COMMENTARY | Plastics Pollution – Setbacks and Solutions

Colleen Teubner

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Plastics Pollution – Setbacks and Solutions

Now, more than ever, plastics are polluting our oceans, poisoning our bodies, and harming our climate. And with plastics production on course to triple over the coming decades, immediate efforts are needed to tackle the plastics crisis. While some local and state governments are passing legislation to limit or eliminate the use of single-use plastic bags, single-use water bottles, and artificial turf, the federal government must take bold action and lead by example.

Every day new evidence emerges that plastics are far worse than we ever imagined.

First, plastics are mostly derived from petroleum which means they are inextricably tied to fossil fuel production. From extraction to production, to use and disposal, plastics are responsible for at least 232 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. annually—or the equivalent emissions of 116 average-sized coal plants.

More insidiously, plastics contain thousands of hazardous chemical additives, including toxic “forever chemicals” (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS) and chemicals like phthalates and bisphenols that hack the body’s hormones and cause health problems from obesity and diabetes to learning disorders to cancer. Plastics shed tiny particles laden with toxic chemicals, or microplastics, which scientists have found in human placentas, blood, lungs, and breast milk.

Communities living near petrochemical plants in the Gulf Coast and Appalachia bear the brunt of the health burden and have some of the highest cancer rates in the country, but we are all exposed daily to hazardous chemicals and microplastics in the food we eat, air we breathe, and water we drink. Plastic water bottles contain as many as 240,000 microplastic pieces per liter, for instance. The annual health cost of our exposure to these chemicals is pegged at a staggering $250 billion.

Artificial turf is another pathway to exposure that mostly impacts children. Town after town is installing fake grass on playing fields, claiming it is easy to maintain and expands playing time. But artificial turf has the same devastating problems as other plastics.

A false solution to the plastics problem

Recycling is not the solution we once thought it was. Most plastics are hard to recycle because they are too heterogenous and contaminated with toxic chemicals and dyes. That’s why fewer than 10 percent of plastics are recycled in the U.S. The rest ends up in landfills, or in wildlands, rivers, and oceans, where it can choke or entangle turtles, whales, and birds, and shed trillions of microplastics that concentrate up the food chain.

Now, the plastics industry is peddling advanced recycling (also called chemical recycling or pyrolysis) as the solution, but that is a dangerous idea that will lock the world into a toxic future dependent on fossil fuels. Chemical recycling is energy intensive, uneconomical, and produces a deadly stew of pollutants. Despite these dangers, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) appears to be going all in on this dangerous technology. EPA recently approved a plastics-based fuel produced by Chevron that its own scientists found could cause cancer in every person exposed to it over a lifetime.

Chevron’s facility underscores the fallacy of chemical recycling, which does not actually recycle plastic waste but rather produces very dirty fuels. In fact, a paltry two percent of the plastic waste processed at the nation’s 11 chemical recycling plants goes back into plastics products, according to a Beyond Plastics investigation.

The real solution to the plastics crisis begins with shutting off the spigot for single-use plastics, and the federal government must lead the way.

The federal government must ban or minimize single-use plastics across all agencies and develop strong procurement policies for safer solutions, including refill and reuse approaches, like water bottle refill stations or washable, reusable cutlery and dishware. Real solutions also include fortifying recycling programs for the few types of plastic than can be truly recycled.

Fed’s plastic regulation efforts fall short

President Biden’s Executive Order 14057, which focuses on leveraging the scale and procurement power of the U.S. government to catalyze the clean energy industry, lays the groundwork for such leadership, however it does not go far enough. The federal agencies must set specific requirements for reducing plastic use and hold senior managers accountable for achieving ambitious reductions in plastic usage. Minimizing the government’s consumption of plastics can help reduce greenhouse gas emissions and minimize unnecessary waste.

However, the government’s effort to address this crisis needs to be expedited. The Interior Department proposed a plan to phaseout all single-use plastic products on public lands over the next 10 years, but that timeline doesn’t move fast enough given the magnitude of the crisis and can be easily overturned by future administrations.

Clearly, we can’t ban all single-use plastics in a day, but federal agencies can start working with their vendors now to prohibit plastics in new contracts, renegotiate contracts that include plastic items, and develop more aggressive timelines. By leveraging its massive procurement power, the government will help drive private sector innovation toward more sustainable solutions.

Effective actions for plastic reduction

Resources like GreenScreen Certified Standard for Single-Use Foodware can help agencies navigate the shift by ensuring that they do not replace one bad material for another. Bioplastics marketed as alternatives must be thoroughly vetted because they often contain some of the same chemical additives as petroleum-based plastics.

Good examples of effective action abound. Yellowstone, Grand Teton and Zion national parks have completely eliminated plastic water bottles and are working with concessionaires to reduce use of other plastic products. Yosemite Hospitality (Aramark) has phased-out all traditional single-use plastics for sale in the park, while increasing reuse/refill stations and the volume of reusable foodservice ware available at restaurants.

At the state level, Massachusetts became the first in the nation to prohibit state agencies from using single-use plastic water bottles. California meanwhile enacted legislation designed to cut plastic packaging by 25 percent by 2032 by requiring all packaging to be compostable or recyclable within the same timeframe.

Additionally, federal, state, and local governments can help curb the artificial turf craze by prohibiting it in procurements plans and by educating the public about why natural grass fields are better for our health, environment, and climate.

By taking leadership and demonstrating that effective alternatives to single-use plastics exist, the government can help shift ingrained beliefs that plastics are always better. Currently, people living in the United States consume more plastic per capita than any other nation in the world, generating on average two to eight times more plastic waste per person.

If we do not reverse this surge in artificial turf and single-use plastic water bottles, bags, and other products in our lives, we will lock ourselves into a frightening future. But we can choose another course. Real solutions are out there. It’s time for government to lead the way.

Colleen TeubnerColleen Teubner is a Litigation and Policy Attorney at PEER and a lover of backpacking, books, and board games.

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