Lessons from the PIRGs’ reduce-reuse-and-recycling campaigns 30 years ago are leading to big victories today

Kirk Weinert
Jul 22 · 6 min read
Photo Credit: mjmonty via Flickr CC BY 2.0.

Each time a state or municipality bans or limits single-use plastic, Amy Perry Basseches has a “what took them so long?” moment.

She’s had many such moments of late.

In just the past three months, Maine, Vermont, Connecticut and New York state have passed laws banning some forms of single-use plastic, ranging from plastic bags in grocery stores to “expanded polystyrene foam” coffee cups and restaurant takeout containers.

Perhaps most intriguingly, the first veto issued by Florida’s newly-elected Republican governor, Ron DiSantis, blocked an industry-backed bill aimed at preventing local governments from banning plastic straws. That allows ordinances passed in Coral Gables, Miami Beach, Ft. Lauderdale and St. Petersburg to stay in effect.

There are many lines between those victories and the work that Amy did in the late 1980s and the early 1990s. Back then, she ran the solid waste program for the Massachusetts Public Interest Group (MASSPIRG). She was one of the country’s leaders in the drive to, as she now puts it, win “a change in the overall mentality and practice about the use of raw materials, design, marketing, and disposal.”

Her stature was bolstered by MASSPIRG’s long track record of winning against long odds (such as the Bottle Bill in 1981–82) and willingness to push the policy envelope (such as the Acid Rain Cap-and-Cut Bill in 1985 and the Toxics Use Reduction Act in 1988).

Photo Credit: Chris Yarzab via Flickr CC BY 2.0

So when Amy proposed what eventually became the Massachusetts Recycling Initiative (Question 3 on the 1992 ballot), a lot of people took notice.

The proposal required “all packaging used in Massachusetts on or after July 1, 1996, to be reduced in size, reusable, or made of materials that have been or could be recycled.”

Some praised the measure’s comprehensive approach to one of the biggest sources of waste: the boxes, cans, bottles, wraps, tubes and more used to cover or contain the stuff you buy. In one word, “packaging.”

Some lauded its nuanced approach, using detailed language to specify deadlines, close potential loopholes, and allow exemptions for health and safety.

In a TV ad, Republican Gov. William Weld called the initiative “pro-environment and pro-business” because it would “help create a whole new recycling industry to process and sell these materials.″

Of course, others were less enthusiastic. Companies — including Dow Chemical, Exxon and Union Carbide — that produced packages from raw materials weren’t thrilled with the prospective loss of billions of dollars to people who would recycle their handiwork. National and international businesses — such as Proctor & Gamble — that shipped their products into Massachusetts didn’t like being told what to do and, perhaps worse, the prospect of dealing with different laws in Massachusetts than elsewhere.

In response, these companies rustled up $4 million in loose change for an advertising blitzkrieg against Question 3. Their arguments ranged from “civilization as you know it will end” proclamations (“many … products and the products they contain are going to be banned from Massachusetts”) to “we’re all pro-recycling, but this goes too far” expressions of empathy (“The general rule is the more recycled material you have in your packaging, the weaker the package becomes. When somebody goes to the store to buy cookies, they want cookies. They don’t want crumbs.”)

Alas, we lost the battle at the polls, by a 59–41 percent margin. But 27 years later, there are signs that we are increasingly winning the war.

The recent victories are partly the result of applying lessons learned from the Massachusetts Question 3 experience and Oregon’s similar “Mandatory Recycling of Packaging” initiative (Question 6), sponsored in 1990 by OSPIRG. Among them:

  • People care more about impacts than virtues. Much of our 1988–92 messaging focused on the abstract sin of “waste” and virtue of “recycling.” The opposition’s message hammered on beloved products you could no longer buy and on crumbling cookies.

During the past couple of years, we’ve switched the emphasis to visible suffering caused by our throwaway society: a sea turtle with a plastic straw stuck in his nostril; a young whale washing ashore with a belly full of plastic containers; beer and water contaminated by plastic microbeads.

  • Timing matters. Based on our original polling in 1989, we had what I considered a 30–40 percent chance of winning. But when the economy soured (Massachusetts’ unemployment rate went from 3.5 percent at the beginning of 1989 to 8.8 percent by the time we started collecting initiative signatures in September 1991), our prospects were greatly diminished. All things considered, getting even 41 percent was rather miraculous.

It’s not a coincidence that support for plastic bans — like most environmental proposals — has picked up steam this decade as the unemployment rate has dropped and economic prospects have improved.

  • Keep it simple. Especially for an initiative campaign, it’s much easier to describe and understand the concept of banning a single product or category of products than a proposal that, as the Associated Press summarized it in 1992, “requires that packaging be reusable at least five times, or use increasing amounts of recycled or recyclable material.” Programatically-laudable nuances tend to create more opportunities for question and doubt (“Why five times?”), which can be fatal.
  • A partial loaf is better than no loaf at all. At the same time that MASSPIRG’s bold, nuanced, comprehensive proposal was nitpicked to death, Massachusetts voters passed an initiative calling for a modest tax increase on cigarettes and smokeless tobacco to fund health programs by a 54–46 percent margin. Incrementalism by the anti-tobacco movement (of which the PIRGs were a part) won the day, despite the tobacco industry spending 80 percent more against that measure than the packaging industry spent against Question 3.

Putting the Massachusetts and Oregon recycling initiatives on the ballot was perhaps the high point for anti-solid waste efforts for the next two and a half decades. But the victory of the tobacco tax initiative encouraged activists throughout the country to take the next step and the step after that on that topic. One measure of the difference: In 2015, the average American generated 1,634 pounds of municipal solid waste, just 2 percent less than in 1990. In 2015, 11.4 percent of American adults smoked cigarettes daily, about half of the 22.1 percent figure in 1992.

The decision a few years ago to focus on small, winnable reforms, starting perhaps with the Environment California-sponsored ban of single-use plastic bags in California in 2014 (which followed 50+ victories in cities and counties), helped turn things around.

Getting a partial loaf doesn’t mean settling for that share. Just as the anti-tobacco tax movement didn’t stop at $0.51 per cigarette pack in Massachusetts (the rate is now $3.51), the “7 Rs Movement” (rethink-refuse-reduce-repurpose-reuse-recycle-rot) has graduated — where politically appropriate — from targeting plastic straws or bags to Vermont’s new law covering bags, stirrers, cups and takeout food containers. We’ve gone from winning in tiny, environmentally hip towns to entire states, countries (Canada) and federations (the European Union).

The result has been not just millions fewer plastic bags littering the landscape or winding up in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. There’s been an increased questioning — by the public and by producers — of the value of every use of plastic, of every piece of packaging, of all of our natural resources. . . .just as Amy Perry Bassaches sought to provoke three decades ago.

Nowadays, Amy is based in Toronto, where she stays in touch with The Public Interest Network’s solid waste work while running her international “active travel” business.

As she gleefully wrote on Facebook in response to a recent Toronto Star article describing a test by Canada’s largest grocery store chain shift to use more reusable containers, “In the late 1980s . . . we were completely rad when we said ‘ban wasteful packaging,’ and drafted / campaigned for that legislation in several US states. Thanks to all who have carried the advocacy torch onward.”

Here’s to giving Amy many more “what took them so long?” moments in the days ahead.

The Public Interest Network

The Public Interest Network runs organizations committed to our vision of a better world, a set of core values, and a strategic approach to getting things done. https://publicinterestnetwork.org/

Kirk Weinert

Written by

The Public Interest Network

The Public Interest Network runs organizations committed to our vision of a better world, a set of core values, and a strategic approach to getting things done. https://publicinterestnetwork.org/

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