U.S. must step up the urgent fight against plastic waste
A recent study from Australia’s University of Newcastle estimated that each person consumes the equivalent of a credit card’s worth of plastic each week. Clearly, we’re well past the crisis point; while many other countries realize that the world is becoming awash in plastic waste and are passing bans on plastic bags and other kinds of single-use plastic, the United States is taking only baby steps when giant steps are needed.
A new bill, the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act of 2020, was recently introduced in Congress by Democratic Sen. Tom Udall of New Mexico and Democratic Rep. Alan Lowenthal of California. The bills, H.R. 5845 and S. 3263, are co-sponsored by six senators and 29 representatives, all Democrats. The legislation is being described as “one of the most aggressive, sweeping attempts to hold the plastics industry, beverage makers, and other companies financially responsible for dealing with the waste they create.”
Just like the concepts in the Green New Deal, the legislation is ambitious and necessary, even if its passage right now is as likely as the chance of Oklahoma Sen. Jim Inhofe (who infamously brought a snowball to the Senate floor to “disprove” climate change) joining Greta Thunberg at a climate strike. Among the bill’s provisions:
- Companies that manufacture plastic would be required to take responsibility for collecting and recycling materials. This is now done unevenly around the country by state and local governments.
- Beginning in 2022, there would be a nationwide fee for single-use plastic bags, something done by several states and in many cities now.
- Also beginning in 2022, some common single-use plastic products that can’t be recycled would be phased out from sale and distribution, such as polystyrene food and drink containers, plastic stirrers, and plastic utensils.
- Plastic beverage containers would be required to include an increasing percentage of recycled content in their manufacturing process before they enter the market.
- The EPA would develop standardized recycling and composting labels. Currently, consumers are often confused by what can be recycled, as different localities have different rules. When it comes to composting, here’s a hint: If it used to be alive, it can be composted.
- There would be a 10-cent national surcharge for all beverage containers, regardless of material, to be refunded to customers when they return bottles and cans, a practice now done in 10 states.
“The plastic pollution crisis is past the tipping point: our communities, our waterways, and even our bodies are at risk,” Udall said in his official press release. “We are already bearing the cleanup costs of mountains of plastic waste, and it will only get worse for future generations. We have a responsibility to act now before the overwhelming public health, environmental, climate and economic effects of plastic pollution reach the point of no return. Our solutions are not only possible — they are practical and are already being implemented in cities and states across the country, including in my home state of New Mexico. But we need a comprehensive, national strategy to tackle this tidal wave of pollution before it is too late.”
While this all sounds optimistic, the bill is not going to pass in this form, and certainly not any time soon: It has no Republican co-sponsors, it’s an election year, and a climate denier sits in the White House. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell would never bring up such a bill for a vote, given that it would harm some of the fossil fuel companies that are big GOP donors. As plastic production has become one of the fossil fuel industry’s most promising areas of growth, companies have been investing more in such production as demand for their fuel products levels off.
It’s way past time to get serious about plastic pollution. Much of the plastic waste and plastic bags that Western countries used to send to countries in Africa or Asia for recycling (and only about 1% of the 100 billion plastic bags used in the U.S. annually actually get recycled) aren’t being accepted anymore. Many countries such as China, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, the Philippines, and multiple countries in Africa have reversed many policies on plastic garbage. Some no longer accept plastic waste; some have instigated stricter rules when plastic garbage is contaminated; and some are even sending it back to its countries of origin, mainly the U.S., the United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia.
The European Union, Canada, and 34 countries in Africa have banned or are phasing out many single-use plastic items. A United Nations study reports that plastic bag bans are working and are especially effective in African countries where waste is often burned, releasing poisonous gases into the air.
Skeptics of such policies may be unaware of the depressing statistics about plastic waste and its impact on the world’s oceans:
- The world produces 381 million tons of plastic waste each year. That figure is expected to double by 2034.
- Fifty percent of plastic waste is single-use plastic. Only 9% of that has ever been recycled.
- The U.S. throws away 80 million tons of plastic every year.
- More than 1 million single-use plastic bags are thrown away worldwide each minute.
- Eight million pieces of plastic find their way into the world’s oceans each day. The annual total is about 12.7 million tons.
- Some 100,000 sea creatures and 1 million seabirds die each year from being tangled in plastic.
- Plastic is found in one-third of fish caught for human consumption.
Many states are doing what the federal government is not. California, Oregon, each county in Hawaii, and several U.S. territories have banned or taxed plastic bags. A statewide ban in New York goes into effect on March 1. About 200 municipalities have either banned or require a fee for using single-use plastic bags. (Just to be ornery, Republican legislatures in 10 states have laws banning plastic-bag bans by individual cities.) The National Conference of State Legislatures has a roundup of what states are doing to cut down plastic bag use.
In California, the plastic bag ban is working so well that plastic bag litter dropped by 72% between 2010 and 2015. Plastic bags now account for less than 1.5% of all litter, rather than the nearly 10% that used to be the case.
New legislation in Illinois has some of the same components of the federal bill. A comprehensive package of bills aims to reduce single-use plastic, with proposals to ban polystyrene beginning in 2022. The legislation also would create a statewide container deposit for both plastic and aluminum, establish a statewide 10-cent carryout bag fee, and require single-use plastic utensils to be provided only by request or at a self-serve station. The bills would push the state to lead by example, buying recyclable and compostable materials. Chicago is considering its own ordinance to cut down on single-use plastic.
Anti-plastic activist and author Beth Terry has gained a nationwide following with her YouTube videos and blog, My Plastic-Free Life, which offer advice on how to cut down on plastic use. Here are some of her top recommendations. Even if you don’t do all of these, they’re easy to try.
- Carry reusable shopping bags (shouldn’t this be a no-brainer by now?).
- Give up bottled water and carry your own refillable water bottle.
- Shop at your local farmers’ market and bring your own bags to fill with fresh produce rather than buying plastic-packaged produce from grocery stores.
- Return containers for berries, cherry tomatoes, etc., to farmers’ markets to be reused.
- Say no to plastic produce bags (we re-use ours and wash them out).
- Buy from bulk bins as often as possible.
- Cut out sodas, juices, and all other plastic-bottled beverages.
- Buy fresh bread that comes in either paper bags or no bags.
- Bring your own containers for meat and prepared foods. (Grocery stores will let you do this. I’ve tried it myself and it works, even if the guy at the deli counter gives you a funny look).
- Choose milk in returnable glass bottles.
Terry gave a Ted Talk with many more examples of how she works on achieving that plastic-free life.
This April 22 marks the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, the day designated to “build the world’s largest environmental movement to drive transformative change for people and planet,” as the group Earth Day Network says in its mission statement. The organization grew out of the first Earth Day observance in 1970 and has 75,000 partners in 190 countries that are working on climate change. Yet the climate crisis is only getting worse. So the theme for Earth Day 2020 is “climate action,” and individuals can find a planned Earth Day event near them, including teach-ins, rallies, tree planting, environmental cleanups, and more. People also can register one of their own events.
Since 2011, Plastic-Free July has organized a global movement to help people fight plastic pollution, with over 250 million participants in 177 countries. The group asks people to commit to avoid purchasing and using single-use plastic items every July, and the movement has gained more adherents each year. The organization’s website lists testimonials from people around the world and includes many ideas consumers can adopt in all avenues of life to avoid using plastic.
Who knows: Those habits might stick with you all year long.
Originally posted on Daily Kos on Feb. 25, 2020.