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Living plastic-free: One activist fights a rising tide of pollution

From her front stoop to coffee shops, dry cleaners and markets, activist Dianna Cohen is fighting to rid her life, and the world, of plastics.
Photo illustration of a plastic bag and empty milk carton.
NBC News / Shana Novak - Getty Images

LOS ANGELES — Dianna Cohen is on alert. From the newspaper on her front stoop each morning, to the clothes she will pick up at the dry cleaner, to the lunch she’ll eat, to the shelves at her seemingly eco-friendly health food store — Cohen’s nemesis appears everywhere.

The world seems to be wrapped in plastic — and Cohen is not buying it. She is fighting to lead a life free of plastics, and to get others to do the same.

The Los Angeles native has taken her campaign against plastic waste — an annoyance of her youth and later the medium of her work as a visual artist — and made it her life’s cause.

She co-founded the Plastic Pollution Coalition a decade ago, to bind together environmental groups trying to reduce the amount of plastic that goes into landfills and streets and then into streams, rivers and oceans. Her crusade includes changing consumer behavior — beginning with her own — in an effort to not only reduce waste today, but also to get companies to offer more products in reusable containers in order to slow the waste of the future.

No statistics exist to show how widespread the individual fight against single-use plastics has become. But Cohen and her allies say they see more and more consumers bringing cloth bags to grocery stores, toting their own mugs to coffee shops and rejecting plastic straws at restaurants. And the market is responding: A paper straw manufacturer reported a seven-fold jump in sales last year, and some of America’s biggest corporations announced a pilot program this year to roll out ice cream, orange juice and other products in reusable metal and glass packaging.

Governments have started to move, too. Single-use plastic shopping bags have been banned in California and Hawaii. Last year, more than a dozen California cities banned plastic straws. The European Union passed a ban last fall on an even longer list of single-use plastic items, including eating utensils, plates and stirrers. And Berkeley, California, approved an ordinance in January requiring that takeout containers be compostable by mid-2020 and that diners who are eating in be served only with reusable plates and utensils. A 25-cent fee on disposable cups is intended to encourage customers to bring their own.

“There is a wave. It’s happening around us. It's happening as we speak,” Cohen said. “And that makes me feel really hopeful. . . . I’m watching a change happen in my lifetime, which is incredible.”

If the world is changing, it’s not yet changed. That means Cohen ventures into the world each day armed with special gear — reusable cups and drinking straws and eating utensils made of bamboo — and a certain “can do” attitude.

“It’s a little like being a detective and an investigator and a diplomat all at once,” she said of her no-plastic life. “It’s a challenge and you have to figure it out. But it’s fun.”

The challenges abound. When Cohen opened her front door to greet visitors on a recent morning, her newspaper waited on the front step, wrapped in a blue plastic bag. She has emailed and called the publisher. The problem gets temporarily resolved, only to return, perhaps when a new person gets the newspaper route. Cohen is thinking of asking the newspaper to put an option on its delivery page to have customers “opt in” for plastic, with the assumption their papers will otherwise remain unsheathed.

She ducks the plastic caps that come with toothpaste, by making her own paste out of baking soda, coconut oil and peppermint oil. Her toothbrushes are made of bamboo (though she concedes one has plastic bristles).

When she’s out for coffee, she eschews to-go cups (“even paper ones have a little plastic, so they won’t leak”) and recoils at plastic lids (“made of polystyrene,” which public health officials have said is a suspected carcinogen and a neurotoxin that potentially threatens human health). She has found most establishments are happy to fill her reusable cups. While the big coffee chains give a 10- to 20-cent rebate to those who bring their own cups, Cohen happily has stumbled on steeper discounts. She found that an AM-PM market on Interstate 5, between San Francisco and Los Angeles, gave her the “refill” price of 99 cents, instead of the full price of $1.99, when she filled her travel cup with iced tea. “I loved that!” she said.

At the cleaners, Cohen is one of a small but growing number of customers bringing their own garment bags, so her clothes won’t be returned in single-use polyethylene.

After a recent drop-off by Cohen at Pride Cleaners in L.A.’s Mid-City neighborhood, counter worker Silvia Lopez said, rather than feeling hassled by customers who bring their own bags, she prefers it.

Dianna Cohen and Ariell Ilunga leave a farmers' market in Santa Monica.
Dianna Cohen and Ariell Ilunga leave a farmers market in Santa Monica.Brock Stoneham / NBC News

“Instead of a bunch of plastic, we put it all into one bag,” Lopez said. “It’s easier for us, too.”

At the Santa Monica Farmers Market, vendors happily poured produce and berries into the cloth sacks and metal case Cohen carried with her. But they weren’t quite sure what to do with the plastic berry baskets she left behind. One farmer said he would have to throw them away, because reusing wasn’t allowed. Another said he thought it was permissible to fill the baskets with a new batch of berries. (A Los Angeles County health spokesman was less than definitive, saying only that it “may be acceptable” for vendors to reuse the green plastic baskets.)

Cohen shopped that day with Ariell Ilunga, who helps run several farmers markets with Sustainable Economic Enterprises of Los Angeles (SEE-L.A.) The two met at an environmental event, and Ilunga wants to bring the sustainability push to markets in lower-income communities served by SEE-L.A.

“It’s a question of getting everyone out of that mindset of always using plastic,” Ilunga said. “And everyone is on autopilot.”

A couple of the organization’s markets have become home to Sustain L.A. Refill Station, a business that opened last summer to supply customers with some of the products that are hardest to obtain without also buying new plastic bottles — shampoo, hair conditioner, liquid soap, laundry detergent and household cleaners.

Leslie VanKeuren Campbell, owner of the Refill Station, said she wants to “make it convenient for people who are on a zero-waste journey.” She said she has seen business increase five-fold since her first month last summer.

But in a disposable culture, solutions aren’t easy, Campbell concedes. She transfers the cleaning liquids and hygiene products into glass jars, but they come to her in plastic tubs. Her solution for minimizing the impact is to recycle via a couple of companies that use the synthetic tubs to move and store compost.

The Refill Station allows customers to fill their reusable bottles with household cleaners, body care products, and bulk goods.
The Refill Station allows customers to fill their reusable bottles with household cleaners, body care products, and bulk goods.Brock Stoneham / NBC News

A steady stream of customers at the Highland Park Farmers Market one recent afternoon thanked Campbell for allowing them to reduce their plastic consumption.

“Before I found this, I was like, ‘What am I supposed to do about shampoo? Where am I supposed to get soap that’s not in a plastic bottle?’” said Brenna Cheyney, 31, an artist and writer. “So to find all of that here is like a dream come true.”

Cohen loves those kind of testimonials. She also gets excited when she hears of other expanding options for people who don’t want to use plastic. One step forward came in January with word that several giant companies, including Procter & Gamble Co., Nestlé, PepsiCo and Unilever would begin offering products in glass, steel and other containers designed to be returned, cleaned and refilled. In some test markets, Nestlé’s Haagen-Dazs ice cream will soon come in reusable metal containers, and PepsiCo’s Tropicana orange juice will be offered in glass bottles.

Boosting Cohen’s work is her longtime partner, the musician Jackson Browne, who has made a metal water bottle a trademark of his walks on the red carpet with Cohen. His last tour said it saved 68,000 plastic water bottles by instead relying on reusable bottles, filled from a traveling water filtration system.

Similar programs have spread to a number of musical tours and to Bonnaroo, the Tennessee music festival that estimates it has replaced as many as 2 million plastic bottles with water dispensed through reusable containers. Cohen’s organization sponsored the anti-plastic initiative.

Cohen, 53, the daughter of a documentary filmmaker, has been able to leverage Hollywood connections to get multiple testimonials for her cause, including a video from actor Jeff Bridges asking the public to rethink its use of plastic.

It was while growing up in Los Angeles that the issue hit Cohen, quite literally, in the face. Plastic bags and trash washed against her as she swam and bodysurfed in Santa Monica Bay. When studying art at UCLA, she began to use disposable plastic bags as her primary medium — sewing the bags together in small wall hangings, in sculptures and in room-sized installations.

“Her approach does not ultimately deny the ephemerality of the objects, the eventual fading and deterioration of each piece is predetermined,” The Los Angeles Times said in a 2001 review of Cohen’s work, “but rather presents them as one might present a bouquet of cut flowers: all the more beautiful because of their inevitable decay.”

But when Cohen learned about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, the Texas-sized gyre of plastic waste swirling about the ocean, she became determined to do more than recycle a few plastic bags. “What I realized,” she said, “is that I needed to begin to look at a way to stop it at the source.”

The Plastic Pollution Coalition has used multiple tactics to confront its synthetic foe. The group once sued to get plastics manufacturers to make sure their product didn’t escape into the street, and thereby into storm drains and the ocean. More recently, it has supported groups educating students and parents about how to cut their plastics use.

A persistent networker, Cohen met a young activist in 2016 who had started a group called The Last Plastic Straw. Jackie Nunez pitched the idea that straws were the “gateway” plastic that would allow the public to finally see the magnitude of the problem. Cohen was sold and soon brought the straw activist on as a partner, launching a “Skip the Straw, Save a Sea Turtle” campaign. It played on the tremendous public sympathy that followed the release of a gruesome video of a turtle disabled by a plastic straw lodged in its nose.

“Dianna is a force of nature,” said Nunez, whose group now operates as a program within Cohen’s coalition. “She is someone who is using her resources and her connections, everything she can, for good. She is relentless, but in a good way. There is no off switch.”

Cohen believes that many Americans, feeling powerless against gigantic challenges like climate change, are craving the chance to believe they can make a difference. “I feel like plastics, and particularly refusing single-use plastic, is so much easier and more actionable for people,” she said. “And I'm protecting my own health and the health of my family and the health of the planet.”