Plastic Free MKE

It started in 2018 with a group of citizens concerned about plastic pollution. Today, Plastic Free MKE (PFM) is a nationally recognized coalition that is working to make Milwaukee and its neighborhoods plastic free. Suffice to say, that’s an enormous task!

From the beginning, Plastic Free MKE found great partners in the Urban Ecology Center, and with Milwaukee Riverkeepers; the latter is now a partner and driving force with funding and staff. Together they have been able to grow their influence and make an impact in reducing single plastic usage in Milwaukee. One big way has been through Plastic Free’s water jug initiative.

The problem with plastics is they don’t break down, instead they break up and end up living in our environment. Plastic throw-away water bottles are a huge contributor to the problem. Seeing how water bottles were being used during the protests and marches in the summer of 2020, Plastic Free MKE took action. Using five-gallon jugs and volunteers on bikes, they offered free water so people could refill their plastic bottles instead of tossing them away. Since then, PFM has provided free water refilling stations (upon request) to events throughout the city. When funding allows, they also give out free reusable water bottles. Their efforts have paid off: the coalition estimates they have prevented 6500 single use bottles in just four years.

 “It’s important to see how plastic affects our environment,” says Gabrielle de Gail, the Sustainability Coordinator with Plastic Free MKE.  “It affects our waters, and it affects our health. It all ties together—it’s affecting wildlife, it’s polluting our lake.”  22 million pounds of plastic enters the Great Lakes yearly, 50% of it in Lake Michigan. Our rivers are also affected: 85% of fish pulled from the Milwaukee River have plastics in their digestive tract.  We also see the problem firsthand at Lakeshore State Park where trash bins at park entrances are filled with single use bottles, straws and containers, and litter dots the landscape, ready to be picked up by the birds and wildlife that frequent the park.

Awareness, hopefully, brings action and to help with both, Plastic Free MKE developed its Lake Friendly Programto work with businesses and neighborhoods, such as the Historic Sherman Park on Milwaukee’s northwest side, to embrace plastic free. The program ties in beautifully with the City of Milwaukee’s Environmental Collaboration Office which aims to make Milwaukee a world class eco-city.

Progress is being made. The City of Milwaukee now has a law that prevents restaurants, bars and cafes from automatically giving plastic straws to customers. It’s only upon request. And there is a Styrofoam ban for vendors doing business on county property. Now, Plastic Free MKE would love to see Milwaukee contract with a reusable food-ware company to provide reusable cups and containers for entertainment venues, festivals and events. Or better yet, to develop its own system.

“If you try to focus on all plastics,” explains de Gail, “it’s impossible. So, our focusing on single-use plastics is really key. And that’s where you see the pollution.”

Check out Plastic Free MKE’s website for additional information, including public webinars and education toolkits, and to see how you can join in the cause.

That’s Plastic Free MKE volunteer Kristin Walters underneath all those plastic bags!