Humane Society shelter or pick up litter with your dad at his favorite nature preserve.

Give Gifts that Foster Reuse and Waste Reduction

Maybe you want to give your favorite waste reduction wonk items to help them get closer to the ideal of zero generation, but all you can think of are reusable coffee cups and cloth grocery bags which you know they already own. Here are some ideas and lists from which to draw inspiration.

Give Gifts that Reduce Dependence on Fossil Fuels

Friends don’t let friends rack up avoidable greenhouse gas emissions. Consult the following guides for some quick tips.

Give Gifts Free of PFAS

According to PFAS Central, a project of the Green Science Policy Institute, “PFAS, sometimes referred to as PFCs or highly fluorinated chemicals, are used in many consumer products and industrial applications because of their oil-, stain-, and water-repellent properties. Examples of chemicals in this class include PFOA, PFOS, and more than 3000 related compounds. The most studied of these substances is a chemical called PFOA, which is linked to kidney and testicular cancer, elevated cholesterol, decreased fertility, and thyroid problems and decreased immune response to vaccines in children. The most studied of these substances is a chemical called PFOA, which is linked to kidney and testicular cancer, elevated cholesterol, decreased fertility, and thyroid problems and decreased immune response to vaccines in children.” PFAS persist in the environment and pollute even the most remote places. Check out ISTC’s information and work on PFAS. This recent video from Bloomberg tells the fascinating story of how one woman uncovered how PFAS pollution became prevalent in her area.

So, these substances are clearly bad news for human and environmental health, but they’re in lots of consumer products—how can you help friends and family avoid exposure? Check out https://pfascentral.org/pfas-free-products/ for a list of PFAS-free outdoor gear, apparel, shoes, personal care products, baby gear, furniture, food ware, carpets and rugs, textiles, and home maintenance products.

ISTC provides food waste technical assistance to small businesses in Chicagoland

Compost from spilled food waste on the ground. Image source: Grisha Bruev/Canva
Image source: Grisha Bruev/Canva

In the fall of 2022, University of Illinois Extension received funding from the Extension Foundation USDA-NIFA New Technologies in Ag Extension (NTAE) program for the expansion of its “Building a Culture of Composting in Greater Chicagoland” project. The goal was to divert food scraps and organic waste from landfills through educational efforts on the benefits of composting. Extension asked the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center’s Technical Assistance Program (TAP) to partner with them to provide food waste technical assistance to small businesses in the Chicagoland area.

TAP recruited five small businesses to receive assistance in communities overburdened by environmental issues and lacking resources. TAP’s zero waste team did an initial on-site assessment for each business, followed by a food waste audit. Then they prepared a report and worked with each company to help them implement recommendations. Participants were eligible for up to five months of funding to contract with a commercial compost hauling service.

The four companies that contracted with the commercial compost hauler said that they would continue paying for the service after the grant funding expired. The businesses also identified implementation challenges that they faced. These included lack of physical space in the kitchen, consistent communication between staff, and lack of a champion to lead their food waste reduction efforts.

Read the new case study.

Resources for Recycling Expanded Polystyrene

Photo by Caleb Lucas on Unsplash

Expanded polystyrene, or EPS, is a lightweight, closed-cell plastic foam used in a variety of products, including coolers, insulated beverage cups, takeout containers, building insulation, etc. This differs from extruded polystyrene (XPS), which is typically formed into rigid panels used for building insulation, mainly in terms of how it is manufactured, but also in terms of thermal protection, moisture resistance, and strength. Styrofoam is a brand name of XPS insulation manufactured by DuPont. Despite these differences, the similar products have become synonymous in the minds of most people, and just as certain brand names for facial tissue and bandages eventually became the common terms for those products, most people refer to EPS products as “Styrofoam.” In this blog post, when you read “EPS” or “expanded polystyrene,” know that this refers to the materials you likely think of as “Styrofoam” packaging–though DuPont would be quick to point out they’re not the same thing!

For several years, departments at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have been encouraged to recycle EPS at a drop-off location just outside the Dart Container plant in Urbana, IL. Recycling EPS is often not economically feasible basically because foam packaging is mostly air, and the fuel needed to ship large amounts of the bulky, lightweight material for processing would often not be offset by money obtained by selling it. Dart manufactures EPS products however, and thus, accepting and recycling it is in line with a sense of extended producer responsibility for the management of those products at their end-of-life, especially since EPS pollution famously takes hundreds of years to break down in the environment. The Urbana Dart plant used equipment to heat, extrude, and compress foam packaging into blocks of material that could be used for products such as picture frames, surfboards, or park benches. This YouTube video shows a similar operation in a California plant.

Earlier this year, however, Dart unfortunately announced that the Urbana plant would be closing by the end of 2023. While this is tragic mainly due to the loss of jobs and the potential blow to the local economy, it also means the loss of an outlet many people relied upon to keep EPS packaging out of the landfill. In fact, the City of Champaign ‘Where Do I Recycle It?’ resource reports that Dart closed their Styrofoam drop-off center in Urbana on Friday, September 29, 2023.

Obviously, the best approach, even before the sad news about Dart’s Urbana plant was announced, has always been to avoid EPS products whenever possible precisely because of the difficulties in recycling the material. But avoidance isn’t always possible for consumers, especially since EPS is so widely used in food and beverage packaging, to protect breakable products, and to regulate the temperature of various items during shipping—including items intended for laboratories. So, while alternatives are important to explore (and might be the subject of a future post), this post focuses on options that might help people in Champaign County divert EPS in the near term. Although the inspiration for this post is the change in opportunities to recycle EPS locally, many of the options below are applicable in other parts of the state or U.S.

Other foam drop-off sites (for those not in Champaign County)

To be clear, Dart is not going out of business or closing all its facilities, and the company does still offer public drop-off EPS collection points at various places in the U.S., including elsewhere in IL—just not in the Champaign-Urbana area anymore. To find out whether there’s a Dart public drop-off near you, visit https://www.dartcontainer.com/why-dart/sustainability/foam-recycling and search their map.

The Food Service Packaging Institute’s website includes a map showing EPS foam recycling drop-off sites throughout the U.S. and includes some basic information about foam recycling. See https://www.recyclefoam.org/about-foam-recycling to learn more and to search for a drop-off near you.

Dart’s Next Life Program

Besides their public drop-off collections, in April 2023 Dart also announced a mail-in product take back program called Next Life. This program is restricted to Dart brand products, but it is not restricted to EPS—Dart packaging made from paper (specifically from the Bare by Solo brand), polyethylene terephthalate (PET, #1), polypropylene (PP, #5) and expanded polystyrene (#6 foam) are all acceptable products. This program is not free, or particularly easy, however. To participate, consumers can visit https://take-back.dartcontainer.com/ and indicate which of these three packaging categories they’re interested in recycling. Then “proof of purchase” images must be uploaded, which might be in the form of scanned store receipts, invoices, or product photos. Once the images are uploaded, the consumer must then purchase a “discounted shipping label” by paying for flat rate shipping for the material ($9 for a maximum box size of 20″ x 30″ x 11” when the process was tested during the writing of this post). The purchased label can be printed out and used to ship the items back to Dart.

While this is better than nothing, the process is convoluted and inconvenient for consumers and is restricted to Dart products. Only die-hard individual environmental advocates, or organizations and businesses committed to zero waste, are likely to jump through the necessary hoops and pay to participate. Coupled with efforts to reduce relevant types of waste or avoid them altogether, this program can help keep some remaining unavoidable packaging out of landfills, so it’s worth keeping in mind.

Terracycle Zero Waste Box

If your organization or business generates a fair amount of EPS waste, you may wish to consider Terracycle’s “Styrofoam – Zero Waste Box™” as an option for recycling all sorts of EPS food packaging and shipping waste, so long as there is no food or other organics contamination on the foam. You buy a collection box with a pre-paid shipping label, seal it when full and send it back to Terracycle. This is very convenient but expensive—the box comes in three size options, with the smallest (11”x 11” x 20”)  costing $107. There are discounts for purchasing collection boxes in bulk (15+).

Packing Peanuts (Loose Fill)

EPS foam packing peanuts (aka loose fill packaging) were never accepted as part of Dart’s public recycling drop-off in Urbana. Local shipping businesses may accept them for reuse, however, as long as they’re clean and dry. It’s always advisable to call these companies first to confirm they will accept these before taking any to their location. The City of Champaign “Where Do I Recycle” page suggests contacting the UPS Store on Marketview Drive in Champaign, or CU Pack N Ship (formerly Mail & Parcel Plus). Note that the foam recycling map at https://www.recyclefoam.org/about-foam-recycling, mentioned above, can be searched specifically for loose fill recycling options.

Polystyrene Coolers

Many local laboratories, including those on the University of Urbana-Champaign campus, receive materials in polystyrene coolers. Laboratories should keep in mind that Millipore Sigma has a polystyrene cooler return program for U.S. customers, which is relatively easy and free for the consumer. See https://www.sigmaaldrich.com/US/en/services/support/recycling/polystyrene-cooler-return-program for details.

Several sources related to laboratory waste recycling suggest that New England Biolabs (NEB) have a similar polystyrene cooler take-back program, but that information seems to be out of date because NEB no longer uses EPS coolers. NEB now ships its products in an alternative to EPS, called the ClimaCell® cooler, created in conjunction with TemperPack, which is 100% recyclable. See https://www.neb.com/en-us/tools-and-resources/video-library/introducing-the-neb-climacell-cooler to learn more. If your laboratory or other business ships items that require temperature control, you might consider contacting TemperPack for options that suit your needs. See https://www.temperpack.com/climacell/.

Corning Packaging Take Back

Laboratories should also be aware that Corning will take back all Corning®, Falcon®, or Axygen® product packaging—including EPS centrifuge tube racks. Other acceptable wastes include pipette tip boxes and plastic bags and peelable lidding film paper from cell culture dishes, plates, and flasks, #2 or #4 only. See https://corning.mailthisback.com/ for further details and to print a pre-paid shipping label.

Other Mail-Back Options

Finally, the EPS Industry Alliance has a list of mail-back options at https://static1.squarespace.com/static/62e5bccd5d8f2e718d48d121/t/643ff95d6ef7d36ad9920d25/1686167676074/EPS+Mail+Back+Locations.pdf. There are eight locations in the Midwest region, though none are in IL.

Hopefully, these resources will help you divert unavoidable EPS from landfills. Are you aware of other EPS recycling programs? Share your knowledge with our zero waste team at istc-zerowaste@illinois.edu.