Even with COVID-19, don’t forget about cutting plastic waste

This cleanup activity at a beach in the Philippines shows only a tiny part of the plastic pollution in the world’s oceans. (Photo by Daniel Muller/Greenpeace)

The overwhelming news of a worldwide pandemic, a coming presidential election, and the daily battering of scandals from the Trump administration threatens to downplay one of biggest issues we all still face — climate change. Here’s an easy way to bring part of this issue back to the forefront: Adopting a plastic-free July.

Organized attempts to cut out or at least limit the amount of single-use plastic items consumers use have been going for nearly a decade. Plastic Free July is a worldwide movement asking people to take a pledge to avoid single-use plastic for a month, hoping that the habits become ingrained to last all year long. The group has involved 250 million participants in 177 countries, and its website offers practical tips to cut down on plastic.

One simple way to start is to avoid using plastic bags and stop accepting them at stores. Putting groceries in 20-30 plastic bags during each trip to the grocery store adds quickly to the overwhelming total of 100 billion plastic bags Americans use every year. And only 1% of those 100 billion actually get recycled. Worldwide, more than 1 million plastic bags end up in the trash every minute.

Many countries successfully passed plastic bag bans, as did 200 municipalities across the U.S. (only a few states did, though — California, Hawaii, New York, and Oregon). The European Union, Canada, and 34 countries in Africa have banned or are phasing out many single-use plastic items. Cities around the world and in the U.S. also instituted fees when consumers asked for items to be bagged in single-use plastic.

Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic threatened to put an end to those positive actions, as health concerns about possibly spreading the novel coronavirus meant states banned the practice of using reusable bags, lest it put baggers at risk. Several states suspended the five- or 10-cent fees they had imposed on single-use plastic bags.

Now, however, some states are moving forward again. The Connecticut Department of Public Health determined that, given the most current scientific information available, reusable bags do not serve as a significant source of infection for COVID-19. The state has reimposed its 10-cent fee for single-use bags. California reinstated its ban on plastic bags in late June.

If your state is still one of those banning reusable bags, here’s an easy tip: Take your reusable bags to the grocery store and leave them in your trunk. In the checkout line, tell your checker and bagger just to put all items back in the cart without bags. Once you get back to your car, bag your groceries yourself. You just saved up to 30 single-use plastic bags from entering the waste system.

Upstream, a nonprofit seeking to reduce plastic pollution, gathered research on how coronavirus transmission has been overblown, mostly by the plastics industry. According to a story on Grist:

Health experts don’t think that a pivot to single-use plastic is necessary. In a statement released on Monday, more than 125 virologists, epidemiologists, and health experts from 18 different countries said it’s clear that reusables are safe to use during the pandemic. You just have to wash them.

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 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.

All of that plastic waste makes its way into the world’s waterways and oceans. It breaks down into microplastics that are consumed by birds and fish. Here are just a few depressing statistics:

  • Every day around 8 million pieces of plastic make their way into the world’s seas. The annual total is about 12.7 million tons.
  • Plastic is found in one-third of fish caught for human consumption.
  • Some 100,000 sea creatures and 1 million seabirds die each year from being tangled in plastic.

It’s not just ocean creatures. A recent study published in the journal Environmental Research reveals that microplastics are absorbed in fruits and vegetables, too. According to a story at Inhabit.com:

Some of the most commonly consumed produce, including apples, carrots, pineapples, kale, and cabbage, may be contaminated with high levels of plastic. The study found that apples and carrots are among the most contaminated fruits and vegetables.

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, mostly in drinking water and shellfish. The study found that in the United States, nearly 95% of tap water samples contained plastic fibers.

I don’t know about you, but I want food to be just food and water to be water. Let’s leave the plastic out of it.

On a national level, let’s work for passage of the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act of 2020, introduced in February in Congress by Democratic Sen. Tom Udall of New Mexico and Democratic Rep. Alan Lowenthal of California. The bill is co-sponsored by six senators and 29 representatives, all Democrats. The legislation is 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.” It would phase out many single-use plastic items and put a nationwide ban on single-use plastic bags in 2022.

While it won’t pass with a Republican Senate and a climate denier in the White House, the bill is one more reason to vote in November for people who take climate change and plastic waste seriously.

But you can do something on your own. Take the pledge and change your habits. Let’s all aim for a plastic-free July.

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