Should Plastic Pollution Producers Be Held Accountable?

Scientists estimate that some 11 million metric tons of plastics enter the ocean every year, and the majority of the most common items littering our beaches and waterways are single-use plastic packaging and food ware. Yet plastic pollution producers have not been held accountable for the more than 8 billion tons of plastic produced since 1950 — more than half of which went straight to landfills and only about 9% of which was recycled.

Is it time to hit ’em where it hurts? If plastic pollution producers had to pay a fine per ton of manufactured plastic, or have a manufacturing quota, or be restricted to use only existing plastics for new items, how would they react? What if there were manufacturing rewards for converting to time-dependent disposable packaging and food ware? What if consumers refused to absorb the increased costs of plastic, and, instead, choose bulk, refillable, or sustainable packaging?

Landmark Legislation: Hit ‘Em Where It Hurts

Scientists estimate that some 11 million metric tons of plastics enter the ocean every year. Data from 35 years of Ocean Conservancy’s International Coastal Cleanup show that the majority of the most common items littering our beaches and waterways are single-use plastic packaging and food ware.

Twenty companies are responsible for producing more than half of all the single-use plastic waste in the world, fueling the climate crisis and creating an environmental catastrophe. If growth in single-use plastic production continues at current rates, they could account for 5% to 10% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

Sometimes experts proclaim that producers and consumers must share responsibility and costs for plastic pollution. For anyone who has attempted to eliminate plastic from their household consumption, we know how absurd that statement is: plastic is everywhere and nearly impossible to avoid.

California is taking steps to hold the plastic pollution producers accountable in its state.

The Plastic Pollution Producer Responsibility Act could be the most ambitious plastics legislation seen in the US to date. ActSB54:

  • calls for a 25% reduction in plastic packaging and food ware by weight and item count by 2032
  • mandates that nearly half of that reduction result from the direct elimination of plastic packaging or switching to reuse and refill systems rather than simply replacing it with alternative single-use materials
  • requires that all single-use packaging and foodware, including non-plastic items, be recyclable or compostable within the state of California by 2032
  • has a requisite 65% recycling rate target
  • provides hundreds of millions of dollars in funding to support communities and restore ecosystems most impacted by plastic pollution
  • opens up a new and already growing reuse and refillables market to cut single-use plastics altogether

Ocean Conservancy scientists calculate that the provision will directly eliminate nearly 23 million tons of single-use plastic packaging and food ware over the next 10 years. “Without a doubt this bill, if passed, would be the strongest plastics legislation we have ever seen here in the United States,” said Dr. Anja Brandon, US Plastics Policy Analyst at Ocean Conservancy and a principal contributor to the bill text.

Other states across the country are continuing their work to reduce plastic pollution. This year, at least 8 states are considering legislation to hold producers accountable for the end-of-life management of plastic packaging. States include Hawaii, Illinois, Kentucky, Maryland, New Hampshire, New York, Vermont, and Washington. A full bill list is available through National Caucus of Environmental Legislator’s website.

In sum, there are currently 25 countries and over 100 cities in the US and the EU with regulations in place banning single-use plastic. Recently, as reported by Waste 360an additional and perhaps equally powerful force is at work, as pressure is emanating from ESG investors, who have amassed enough power to foment change.

Plastic Pollution Producers React with Doubletalk

Plastic manufacturers and distributors commonly argue that consumers bear the blame for the accelerating plastic crisis. By pointing fingers at consumer recycling habits, or lack thereof, plastic producers have successfully distracted the public from the real issues with plastic – and the real solutions.

The reality is, says John Hite, Conservation Law Foundation’s Zero Waste Policy Analyst, “our country’s recycling system is broken. Much of the waste placed in recycling bins isn’t actually recyclable. Sadly, it’s taken a crisis for people to realize this.”

To prove the point, the American Plastics Makers have responded to accusations that they should reduce plastics production with 5 Actions for Sustainable Change.

  • Require a 30 by ’30 national recycled plastics standard.
  • Create a modern regulatory system to develop a circular economy for plastics.
  • Develop national recycling standards for plastics.
  • Study the impact of greenhouse gas emissions from all materials to guide informed policy.
  • Establish an American-designed producer responsibility system.

“Plastics help reduce food waste, enable modern health care, and are critical to renewable energy,” the American Plastics Makers claim. “As the world grapples with reducing carbon emissions and a growing, wealthier population, policy proposals to cap plastic production will only hinder progress towards achieving UN Sustainable Development Goals. Better waste management for the 3 billion people that lack access to it is a more effective solution to keeping plastics and other waste out of our environment.”

Plastics Machinery & Manufacturing That not all plastic goes to landfills — in 2018, 1.16 pounds per person was insisted every day, along with 0.72 pound that was composted or, in the case of food, diverted in some other way. Woo hoo!

Conversely, ahead of the 2021 International Coastal Cleanup, an Ocean Conservancy report revealed that nearly 70% of trash found on beaches was unrecyclable; moreover, there was widespread confusion about food ware recyclability.

In April, California’s attorney general subpoenaed ExxonMobil as part of what was called a first-of-its-kind broader investigation into the petroleum industry for its alleged role in causing a global plastic pollution crisis. ExxonMobil decries the claims as meritless. Attorney general Rob Bonta said that the industry for decades has encouraged the development and use of petroleum-based plastic products while seeking to minimize public understanding that their widespread use harms the environment and public health.

Final Thoughts

We know that the Plastic Producer Responsibility Act is only the beginning. Twenty institutional asset managers — led by US companies Vanguard Group, BlackRock and Capital Group — hold over $300 billion worth of in the parent companies of these share polymer producers, of which an estimated $10 billion comes from the production of virgin polymers for single-use plastics.

Consumers are calling out Big Tech for the harm they do to the environment. Their product manufacturing contributions to air pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, waste, and water use. Employees at Microsoft, Amazon, Google, and other tech giants have published letters pushing their companies to stop polluting and to stop working with fossil fuel companies altogether


 

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