Each year, 32 million tons of plastic -- including a full one-third of packaging produced -- enter the environment with 8 million tons escaping into the world's oceans. The plastics industry is project a 400% increase in plastic production over the next 30 years, growing to an estimated 44% of crude oil demand growth by 2040. It is critical to reduce the market demand for these harmful materials through consumer education and government intervention. Regulatory actions have ranged from product bans, recycling mandates, financial incentives and everything in between being enacted at all level of governments from local (township/county/city) to national.
Rationale for Action.
The exponential growth in the use of plastics in our economy, on its own, is insufficient to justify consumer and regulatory efforts to stem the flow of this material into our communities. Research over the past 10-15 years have indicated that merely 8% of all the plastic every produced has been actually recycled. Additionally, it’s been found in every environment in the world, ranging from remote areas of Antarctica, every ocean, pristine forests, and almost every street and sidewalk in the world. Its expansive use has directly resulted in it as a pervasive pollutant. Beyond the mere presence of plastic as litter, its sourcing and structure have compounded other known and emerging human health impacts.
This includes how extraction, transport and processing of fossil fuels used to create plastic damage communities and people at every step. The growth of fracking in the United States is a primary driver of plastic supply increase, which has impaired the land, air and water of near neighbors in places such as Pennsylvania and Ohio. These fossil fuels are transported through an ever growing network of pipelines, all of which experience leaks and spills, through family farms and environmental justice communities contaminating water supplies and resulting in human exposure. At the other end of the pipeline are refining facilities, generally along the Gulf Coast in places such as Cancer Alley in Louisiana or the Arkema plant in Houston, Texas, creating sacrifice zones suffering from air emissions and contaminated water discharges. These processing facilities then transport plastic feedstocks, now also in pipelines along with innumerable trucks and railcars, to secondary “cracking” plants, accompanied by the same water and air emissions of refining facilities, to create actual plastic. This plastic is shipped around the world and turned into products and packaging, made out of a material designed to last for a thousand years, for fast moving consumer goods. Much of this material is then disposed of in the best case scenario in landfills, though tens of millions of tons simply becoming pollution. There is clear research that indicates that additives to plastic, e.g. BPA, cause human health problems with accompanying emerging research indicating that the plastic molecules themselves are entering the human body as microplastic in air, water and food.
What is being done?
Bag regulations are generally the most prolific of plastic packaging regulation. They range from complete bans to limited bans that exempt certain customers (e.g. SNAP beneficiaries) and/or retailers (e.g. dry cleaners). Fees are often included for non-plastic bags, including reusables, in order to push consumers to continuously reusing existing stocks of bags. Fee structures often include funding not just for government but also for retailers to ensure that bags are not being provided for free and offsetting costs for business. California has a statewide ban, while Hawaii has an effective statewide ban since each county has done it. Nations ranging from Bangladesh to Kenya have wholly banned plastic bags.
These bans have proliferated in many coastal communities due to growing awareness of polystyrene as a driver of ocean microplastic. Some communities have relied on the technical recyclability of polystyrene, e.g. San Diego, and/or additional burden on locally and minority owned businesses. These should not be persuasive to not move forward with product bans. An additional concern is to ensure that common single-use replacements are treated fiber-based products, where the treatments need to have clear heath and chemical standards. Preferred solution is promotion new and more sustainable food systems including durable and reusable alternatives.
Take-out consumer fees.
Much like bag fees, the goal of mandatory fees is to drive a change in consumer behavior. Examples are $0.10 for disposable cups or $0.75 for a polystyrene clamshell. Alternatively there is discussion per meal fees instead of per disposable unit. This could and often is accompanied with product bans. Often the fees are dedicated to some mix of the retailer (avoids it being a tax) and local government.
Cigarette butts are consistently at the top of litter and beach cleanup data. Filters have been proven to offer to health benefit to smokers. Ending the use of filters would significantly reduce the environmental impact of cigarettes that continue to be consumed. Of course, reducing the overall incidents of smoking, that fits the definition of source reduction of waste while also delivering on public health goals.
To-go cups and lids.
NGOs that have engaged directly with restaurants have achieved cup and lid reductions and/or phase-outs by auditing operations and promoting on request policies. Some governments and institutions, e.g. Frieburg and Berlin in Germany, have instituted disposable cup bans or cup deposit systems.
Santa Cruz County, CA has instituted a county-wide plastic straw ban requiring restaurants to only give straws on request and those provided must be compostable. Other direct engagement with restaurants and quick food chains has made some progress of taking these actions voluntarily.
Rhode Island already charges a litter fee for food vendors and retailers who sell packaged food. This money was once used to fund litter prevention and management efforts, but it is now wholly diverted into the General Fund. The amount was last itemized as part of a 2012 RI Senate study commission to explore Product Stewardship for Printed Paper and Packaging.
Likely need to be statewide legislative effort in conjunction with a much larger shift in waste management policy in the state. Could provide funding for a variety of programs and mitigation efforts at the state and local efforts derived from packaging fees that are assessed on product manufacturers to be managed by them in furtherance of public policy goals.
Special events are often high-profile if not significant generator disposable plastic waste. If prevention and management goals are established in the permitting process, in tandem with providing a menu of non-exhaustive options, then vendors can usually make a transition, especially if it is equitably applied to all who receive a permit.