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Talking Trash About Plastics

Monday, July 2, 2018
Cynthia Harris

Cynthia Harris

Staff Attorney; Director of Tribal Programs; Deputy Director of the Center for State, Tribal, and Local Environmental Programs

It’s official: China isn’t taking our garbage anymore. Literally. Effective this year, China started restricting the import of 24 types of waste and established new thresholds for contaminants such as food residues and metals. Why does that create a significant problem for the United States? Consider this: China imported 776,000 metric tons of reclaimed plastic and 13 million metric tons of recycled paper from the United States in 2016 alone.

True, that’s a lot of paper. But it’s the plastics that really should have us all worried, even past the fact that many jurisdictions in the United States have little option in the short term beyond sending these spurned plastics straight to the landfill.

Let us not downplay the beneficial uses of plastics, which run the gamut of consumer goods, medical devices, and technology. Without plastics, we would all be partying like it’s 1899. But our reliance on plastics has created a number of serious problems.

The Plastics Problem

First, we waste an incredible amount of plastic; less than 10 percent of all plastics ever made have been recycled. Especially pernicious are single-use plastics, like grocery bags and packaging. Second, common plastics can take 500 years to degrade. In fact, they never actually decompose; they simply break down into smaller and smaller bits of plastics. This means that a considerable amount of plastic will remain with us for the foreseeable future.

Plastic bag or jellyfish? There will be more plastic than fish in the ocean by 2050, research suggests (NOAA).

Third, wasted plastics have taken over our oceans, lakes, and wildlife. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is among the best-publicized examples. It is one of five major offshore trash accumulation zones, where marine debris is spread across more than one million square miles. The majority of this garbage is plastic. The numbers are stark: more than eight million tons of plastic enter into the oceans every year, with more than 300 million tons present in our oceans right now. In fact, there will be more plastic than fish in the ocean by 2050. Again: there will be more plastic than fish.

More chilling is the impact on human health from microplastics and additives. Microplastics are plastic particles measuring less than five millimeters in size. Some microplastics originate from discarded plastics breaking down; others derive from plastic microfibers in our clothes or microbeads still present in many products such as cosmetics, soap, and toothpaste. They enter into the human food chain—one study even found microplastics in drinking water; another study discovered them in beer and honey. Eventually, plastics fragment into nanoplastics that can penetrate cells, and move into our tissues and organs.

Additives are chemicals added to plastics during manufacturing to serve such uses as water repellants, flame retardants, stiffeners, softeners, and pigments. Some are quite toxic, raising concerns about possible ties to effects on brain development, cancer, and birth defects. Others are known endocrine disrupters, or chemicals that interfere with normal hormone function.

The Sustainable Solution? 

As a practical matter, tools exist to address this problem.

We can simply cut down on how much plastic we use in the first place. Sound too easy? Consider that the world’s first plastic-free supermarket aisle opened this past February in Amsterdam. We can also replace single-use plastics with durable materials, such as multi-use water bottles and those ubiquitous canvas totes.

Governments can take a harder line, mandating recycling while making the process easier. Policymakers can outright disallow the top offenders, such as plastic bags and plastic straws. Several U.S. jurisdictions have enacted bans or fees on single-use plastic bags. Some cities prohibit restaurants from using single-use plastic straws. The business community has joined the anti-straw effort, with fast-food chain McDonalds replacing straws with innovative alternatives; a company called Loliware is launching the Lolistraw, a straw that you can drink from, and then eat.

Nor should we disregard the power of science, which has identified an enzyme that eats plastics. Japanese researchers in 2016 discovered bacteria that can break down a thin layer of plastic within six weeks. British scientists tweaked the enzyme the bacteria use, and now the process takes only days. Biodegradable plastics are another option, and soon perhaps even edible plastics.

Concrete Steps or Cellophane Dreams?

This past December, nearly 200 countries signed a resolution of the United Nations Environment Assembly to combat plastic pollution in the marine environment. Three countries, however, rejected specific targets for reducing plastic—the United States, China (the world’s biggest producer of plastic waste), and India.

Yet, there are signs of progress via both multilateral and national initiatives. Twenty-five African countries have banned the production and use of plastic bags. A proposed European Union directive to reduce plastic pollution in cities and oceans, by banning several single-use plastic products, is heading to the European Parliament and the European Council for approval.

Looking ahead, the United Kingdom, which already bans microbeads, will be the first country to impose a ban on plastic straws, and this January announced plans to eliminate all plastic waste by the year 2042. India’s prime minister recently announced that government’s intent to ban all single-use plastics by 2022, and Japan’s Upper House introduced a bill to reduce microplastics with the goal of battling ocean pollution—but with no penalties for noncompliance, the legislation will lack real teeth. Commendably, the U.S. Congress found bi-partisan support in 2015 to pass the Microbead-Free Waters Act, which prohibits the use of plastic microbeads in “rinse off” cosmetic products such as facewash and toothpaste.

Plainly, this is hardly a running start to tackling the plastic problem. Several countries have made hard commitments to reducing plastic pollution. But many initiatives remain in the early stages of proposal, while in the United States, such laws are often enacted and implemented piecemeal by disparate jurisdictions. And for every step forward, there is at least half a step back: while many states and localities have enacted plastic ban bags, some states—such as Arizona, Missouri, and Mississippi—prohibit localities from imposing a ban, fee, or tax. Texas’s Supreme Court recently interpreted the Texas Solid Waste Disposal Act as similarly preempting local action.

But these first steps are promising as the public pays greater attention to the sheer magnitude of plastic pollution and its impacts on the environment and human health. Clearly, we have the legal and technological tools. Now, what we need is the will to put them to use.