July 27, 2019 — “I am in love with this Earth and I want to preserve whatever is pristine and natural, that we have left. I take it personally when animals are asphyxiated or die of malnutrition because they are ingesting plastic waste. It’s personal to me,” said Mona McSweeney, one of the founding members of Precious Plastics Florence.
She’s one of many area residents working to reduce plastic pollution in western Lane County.
Precious Plastics Florence (PPF) began about a year and a half ago and it is now on track to revolutionize how Florence deals with its portion of the world’s plastic epidemic. According to data by National Geographic, some 18 billion pounds of plastic end up in the ocean every year, and less than a fifth of all plastic is recycled globally. Recent reports show 50 percent of plastics are single-use; and with Florence being a tourist destination along the Oregon coast, single-use plastics may be even more prevalent due to their common use by hotels and Airbnbs.
Currently, Florence only accepts milk jugs and other transparent drink bottles for plastic recycling. This began in October 2017, as China had announced that beginning January 2018, it would pass the National Sword policy banning plastic waste from being imported — which means Florence and the rest of the U.S. has been left to deal with their plastics consumption alone.
“Rather than manufacturing more, it would be great if we could capture what was already in production and use it again. It just makes sense,” McSweeney said.
Plastics direly affect seabirds, sea turtles and all marine life through animals ingesting or becoming entangled in plastic. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, an expanse of plastic in the north-central Pacific Ocean, now exceeds the size of Texas, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Louisiana combined, according to the Center for Biological Diversity.
Fish in the North Pacific ingest 12,000 to 24,000 tons of plastic annually, reports the center, and this plastic then transfers up the food chain — such as to residents of a coastal town such as Florence, who may consume more fish than inland Oregonians.
Precious Plastic, a worldwide movement, essentially provides communities with the tools they need to implement a method to deal with excess plastic that they are unable to recycle locally. Started by Dave Hakkens in 2013, the Precious Plastic website includes blueprints and informational videos on how to build machines that will shred various plastics, melt the plastic and mold it into reusable items such as bowls, tile backsplashes or anything else that won’t come into contact with heat.
Today, there are hundreds of Precious Plastic branches globally that are working towards a solution to our plastic pollution, including one here in Florence.
“We are using this as a demonstration project to show others that those with an entrepreneurial spirit can take this and run with it. Here’s what can be done with minimal resources and it’s not that difficult. It doesn’t take that much of a capital investment and there’s no reason that plastic cannot be repurposed locally,” said McSweeney, who sees PPF as an example of a long-term solution that can be implemented locally and in other communities as a solution to plastic waste.
The group in Florence was started by Ruth Miller, Eileen Angilletta, McSweeney and two other women who are no longer involved in the group.
“Our steering committee was five women over 50,” McSweeney said.
PPF holds a nonprofit status and debuted at the 2018 Power of Florence, where the group raised $2,300 in direct donations; a donor has pledged to match the first $5,000 they bring in, which means the group has had $4,600 to work with for its first year.
“We currently have no way to utilize plastic waste products. Apart from bottles, there is no place to send our recyclable plastics,” McSweeney said.
PPF aims to fix this.
The Precious Plastic website also includes access to the worldwide network of Precious Plastic branches, where anyone can sell the plastic shredders to others, exchange ideas or sell the items they’ve made out of recycled plastic. Precious Plastic is a nonprofit and offers resources for anyone who wants to start upcycling plastic to do it affordably. This is how PPF was able to get started.
“We have persevered in the face of some discouragement with the slowness of the process. We would like to be able to tell the public, ‘Yes, we make all these things and you can order them online’ but we are not there yet,” McSweeney said. “We just really hope that the community has patience with the slow pace of our progress because it does represent forward motion.”
With the money PPF raised at last year’s Power of Florence, they were able to order a full-size plastics shredder, which will arrive in August; an injector which melts plastic and injects it into a mold; a hexagonal mold for making tiles; a small shredder for demonstrations with the public; and six months of rented space inside the Florence Maker Space on Kingwood Street, as well as liability insurance for the remainder of the year.
“We now have a place to put our equipment when we get it,” McSweeney said.
PPF participated in a plastics round-up with the Master Recyclers in September 2018 and again in March of this year, using it as a blueprint for what they hope to help the Florence community implement within each neighborhood.
Because of the recent recycling restrictions for the Pacific Northwest, many plastics have to be thrown out, further worsening the Earth’s plastic pollution upsurge. PPF plans to designate willing community members as individual neighborhood organizers who will plan with others in their neighborhoods to collect these unrecyclable plastics. Once each neighborhood has a large enough load of plastics, they will contact PPF to schedule a drop off. PPF will then shred the plastics, sort them by color and upcycle them into new items.
Short-term goals for PPF include educating the public on which plastics are currently able to be recycled by Lane County, helping to implement neighborhood plastic collections and showing Florence how it can redesign the community’s plastic consumption.
As for the long-term horizon for PPF, plans involve eventually buying an extruder that will allow members to make beams out of plastic that can be used for park benches and other, larger structures that will benefit the community on a larger scale.
“Our goal is to be able to shred any type of cleaned plastic,” Miller said.
PPF sees the possibility of Florence being an eco-tourist destination, which means tourists visit not only for the food, sites and culture, but also for the fact that the city is focused on finding eco-friendly solutions to the plethora of environmental hazards that currently plague the planet.
“If we all did a little, it would make a huge difference,” McSweeney added.
This year, PPF set up a booth at the Power of Florence Party in the Parking Lot, where members played the Precious Plastic videos and handed out more information to visitors. They raised $77 and a donor matched that amount for a total of $154 in donations from this year’s Power of Florence — which means their goal of removing plastic from Florence’s waste is still on track.
For more information on Precious Plastics Florence, visit www.ppflorence.org.