By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.
Many countries across the globe have in recent years adopted legislation to reduce plastics production and pollution.
Alas, the U.S. isn’t one of them – despite its outsize production and use of plastics. Per Environmental Health News, The US falls behind most of the world in plastic pollution legislation:
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the country produced 35.7 million tons of plastic waste in 2018, more than 90% of which was either landfilled or burned. The U.S. ranks second in the world in total plastic waste generated per year, behind only China — though when measured per capita, the U.S. outpaces China. In 2019, the U.S. also opted not to join the United Nations’ updated Basel Convention, a legally binding agreement aimed at preventing and minimizing plastic waste generation that was signed by about 180 other countries.
More than 90 countries have established (or have imminent plans to establish) either bans or fees on single-use plastic bags or other products, according to data from the non-profit ocean conservation organization Oceana. The U.S. is not one of them. Though Americans have been aware of plastic pollution as an environmental concern as early as the mid-20th century, U.S. action against plastics has been piecemeal — the federal government has left it up to individual cities, counties, and states to decide whether and how to regulate plastics.
The plastic problem is growing increasingly urgent. More than 1 million plastic bags are used every minute, with an average “working life” of only 15 minutes. Experts believe the ocean will contain one ton of plastic for every three tons of fish by 2025 and, by 2050, more plastics than fish (by weight).
Not only does the ocean (and all life reliant on it) suffer from plastic pollution, but human health is also at risk. Microplastics have well-documented impacts on human health, and have been found in 90% of bottled water and 83% of tap water. Our incessant plastic consumption is cultivated by “throwaway” culture, fueled by the plastic and oil and gas industries’ efforts to sustain high plastics consumption while distracting people with recycling campaigns.
The waste industry publication Waste Dive keeps me abreast of pending state and federal measures to address the waste crisis (Tracking the future of US recycling policy in Congress).
Yet the federal situation at present, this remains an all hat, no cattle situation. Big things are always promised but never achieved. Part of the dysfunction is a reflection of the broken U.S. political system, which seems to have lost the ability to define and tackle pressing problems, particularly when well-funded lobbyists are deployed to prevent much from changing at all.
At the state level, there’s more cause for optimism – with many states considering or passing legislation, including California, Colorado, Connecticut, Maine, Oregon, and Washington. When one drills down into details, however, one finds that many highly-touted measures are wanting in scope and ambition. Lack of effective implementation of even these limited measures is also a major problem.
Consider for example a California measure to require minimum recycled content in plastic beverage bottles. Now, a really ambitious measure would ban such bottles outright. But California opted for a much more modest solution: from 2022, plastic beverage containers must contain a minimum of 15% of postconsumer resin (see Waste Dive’s account California beverage makers struggle to meet upcoming recycled content requirements, discussing this underlying CalRecycle report).
Many leading beverage companies, including CG Roxane-Crystal Geyser, Nestle, Niagra Bottling and Pepsi, have already complied. Yet, Coca Cola, the largest California user, has not – and looks unlikely to be able to meet the imminent deadline. is the largest holdout. Such non-compliance is a failure of will rather than any hard and fast technological constraint, as other companies have already well exceeded the minimum target.
So, in a nutshell the U.S. continues to rely on a patchwork of state and local initiatives to address the plastics crisis, which in turn are modest and substantively piecemeal, and even these limited measures are far from perfectly implemented.
Relying on piecemeal state and local level initiatives is a curiously lackadaisical response to such a pressing problem, to say the least. According to Environmental Health News:
To Rachel Krause, a public administration researcher at the University of Kansas and author of the paper, it’s curious to see such a large issue relegated to local governments. “We tend to say that policy responses should be at scale or in proportion to policy problems,” she told EHN, “but local governments aren’t at scale with climate change, local governments aren’t at scale with global plastics. And yet, in a lot of places in the United States, that’s where we’re seeing the action happen.”
And these inadequate responses are not limited to mere neglect, either, with some states, such as Texas, actually voiding local initiatives to deal with plastic waste. Over again to Environmental Health News:
Local action against single-use plastic, by definition, has limited reach and is less efficient than sweeping national policy would be. Ordinances at a city or county level are also prone to being struck down by statewide preemption laws, when states ban local governments from taking action.
Eighteen states have some sort of preemption law in place. In Texas, for example, individual cities like Laredo tried to implement plastic bag bans, but the Texas Supreme Court knocked them down in 2018, saying they conflicted with state solid waste management laws.
Plastics Pushers Tout the Recycling Fairy
The U.S. first seriously considered controls on plastic during the heyday of the environmental movement that led to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) during the Nixon administration.
Since then, rather than pursuing controls on plastic production and outright bans of wasteful, non-essential uses of plastics, lawmakers have been seduced by the false sweet nothings of the recycling fairy – a message promoted by the plastics pushing industry even though it’s long known recycling doesn’t work. According to Environmental Health News:
Historically, the conversation around plastic pollution in the U.S. has centered on individuals’ and communities’ abilities to recycle. But [Christy Leavitt, the U.S. Plastic Campaign Director at Oceana] said that recycling was an ideal pushed on the public by the plastics industry as “a way for [them] to put the blame of plastic pollution and the responsibility to fix it on consumers. And it worked. While we focused on recycling, industry exponentially increased the amount of plastic it produced.”
The idea that it is the individual’s responsibility to recycle, to not litter, and to buy less was so pervasive “that it’s become embedded in our psyche,” added [University of Southern Maine environmental policy researcher Travis Wagner]. “That’s the industry saying ‘It’s not us, it’s you.'”
Meanwhile, records and reports from as early as 1973 suggest top industry executives knew that plastic recycling could never be successful on a large scale.
“It’s all coming down to dollars and cents for the industry,” Shannon Smith, Manager of Communications and Development for the nonprofit FracTracker Alliance, told EHN. “The misperception is that there’s a demand for all of this plastic, and so the industry is just responding to the demand of consumers, where it’s really the opposite.” In reality, she added, there’s an oversupply of fracked gas in the U.S., and one of the best ways to profit from all that supply is to generate more demand for plastic. “So it’s totally industry driven.”
Plastics are primarily made from the natural gas byproducts ethane and propane, which are turned into plastic polymers in high-heat facilities in a process known as “cracking.” The U.S. is the world’s leading producer of natural gas, with 30 cracker plants currently in operation and at least three more expected by mid-2022. To add insult to injury, Smith said, “the fracking industry has never been profitable,” and petrochemical companies and facilities are actually the frequent recipients of government subsidies. “We’re subsidizing them, we’re paying for their ability to make a profit while they’re sacrificing our health.”
It’s time to put the responsibility of managing plastic waste back on the companies producing it, [Alex Truelove, the Zero Waste Campaign Director with U.S. Public Interest Research Group (PIRG)] said. “If f your bathtub is overflowing, the first thing you do is turn off the tap,” he added.
Comparative Context: What Can and Must Be Done
Compare this sorry record of U.S. inaction with that of the rest of the world. As Environmental Health News reports:
Other countries not only produce less plastic than the U.S., but they’ve also more successfully legislated against plastic pollution. The European Union passed a comprehensive directive a couple of years ago, for example, that requires member countries to ban a slew of single-use plastic products, collect plastic bottles for recycling and reuse, and label disposable plastic products appropriately, at minimum. Many countries are going beyond those requirements.
In Canada a federal ban on plastic bags, stir sticks, ringed beverage carriers, cutlery, straws, and food takeout containers made from hard-to-recycle plastics is set to take effect at the end of the year.
It’s not just Western or “wealthier” nations who have successfully implemented measures against plastics. Dozens of countries across Africa, Asia, and Central and South America have legislation in place to quash the single-use plastic crisis.
[Leavitt] told EHN that the EU directive is just one example for the U.S. to emulate. Oceana has surveyed countries around the world, taking inventory of the global anti-plastic legislation and assessing where the U.S. sits comparatively, and found progressive policies in many pockets of the world.
“Chile passed what is, if not the most comprehensive, one of the most comprehensive single-use plastic foodware policies in the world,” Leavitt said. Beyond banning single-use bags and straws, Chile prohibits all eating establishments from providing single-use cutlery or containers. Grocery and convenience stores must also display, sell, and take back refillable bottles, creating a cyclical system of bottle reuse.
As early as 2002, the East African country Eritrea banned plastic bags in its capital city Asmara. The country implemented a nationwide ban on the import, production, sale, or distribution of plastic bags in 2005. Rwanda banned plastic bags in 2008 and then all single-use plastics in 2019, with heavy fines and even jail time for anyone found importing, producing, selling or using single-use plastic items.
When countries across the globe with fewer resources than the U.S. successfully push out harmful plastic products, it gives the U.S. no excuse to be so behind, Leavitt added.
Now measures to ban single use plastics are not inconsequential. But such bans alone are inadequate to the scale of the current problem. Much more far-reaching measures to eliminate plastics packaging are necessary.
And then perhaps we could get more serious about collecting and disposing of plastics that have already fouled the countryside and our oceans.
But the first necessary step is stopping plastics from getting into the waste disposal stream in the first instance. Why can’t we just agree to cancel plastics?