Report identifies 13 solutions to reduce the environmental and health impacts of plastics, with particular attention to helping communities disproportionately affected by the effects of petrochemical pollution.
On Thursday, a group of 257 organizations — including dozens of members of the #BreakFreeFromPlastic movement — released 13 recommendations for the Biden-Harris Administration and Congress to include in a stimulus package, infrastructure bill and/or climate change legislation, to help mitigate the devastating impacts caused by plastic pollution.
As the US works to build back from our ongoing health and economic crisis, these systemic reforms would provide equitable protection against the environmental and health damage caused by plastics. The group projects that with a minimum investment of $1.3 billion, the federal government could protect the health of the communities on the frontlines of extraction, plastic production and incineration (which are also being disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 pandemic), stimulate innovation and jobs; and promote public health, cleaner communities, healthier oceans and a more sustainable economy.
“Plastic pollutes across its entire lifecycle — from extraction to use and disposal — and, at each stage, poses significant risks to human health,” said Julia Cohen, MPH, Co-Founder and Managing Director of Plastic Pollution Coalition. “The US needs Congressional Stimulus and Funding Bills that would transform our extractive, throwaway systems; eliminate sources of plastic production; and reduce the negative health and ‘downstream’ impacts in our frontline communities, our soil, air and water.”
While the private sector continues to innovate and collaborate to help solve the global plastic pollution crisis — recent developments include Bacardi’s biodegradable spirits bottle and the growing market for products made from upcycled and averted plastics — #BreakFreeFromPlastic’s 2020 Brand Audit showed little progress by major brands as compared to previous years, and no evidence of any reduction in production of single-use plastic (not really a surprise, considering COVID). The 257 organizations note that over 350M tons of plastic are still produced each year — of which 91 percent is not recycled — and that the US produces the most plastic waste per capita of any country.
And it’s the federal government’s job to help move the needle on these disconcerting stats. More specifically, federal funding must help stop plastic contamination at its source before it enters the marketplace — especially because plastic is often cleaned up with the public’s tax dollars, rather than by the corporations who produced the plastic that pollutes these lands and waterways. The US could take a page from the UK’s playbook — in late 2018, proposed DEFRA legislation had businesses and manufacturers responsible for the full cost of recycling or disposing of their packaging waste.
The plastic pollution crisis is also an environmental justice emergency — because the petrochemical industry, and the waste that it creates, disproportionately harm people of color and low-income communities.
To help combat this, the report outlines 13 priorities to help transform the country’s extractive, throwaway culture into a regenerative, inclusive one that is good for our economy and environment — including:
$150M for government facilities, educational institutions and public lands to shift to reusable products
$25M to investigate and pursue violations of environmental laws by the petrochemical industry in disproportionately impacted communities
$150M for research on the health impacts of plastics
$500M to the EPA for recycling programs and materials recovery facilities for non-plastic recyclables
$250M for composting infrastructure
$50M to develop waste reduction, reuse and refill systems
$25M for reducing and mitigating ocean plastic
These recommendations address the immense damage caused across the full plastic supply chain: namely, gas extraction, production, manufacturing, distribution, use in consumer products, and disposal — which often involves plastic waste being buried in landfills, dumped in waterways, or burned in incinerators. The solutions focus both upstream, on eliminating wanton plastic production and its negative impacts; and downstream — on mitigating the impacts in communities, on land, and in our oceans and rivers.
“As the largest producer of plastic waste, the US has a responsibility to lead the shift to reusable and refillable systems to combat plastic pollution,” said Christy Leavitt, Plastics Campaign Director with Oceana. “Single-use plastic is flooding the market, and Americans can’t find options to avoid it. The federal government can change course, help curb the 33 billion pounds of plastic entering our oceans each year and replace America’s plastic habit with zero-waste solutions.”
The recommendations also make clear that “to effectively reduce plastic pollution and stimulate economic growth, the Administration and Congress [must] not promote false solutions in federal spending bills and other actions.” The coalition highlights five items that should not be included in any federal actions — including chemical recycling, downcycling, plastic carbon sequestration, the export of plastic waste; and incineration under the guise of “waste to energy,” “waste to fuel,” gasification or pyrolysis.
“The federal government should take responsibility for protecting communities and the environment. Real solutions to address the harms of plastic pollution are long overdue. Absolutely no community in the US should have to pay the price of progress to benefit the few,” said Juan Parras, Executive Director with Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services (TEJAS).
In addition to these new recommendations and points of concern, the Presidential Plastics Action Plan published on December 8, 2020, identifies important steps the Biden-Harris Administration can take today. Likewise, the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act, which is expected to be reintroduced in 2021, identifies common sense actions the federal government can take to address the plastic pollution crisis.
“The way federal tax dollars are spent reflects the priorities of the nation. Just as our country is wisely moving away from subsidizing fossil fuel production, we should stop funding fracked plastics,” said Judith Enck, President of Beyond Plastics and a former EPA Regional Administrator. “Instead, Congress should support innovation that provides alternatives to plastics [that] are good for the environment, prevent pollution in environmental justice communities, and create local jobs.”