Faced with an unholy tonnage of chip bags, soda bottles, takeout containers and other disposable plastic items flowing into our landfills and our waters, winding up in wildlife, drinking water and food, policymakers in California have tried reining in plastic waste bit by bit. For example, more than 100 cities have adopted restrictions on polystyrene takeout containers, and the state has banned single-use plastic grocery bags.
Considering the magnitude of the problem, however, this item-by-item, city-by-city approach isn't going to cut it.
The state and local rules certainly have raised public awareness about the problem. Denying free plastic bags at checkout or providing plastic straws only on request sends consumers an important message that there's a bigger cost to these everyday items than they may have considered. But the actual flow of trash has been disrupted only modestly.
It's going to take more than a smattering of bans on single items to cure society of its disposable-plastic habit. The sheer volume of plastic trash now littering Earth has become impossible to ignore. It's time for environmentalists, policymakers and elected officials to start planning a broader response: phasing out all single-use plastic, not just the most pernicious.
That's right, all of it. If that sounds like a pipe dream, consider what's happening across the pond. Last month, British Prime Minister Theresa May outlined a plan to eliminate plastic waste by 2042. Queen Elizabeth II kicked it off this month by banning plastic straws and bottles from royal estates, and the Church of England supported a nascent social media campaign, #plasticlesslent, to encourage its flock to give up plastic for Lent this year. Simultaneously, the European Union announced its own plan to significantly reduce plastic waste, including adopting a possible plastic tax, in a direct response to the news that China, the largest importer of plastic recyclable material, was no longer accepting "foreign garbage."
We don't expect President Trump or Congress to follow suit, even though it's impossible to pretend that the trash filling up in the ocean is naturally occurring. That leaves it to states like California to step in. One strategy is for lawmakers to adopt a reduction goal, as they did for greenhouse gas emissions and energy derived from fossil fuels, and then to adopt specific programs to meet that goal. It's a simple but effective approach to tackling such a formidable environmental threat. Also, it puts makers of disposable plastic on notice, so they can't complain they didn't have time to adapt or move into other, less harmful product lines.
But even forewarned, the plastic industry isn't likely to take an assault on its bottom line well. Plastic makers spent millions of dollars trying to stop the state from banning single-use plastic bags. Imagine what they might unleash if all their disposable plastic products were threatened. As part of that, they will no doubt argue, as they did in the plastic bag fight, that the efforts to clean up plastic waste would mean lost jobs.
But it's not a zero-sum game. Cutting jobs on a disposable plastic product line doesn't automatically translate into fewer people employed. If the door closes on polystyrene takeout containers, for example, it will open for cardboard and other biodegradable alternatives.
No one expects consumers to give up convenience completely. In fact, the market for bio-plastic alternatives, which are made from corn starch and other biodegradable sources, is already growing thanks to public awareness and the sporadic efforts to curb plastic waste.
Opponents will insist that the answer is just to encourage more recycling. Not only is recycling not the answer (see China's diminished appetite for imported plastic trash), it has only enabled our addiction to convenient, disposable plastic packaging to deepen for some 60 years.
Yes, it's scary to think about a world where one has to carry around a reusable bag or worry about a paper drinking straw falling apart mid…. Oh, wait. No, it's not. Knowing that every piece of plastic manufactured on Earth is still with us and that if we don't cut back now, there will eventually be more plastic than fish in the ocean — that's the truly frightening thought.