If Becomes When for Single-Use Plastic Bans

Everyone knows what 24/7/365 means – this series of numbers isn’t a winning lottery number, it’s a poetic expression of our around-the-clock attentiveness to world and cultural events. But here’s a new one for you: 349/8/77. Any guesses?

There are now 349 U.S. cities and counties with some form of single-use plastic ban or taxes, 8 states with similar bans, and 77 nations around the world with bans in place or phasing into law. But unlike the inviolable cap on the length of our year, there are plenty more plastic bans on the way.

A patchwork of laws throughout the United States is not the ideal way to attack this giant and growing environmental problem. But we needed brave leaders and legislators to step forward first to demonstrate it could be done. Their early intervention enabled us to document the benefits of taking common-sense action in support of this morally imperative movement.

woman holding up two white plastic coffee lids

Since California passed its landmark single-use plastic bag ban in 2014, it’s estimated their use has declined by 85% and eliminated 5 billion bags per year. Foes of such bans have argued some of the most outlandish claims in their efforts to derail this common-sense approach, supposing that people are simply buying more plastic bags or suggesting that reusable bags are worse for the environment because of their durable construction. The increasing absurdity of their allegations helps to strengthen our resolve in the face of their weakening credibility. Proponents of single-use plastic seem increasingly reliant on claims that have about as much durability as the flimsy products they represent.

These initial forays into plastic restrictions – bags and straws being the earliest focus – have demonstrated the effectiveness of limits and the ability of our marketplace to adjust to them. Loopholes and carve-outs for certain users abound, but there’s no disputing that an 85% reduction is a major success, both in terms of the 66 million pounds of plastic we’ve avoided in California, and the related CO2 emissions.

These successes have informed and emboldened our deeper move into single-use plastic bans for other insidious products like Styrofoam, plastic bottles, clamshells, and other foodservice materials. A new federal proposal dubbed the Break Free from Plastic Pollution Act of 2021, co-authored by Sen. Udall of New Mexico and Congressman Lowenthal from Los Angeles, marks the first time national legislation would enforce uniform change throughout the country. It would restrict single-use plastic while holding manufacturers accountable for the waste created by their products ‒ a level of responsibility that’s rarely been seen in the packaging business.

Importantly, it would pause the construction of new plastics factories to halt the proliferation at its source. Not only would this legislation supersede locally enacted bans on plastic limits, it would reinforce existing bans in cities and states that have been islands of accountability. Incremental progress continues at the state and local level with governments expanding their limitations with vocal boost from supportive constituents who’ve already waited too long for these laws.

Still, many local jurisdictions are still considering their own requirements to reduce or eliminate single-use plastic products that form the majority of municipal waste. Water and soda bottles, food packaging and wrappers are among the most prevalent forms of municipal plastic waste and continue to have incredibly low recycling rates. Cities are running out of landfill space so, as a practical matter, there’s little time left to switch to alternatives that won’t pile up for 1,000 years.

gloved hand holding two bioplastic cups

One lingering threat comes from so-called compostable plastic, which is deftly maneuvering to become an alternative to petroleum-based plastic. Compostables are among the most misleading of plastic alternatives on the market today. Virtually all of them require an industrial composter to be properly turned into reusable material, and just 2-4% of American households have access to such facilities.

The material that comes out of this process is not what most people usually imagine when they think about composting– a rich soil amendment you can easily spread in your garden. The result is actually a sticky, gummy substance that takes a bit of effort to spread onto row farms. It’s really not worth the effort, and consumers must not be fooled – or cornered by ill-informed legislation ‒ into believing misleading descriptions.

Smart business leaders should be able to see the direction this issue is going. Consumers are increasingly frustrated with plastic waste and overpackaging, and governments at all levels are increasingly willing to implement restrictions on those products. Let’s skip ahead to the solution, shall we? Let’s start to transition to more sustainable alternatives and focus our energy away from defending doomed plastic products and fully support materials that are safe and sustainable.

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