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Natural Awakenings Rhode Island

Plastic Waste Reduction Heroes

Reduce, Reuse and Repurpose

by Wendy Fachon

Produced from fossil fuel, plastics and plastic waste are directly associated with climate change, and as more people realize this, more people take action. The fact that less than 15 percent of plastic packaging is recycled worldwide is a serious concern, according to As You Sow, one of many organizations uniting worldwide to promote corporate social responsibility in reducing single-use plastic packaging, containers and bags. Convenience and profit have been trashing the planet while incurring increasing costs in human health and environmental sustainability. So what do local activists do to help solve this problem?


Food server, Lori Rinkel, got permission from the manager of Tickets restaurant, in Middletown, to post a sign that says “Please consider going strawless! The ocean thanks you!” Rinkel does not put a straw in any drink ever that she serves. “If someone asks for a straw, I ask them if they really need it, and probably go overboard by telling them that it takes 200 years for that straw to decompose, and it never really does and that we use 500 billion straws a day in the U.S. alone. Then I usually tell them, ‘I am going to get fired over straws!’ The majority of my customers are thankful of the information,  and I tell them ‘This is one simple thing you can do to help our environment, it is so easy.'”

A campaign is underway in Newport this summer called #strawlessbythesea. Most of the restaurants on Broadway have joined. The campaigners update Instagram with the corporate companies that are getting away from plastic straws, including McDonalds, Disney World and Starbucks, to name a few. Now people are starting to say “No straw, please,” when ordering water and drinks.


Shari Bitsis, founder of Greening the Sphere, in Warren, is working with local restaurants in the East Bay area to find a creative and fun way to address plastic straw waste. Bitsis states, “We want to avoid finger pointing, which puts people on the defensive. Instead, we want to be able to laugh at ourselves and make this an exploration, without defining it.” To make her point, Bitsis carries a set of eight reusable metal straws in her purse, along with two cleaning brushes. She is also investigating the logistics of collecting, sorting and recycling plastic straws, which are made of either #2 (high density polyethylene), #5 (polypropylene) or #6 (polystyrene) plastics.

Plastic water bottle use is another huge opportunity for waste reduction. The Earth Day Network reports that Americans purchase about 50 billion water bottles per year. Many conscientious households have installed water filters, and many people use refillable stainless steel water bottles. One Kent County resident refills sturdy stackable 100-ounce #1 PETE plastic water bottles with water from Simpson Spring. He loads up his station wagon with clean empty bottles for the trip. The cost to fill a gallon jug is 25 cents at the spring location in South Easton, Massachusetss, and 50 cents at one of Simpson’s 10 self-serve water stations, located around southern Massachusetts. Simpson Spring water is tested twice weekly by an outside lab and meets the highest quality standards for purity and refreshment. The nearest water station for Rhode Islanders is at Attleboro Ice and Coal, 64 Pleasant Street, in Attleboro, Massachusetts. For more information, visit


Creative recycler Bonnie Combs, of Blackstone, Massachusetts, founded Bird Brain Designs to turn colorfully printed feedbags into reusable shopping bags, cosmetic bags, aprons and dog jackets. Plastic-coated bird seed bags, animal feed bags and brewery grain bags are not recyclable. Neither is package insulation padding made from shredded clothing. Combs is using the waterproof feedbag material to cover the padding in order to make seat cushions for use on the ground while camping or on bleachers at sporting events.

Textiles are a side hobby to Combs’ job as marketing director for the Blackstone Heritage Corridor, where one of her initiatives, Fish Responsibly, is about working with local bait and tackle shops and Audubon Society to promote the proper recycling of monofilament fishing line and spools. After work, she can be found stitching one-of-a-kind zippered bags from small pieces of upholstery samples and pairing up colorful fabric remnants to sew into reusable cutlery wraps which house a set of bamboo cutlery and a reusable stainless steel straw. She’s also partnering up with the Woonasquatucket River Watershed Council, YouthBuild Providence and the West Side Sewing Studio for a repurposed t-shirt tote bag project for National Sewing Month, in September, tying in the rich textile history of the Blackstone River Valley National Heritage Corridor with its Trash Responsibly program.

Combs’ latest creative endeavor is securing an artist-in-residency at The Avenue Concept. She’s working alongside Jen Long from The Whale Guitar Project to collect clean, colored plastic bottles, once used for lotion, shampoo, body wash, laundry detergent and other cleaning products, for a public art installation at Kennedy Plaza, in Providence, next summer. Steven Siegel, an artist from upstate New York, will create the sculpture, and Combs and Long are using the project to raise awareness about plastic waste and recycling.

The first collection box has been placed at a YMCA, and she has secured more locations in Freeway Laundry’s five locations, Sprout CoWorking and a local architect firm. She is conducting a feasibility study to see how long it will take to reach the goal of collecting 22 cubic yards of plastic by next spring, which roughly translates into filling 20 of the recycling boxes 10 times each. People interested in helping can contact Combs at [email protected].

Readers are encouraged to share their plastic reducing, reusing and repurposing stories and ideas on Rhode Island Natural Awakenings Facebook page.

Wendy Fachon is the creator of, a regular contributor for Natural Awakenings and delivers environmental curriculum for The Empowerment Factory.


Plastic Waste Reduction Solutions for Food Service
Compostable Plastic Ware 

Disposable Wooden Utensils 

Compostable Bamboo Dinnerware

Certified Compostable Plates and Clamshells