Author: Conservation Coordinator Shelby Serra
In part two of this series, we explored the history of efforts to address the plastic pollution problem facing the geographically vulnerable state of Hawaii. Although there are a few states that are attempting change with state-wide plastic bans, such as California and New York (and Hawai’i due to our 4-county wide plastic bag ban), the majority of the country has not made strides in the direction of marine debris mitigation. These single-item bans do shift public opinion surrounding harmful plastics but they don’t really address the problem at large. In order to effectively tackle an issue this complex, we will need to act on a larger scale and take a systems-based approach that considers the relationships between businesses, consumers and the environment. Let us now release our narrow focus and take a look at the legislative and systemic approaches being considered at the national level.
A Circular Economy
The idea of the circular economy is in direct contrast to the “take-make-waste” model of the linear economy that has left us in the plastic predicament we find ourselves in now. By design, the circular economy is restorative and regenerative; it defines sustainability by rebuilding overall system health and takes a holistic approach by incorporating organizations and individuals, big and small, globally and locally.
Ultimately, there are three main principles that the idea of the circular economy is based on; designing out waste and pollution, keeping products and materials in use, and regenerating natural systems. To this end, you may notice that only one of these principals can be employed exclusively by the individual (downstream), hence why this approach has to be holistic, and involve both upstream (producer) and downstream efforts.
Extended Producer Responsibility
A ban on a single use plastic item only truly rids us of its consequences if it is completely eliminated from the globe. For many reasons, this simply will not work, so instead, policies that add responsibility to the producer of these goods are beginning to gain support. Part of the idea of a circular economy is adding extended producer responsibility (EPR). This is a policy additive that aims to shift the cost of managing consumer packaging from local solid waste agencies to those manufacturers who are producing these products. This concept has already been applied to energy-intensive items often discarded because the consumer does not know how to properly dispose, such as cell phones, batteries, and other electronic waste. However, it is only beginning to be discussed as an effective way to mitigate the harmful impacts of single use plastic waste, that often end up as marine debris.
When applied to efforts to curb single-use plastics that are ending up in streets, waterways, and our ocean, EPR requires producers to change packaging design and selection, leading to increased recyclability and/or less packaging and waste. It also provides additional funds for recycling programs, and increases efficiency of those programs, which in turn can increase recycling rates. Although reducing and reusing options should precede recycling, the planet could certainly use an uptick in recycling rates; as of 2015, out of all plastic waste generated, a measly 9% had been recycled. This is the very definition of unsustainable behavior.
National Policy Proposals
The EPR approach to thwarting plastic waste in this country gives hope to those who have been involved in the fight against harmful single use plastics from the start. Although there are a few different national policies that are being considered this year, the majority would still benefit the producer. Realizing the Economic Opportunities and Value of Expanding Recycling (RECOVER) Act (H.R. 5115), currently in the U.S. House of Representatives, would provide half a billion dollars in matching grants to state and local governments to support recycling. The problem with this bill, backed by the Plastics Industry Association and the American Chemistry Council, is that it would essentially continue allowing the production of single-use plastics with no consequence to the industry at all (remember that weak recycling rate??). Funding recycling programs is part of the solution, but ultimately, we need to improve the programs themselves.
The Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act (H.R. 5845) in the U.S. Senate and House takes a far more comprehensive approach. This first-of-its kind bill would phase out certain single-use plastic products, create a nationwide beverage container refund program, shift the burden of plastic waste away from consumers and toward the companies producing it (EPR), prohibit plastic waste from being shipped to developing countries, and protect the ability of state and local governments to implement stricter plastics policies. Another provision in the bill would place a temporary pause on production of new plastic facilities in an effort to give environmental agencies the valuable time needed to consider cumulative impacts of new and expanded plastic-producing facilities on the air, water, climate and communities prior to issuing permits. This bill is an example of valiant effort in incorporating a holistic approach to mitigating plastic production.
The bill already has 79 co-sponsors in the House and 9 in the Senate that span 26 states, and major organizations pushing this legislation are urging people across the country to reach out to their district’s representative to encourage co-sponsorship of the bill, if they aren’t already. Congressman Ed Case (HI-1) is a co-sponsor on the bill, but Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard (HI-2), has yet to sign on. Pacific Whale Foundation has written to Congresswoman Gabbard urging her to join in support for this bill. We have also reached out to Hawai’i Senators Brian Schatz and Mazie Hirono to co-sponsor the Senate version of this bill. The more support from both the House and Senate, the better the chances of large-scale change being implemented at a critical time.
Since the plastic pollution problem has no geographical limit, national policy that addresses the problem at the source is tantamount to tackling the issue. There are a few examples of other countries attempting similar legislation, such as France and their country-wide ban on plastic cups, plates and cutlery, planned for implementation this year. However the COVID-19 pandemic has halted this and other attempted policies.
Although positive efforts are being made, piecemeal, a global approach is necessary in order to tackle the plastic issue. PEW Charitable Trusts, a non-profit organization focused on serving the public interest, along with SYSTEMIQ, whose mission is to accelerate system change, recently published the Breaking the Plastic Wave report, a comprehensive assessment of pathways towards stopping ocean plastic pollution. This report quantifies the cost, both to the economy and to the environment, of plastics if we continue business as usual (BAU). Incidentally, they’ve calculated that BAU scenario will triple the amount of plastic leaking into the ocean by 2040. They also quantify the “current commitments” scenario, which sees little improvement, and finally, a “system change” scenario. According to the report, the system change scenario could achieve approximately 80% reduction in annual plastic leakage to the ocean relative to BAU.
The report touts the circular economy theory, integrating a strategy that reduces growth in plastic production and consumption, increases plastic substitutes like paper and compostables, implements the concepts of EPR, expands waste collection rates by 90% in middle- and low-income countries, and more focused on plastic production efficiencies. The actions suggested in this report cannot wait to be implemented; according to the report, even a five-year delay would result in an additional ~80 million metric tons of plastic going into the ocean by 2040.
Every effort made, from local to state to national, makes a difference and has a ripple effect. Here in Hawai’i, Maui’s plastic bag ban over 10 years ago created the splash that caused “ripples” in other counties to follow suit with more plastic policies. State-wide bans have had the same effect on the US west coast, and now national policy is being considered. Furthermore, national policies have illuminated the need for a global, systemic (and feasible!) change. Whatever the motivation, be it to keep the streets clean or protect whales and dolphins from undue harm, the fight nurtures progress.