5 Ways You can Join me in Solving the Plastic Pollution Crisis.
Most of us know that plastic pollution is a huge problem. We’ve seen pictures of marine animals caught in plastic and beaches awash in trash. In our daily lives, we’ve all played a role in the waste cycle. Just think about all the plastic that comes into and goes out of our homes. Collectively, we toss a lot of single-use plastic. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) predicts that by 2060, humanity will discard 1 billion tons of plastic annually.
However, plastic is not just a waste disposal problem. It’s also a human health, ocean, and climate issue. As Brook Bauman states, plastic manufacturing requires immense quantities of fossil fuels, which then turn into greenhouse gas as it breaks down in the waste steam and oceans. Beyond Plastics, a non-profit whose “mission is to end plastic pollution everywhere,” says that “Plastic is the new coal.”
The U.S. plastic industry currently emits as much emissions as 116 coal-fired power plants. This amount will continue to grow, likely reaching 5%-10% of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 2050. “Impacts of these emissions are disproportionately borne by low-income communities and communities of color, making this a major environmental justice issue.”
Knowing this, you might be inspired to go plastic-free. However, have you ever tried to reduce your personal use of plastic to zero? Or even a significant amount?
Giving Up on Being Plastic Free
If you have, you’ve likely given up like I have. It’s overwhelming and almost impossible. It’s everywhere and in everything — from the packaging on food we buy to the clothes we wear. To even make a dent, we must spend a lot of time researching and rearranging our life to avoid plastic.
Yes, if we were 100% dedicated, like those who make a plastic-free lifestyle pledge or offer 100 steps to a plastic free life, we might be able to do it. But few of us have enough time, energy, or interest to devote our lives to this monumental endeavor amidst all the other things we do. As this NY Times article says, trying to live without plastic is very hard. “To exist in the modern world without plastic, however noble a goal, may not actually be possible.”
This does not mean we are a failure. We need to give ourselves a break here and recognize we are not individually responsible for creating or fixing the problem. While still helpful, small actions, like taking re-usable bags to the store and recycling, will never change the system, nor get to the scale and speed needed to reduce plastic pollution and GHG significantly. As one Maryland PIRG email newsletter in April 2022 said, “the institutions we interact with in our day-to-day lives make it all but impossible to avoid unnecessary, harmful waste — especially in the form of single-use plastic.”
Alden Wicker, an author in Yes! Magazine online, takes the point further in this article. He says, “Much of the (91% of plastic waste globally that isn’t recycled) happens behind the scenes in the industrial supply chain, long before a product reaches us.” To achieve the plastic-free systemic change we need, we must keep demanding that companies take responsibility for eliminating single-use plastic, and that governments regulate “the systems flooding the market with plastic.”
So, instead of beating myself up for not being able to do the impossible, I’m turning my attention to how I can lay the responsibility for solving this issue back on business, particularly the 20 companies in the fossil fuel, packaging/shipping, and plastics industries producing more than half of global plastic pollution, and the governments who regulate them. Fortunately, there is another way to work towards stopping plastic pollution.
What We Need to Do
The Story of Stuff, a non-profit that is “spotlighting viable, simpler, and efficient solutions that drive us away from plastic and promote real system change,” says that we should focus on:
Reducing how much plastic the world makes.
Benefiting the planet and people, especially prioritizing those most impacted by plastic pollution.
Creaking Implementing solutions that are scalable and accessible.
The first step is to demand that companies cut down on packaging. 65% of US household waste is packaging, and half of that is single use. We all know this. We’ve all received plastic mailers with a plastic-packaged item inside another plastic bag. It’s time that manufacturers make and distribute products using less plastic and in ways that make it easy for us individuals to use less too.
Then, we need to:
Create a culture of reuse across the entire global economy, not only by individuals but businesses, too.
Demand that business and local, state, and national governments drastically improve recycling. Much of what we do recycle ends up in the dump, as there is no market for it. What if governments required producers to recollect their products at the end of their life cycle? Or pay an outside company to cover the costs for the collection and disposal of their products? Producer responsibility policies, like these, might incentivize them to reduce packaging and produce other alternatives.
Ask businesses to make plant-based products that we buy and can healthily and easily compost.
If we work to make these things happen, we will create a future where we, as individual consumers, won’t have to fight an impossible battle.
5 Ways to Take Action to Put the Responsibility Back onto Producers
1. Educate yourself on the plastic pollution issue.
The Story of Stuff also has a new series, Solving Plastic, you can watch. For example, one episode highlights RePack, a company that leases reusable bags to retailers that sell goods online. Using a service like RePack can save up to 80% of CO2 emissions from shipping and reduce packaging waste by 99%.
2. Demand your government take significant action.
Tell world leaders to finalize an ambitious International Plastics Treaty. In 2022, many countries committed to developing a global treaty to address plastic pollution. The treaty has not yet been finalized. As negotiations continue over the next few years, we can demand that the agreement address the “entire life cycle of plastics, from fossil fuel extraction all the way to disposal and incineration.” Before the next meeting in February, you can sign the Story of Stuff’s petition and/or this petition from the Action Network. If you want to lobby the Biden Administration in the U.S., which is not yet on board with a comprehensive, ambitious, and legally binding plan, go to this site.
If you live in Europe, learn more about and ask your country officials to fully implement the Single-Use Plastics Directive.
If you live in the U.S., ask your congressional officials to reintroduce and support The Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act of 2021. According to Senator Merkley, this bill will “provide national leadership to reduce the amount of wasteful plastic produced and reforming our broken waste and recycling systems. The bill will shift the burden of cleanup and waste management to where it belongs: on the corporations that produce this waste. You can write a letter to your congress people using this site. Or use this site to help you call them.
You can also ask your representatives to support a new bill, introduced late 2022, called the Protecting Communities from Plastics Act. This bill sets national targets for decreasing plastic production, adds protections for communities most affected by plastic-related pollution, and restricts “chemical recycling.” Essentially, it tackles plastic pollution, the climate crisis, and environmental justice all at once.
Find out if your state or city is considering Extended Producer Responsibility legislation to make companies pay for unrecyclable plastic packaging. Many countries, like the EU, Brazil, Japan, and South Africa, have had producer pays” laws for many years. However, the U.S. lags other developed countries when it comes to EPR bills addressing packaging. Only a handful of states (Maine, Oregon, Colorado, and California) have packaging producer responsibility laws. Seventeen other states, including New York, Massachusetts, and Washington, are considering such acts. Of course, manufacturers have created an industry group, Ameripen, to oppose EPR legislation. If inspired, you can write to your state legislators and ask them to introduce EPR laws. You can find out who they are and how to contact them here. You can also sign this petition to demand the EPA draft legislation for a national EPR responsibility policy.
3. Sign petitions demanding companies reduce plastic.
Add your name to Maryland PIRG’s campaign to get food distributor Sysco to eliminate single-use plastic packaging from its operations. Sysco shareholders have already voted for the company to reduce its plastic use, but Sysco has not yet made a commitment to do so.
Sign Greenpeace’s petition asking Coke and Pepsi to commit to 50% reusable packaging by 2030.
Tell Amazon to stop polluting the planet with plastic packaging.
Demand that J.P. Morgan Chase “denounce, divest, and defund Formosa Plastics’ toxic and racist petrochemical complex.
Tell Trader Joe’s to stop using plastic packaging.
Sign Environment America’s petition asking Whole Foods to place the Planet Over Plastic.
Call on Costco to move beyond single-use packaging.
Check out Beyond Plastic’s action page for more online actions.
4. Actively participate in a campaign to stop plastic pollution
Join or become a volunteer leader in one of Beyond Plastics’ local group affiliates, or participate in one of their events.
5. Donate to one of the organizations working diligently on the issue.
Maryland PIRG (or your local chapter)
We all want to live in a world where simple activities such as grocery shopping or ordering online don’t create oceans of unnecessary single-use plastic that harm the environment for thousands of years.
So, let’s all take as many of the small steps listed above as possible. Most of them, like signing petitions or watching a short video, only take a few minutes. Then, let’s pick one organization or activity to get involved with, adding to the growing movement to make producers responsible for plastic pollution.
Finally, let’s be as low impact as possible without worrying about going completely plastic-free. And maybe one month a year, up our game by signing up for the Plastic Free July Challenge. You will receive tips in your mailbox on how to reduce single-use plastic in your life. If you want some other ideas now, check out Plastic Free July’s ideas or the UNDP’s list of 20 Ways to Plastic-Proof Your Routine.
I wish you well in taking action to reduce plastic in the world.
All my best,