A Conversation with Nicole Delma

Nicole Delma with her husband, Jesse Spooner, and two daughters. Juan Patino photo

The Digital Marketer and Cause Marketing Strategic, Sag Harbor resident and mother talks about why she began her initiative to get retailers — including Amazon — to go plastic free, the options that are available and how she and her family try to do their part to live a greener life.

You have spearheaded an effort to see retailers, specifically Amazon, offer plastic-free packaging options with a change.org petition that has over 271,000 signatures. What inspired you to pursue this cause? 

After spending the last five years working with brands and nonprofits who are focused on environmental issues, I was frustrated with the nature of the messaging in that it often suggested the consumer was to blame for the choice rather than focusing on the lack of consumer choice. It felt to me like the brands often got too focused on specific single-use replacement items to sell their own wares and the nonprofits were often proposing legislation that was hard for businesses and politicians to get behind because it was not win-win. I do a lot of partnerships between brands and between causes in my day-to day-work and it only works out when both sides are happy, or not unhappy, with the outcome. I knew there was an opportunity to propose solutions that brands could get behind, but it took me some time to wrap my head around what that might be.

When I saw a new film called “The Story of Plastic,” a lightbulb went off for me with regards to how I think we ought to be tackling the plastics issue. Rather than shaming consumers for personal consumption — which I also agree is good to curb — we need to focus on the plastics that get forced on us by the tons.

That film helped me to understand that plastic is a byproduct of fossil fuel extraction and plastics were morphed into consumer goods as a means to pass the buck, so to speak, with regards to the management of that byproduct waste. Once you understand why plastics have become so prolific and that it has a lot more to do with the fossil fuel industry distributing their waste, it’s easy to see where we are literally fed plastic we don’t need and don’t want. I think it’s great that more people are refusing straws, plastic cutlery and bags and reducing use at home but an even bigger dent — a huge one — could be made and quickly if consumers could also refuse it with online ordering and “vote” at checkout to send brands the message that they don’t want the plastic anymore. Even if you order for eco brands like Patagonia, the items are all still wrapped in individual poly bags. I’ve talked to brands that have tried to get around this and U.S. regulation powered by the plastics industry makes it all but impossible.

What are the most common kinds of plastic packaging used by Amazon and what is the environmental impact?

Amazon has upped its used of film and bubbled bags in the last year in an effort to fit more packages in freight. Most recycling facilities do not accept these bags or many types of film so the environmental impact is that they either get put permanently in a landfill, incinerated or end up as litter. We were shipping a lot of this type of waste overseas to countries like China but China now refuses it, so it is even being incinerated in regions like India for energy or in the U.S. which is horrific for the workers who are around it and for our air quality overall. The closest facility that might accept a plastic packing bag from Amazon near the Hamptons is in Southold and there is no guarantee they will. Residents just put these in their trash bins and pay for the removal, unaware that the plastic will likely be with us for at least another 250 years either in a landfill or getting broken down into dangerous microplastics in the environment.

What kind of eco-friendly packaging have you found that could replace plastics? 

Paper based products provide the most cost-effective and shortest life-cycle alternative. There is also increasing research into materials made out of materials such as mushrooms, bamboo and other organic matter. In the last week I met with an amazing company called Ranpak, which has been plastic-free since 1972 and can compete with plastics on performance and cost and have paper honeycomb shaped ‘bubble wrap’ alternatives they now sell at both Staples and Amazon as they shift to offer consumer solutions. I also met with Dr. Robert Kirkbride, Dean of Parsons’ School of Constructed Environments and Professor of Architecture and Product Design at Parsons and his students are working on some beautiful and incredibly functional eco-solutions for top brands and for the industry as a whole. As the cost of and performance of paper and organic materials is now equal and sometimes even cheaper than plastics, there are fewer excuses for mass-shippers like Amazon for not at least offering and eventually hopefully committing to plastic-free by default.

What are the challenges for local retailers in transitioning to a plastic-free packaging environment? Do you feel like local retailers are supportive of this movement?

I’m actually working on a documentary series focused specifically on this topic, but the major challenges are perceived increase of cost and, quite simply, a total lack of choices when it comes to obtaining certain goods here on Long Island without the excessive plastic wrap, clamshells, bubble-wrap. There is a nonprofit called Oceanic Global that will offer complimentary consulting to businesses interested in making the switch. They will help assess current inventory, demand and help companies work through the switch process of finding new supplies from existing suppliers or finding new ones who offer more eco-friendly solutions. This helps when it comes to merchandise sold or utensils used but there are still little brands can do about the wrap or fill that comes with each shipment.

You have recently made contact with Congressman Lee Zeldin about what he can do to help push forward a plastic free pilot program on Long Island. What are your hopes in terms of what he can help you accomplish?

Yes, we have a meeting set up for February 23. My hope is that representatives like Congressman Zeldin and Carolyn Maloney from New York City will see that this proposal is very good for their districts in that it will eliminate a huge burden and cost waste-management that plastics pose — very few recycling facilities take the film and bubble packaging Amazon and other shippers use. Their taxpayers will, in turn, save money in either tax money spent on clean-up or on personal expenses associated with trash removal or driving to an appropriate recycling facility. Because my solution allows for shippers to initially charge a premium on plastic-free shipping to help offset the costs of switching their warehouses over — up to 20% over normal shipping and handling — it allows them to maintain good relationships with major shippers and to help them earn more revenue and hopefully grow their customer bases from those who have been boycotting them for use of plastics in recent years. Additionally, perhaps these representatives can help to set the example for other communities to follow suit around the country and help quantify the net impact on cleaning up our towns and cities while saving taxpayers money in the process.

What other resources have you been pursuing in this mission?

I’ve gotten support from Oceana and reached out this week to the National Resource Defense Council and the Plastic Pollution Coalition. Friends and acquaintances with connections to legislators have also reached out to make introductions, help draft legislation, one-sheets and with strategic support to help craft messaging that will garner the most bipartisan support for this proposal. My goal is present this as a big initial step towards plastic waste reduction and a chance to reclaim consumer choice around the issue. The only way this will work is if we can shape the proposal as a true win-win for business, consumers and government. Finally, I am a digital marketer by trade and have specialized in building interest-specific databases for over 15 years so I am calling on the strategists, agencies and vendors I regularly work with to offer support to help us grow awareness. Understanding how the internet works is incredibly helpful in raising awareness and gaining signatures but, at the end of the day, the expertise to actually get legislation passed is something I am having to learn a lot about. I’m grateful for all the support that is incoming and welcome more. I first learned a bit about lobbying from Surfrider Foundation when I was sent to Washington DC years back to lobby on a few issues and I have no plans to shift to becoming a career lobbyist but all those experiences help as do conversations with those who know more about making impactful change than I do.

In your family life, how have you reduced plastic use in your own household? What can individuals do to help advance this cause?

The biggest change we made in the last year is to try and eliminate take out. Even if you reuse the containers, it’s almost impossible not to find hidden plastic in food you pick up to go. The hard part is that this is true even when it’s from conscientious favorite local restaurants that we love. Additionally, we completely eliminated plastic wrap and zip lock bags as a household staple. We were raised on these products but they are entirely avoidable if you get creative with storage using mason jars, beeswax wraps, wet paper towels or reused bread bags in their place. We’ve also been switching to plastic-free personal care products including shampoos, conditioners and deodorants from amazing brands like by Humankind and try to find creative uses for the plastics we still have around from our less-enlightened days.

Kids pose the biggest challenge so we’ve been working to get relatives to either re-gift toys they have or to choose non-plastic gifts and party favors such as those you can find on Etsy including seeding paper, reusable personalized party straws or printed muslin gift bags in place of plastic goodie bags at parties. People are supportive but its key that we nudge, not judge and also acknowledge that many poor plastic choices are due to lack of choice on the consumer-side, not necessarily ill-intent on the consumer side. People want to do better but it’s hard because sometimes your kids want grapes and the stores, even organic local favorites, only have the clamshell option. That is the area we are looking to impact — the plastics we didn’t choose and didn’t ask for and find so hard to avoid. We are surfers and love watersports so, whenever possible, we try to find used plastic items rather than buy new. Anything we can do to reduce demand on plastic helps although that industry is creative about forcing it on us as is evident at major public events, travel and with shipping.

The greatest thing others can do to advance the cause at this stage is to sign and share the petition. The more signatures we have, the more influence we have over legislation and the better chance owe have of getting brands to take note and recognize that consumers are ready for a change and are fed up with being fed plastic to deal with.

To sign Nicole Delma’s petition, visit: https://bit.ly/398Est3. For resources on where you can drop off plastic film locally visit, plasticfilmrecycling.org/recycling-bags-and-wraps/find-drop-off-location/.