A Plastic Policy
To raise ourselves out of the plastic mess we created, our policies and infrastructure for handling plastic must change. In the U.S., only 9% of plastic is recycled. We can and must do better, starting with our economic, corporate, and governmental policies.
The most necessary and revolutionary change demands an overhaul of traditional economic systems. Namely, our current model of “make, use, dispose” does not obtain the maximum value from resources and produces enormous amounts of waste because the resources are not reused. The circular economy aims to shift economic activity from consuming finite resources. Applied to plastics, this concept would promote the reuse and repurposing of plastic to avoid the enormous waste of single-use products.
In October of 2018, the New Plastics Economy Global Commitment was signed by more than 250 organizations to eliminate plastic pollution and “create a “new normal” for plastic packaging. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation, in collaboration with the United Nations, is leading this commitment with three main targets that will be re-evaluated and revised every 18 months.
This commitment has been pledged by global companies like Unilever, Coca-Cola, L’Oreal, and H&M, and has the support of the WWF (World Wide Fund for Nature) and endorsements from the World Economic Forum and The Consumer Goods Forum. Five venture capital firms have pledged over $200 million to create a circular economy for plastic. While this plan will require substantial time and money to change our recycling infrastructure, the support and commitment and drive of this commitment shows hopeful, monumental change for our future with plastic.
With more and more awareness of plastic pollution, consumers care more and more about the sustainability of the companies they support. As a result, major corporations have already taken significant strides to reduce the amount of plastic they use. American Airlines, for example, has banned plastic straws and stirrers from their flights, and is now eliminating single-use plastic in their airport lounges. The company claims these changes will eliminate 71,000 pounds of plastic waste annually. Sodexo, a foodservice company that manages meals and concessions for 13,000 schools, workplaces, and venues, plans to completely eliminate plastic bags and straws from all of their clients, and plans to eliminate Styrofoam containers by 2025.
While American Airlines’ plastic policy change may seem small, the 71,000 pounds of plastic eliminated is monumental. As we move closer to more sustainable economic systems, sustainable company policies in the meantime will be key to reducing the amount of plastic entering the ocean.
National, state, and local governments all over the world are finally starting to engender new policies to encourage businesses and citizens to recycle and use less plastic. Below is a list of governments passing new laws to change the plastic status quo:
The government of San Diego recently passed the largest California ban of Styrofoam, which is the Dow Chemical trademark for polystyrene. Polystyrene is extremely ideal for packaging because it is low-cost, but it also breaks apart very easily and is generally rejected from recycling centers.
In August of 2017, Kenya banned plastic bags, with consequences of up to four years in prison or fines of $40,000 for anyone producing, selling, or carrying a plastic bag. This ban - one of the strictest in the world - has made the streets cleaner, but the government continues to receive criticism from companies and citizens who demand cheaper alternatives for their missing plastic bags.
Norway boasts a recycling rate of 97%; how? They employ one organization, Infinitum, to manage the country’s deposit return system for plastic bottles and cans. They also place an environmental tax on all producers of plastic bottles, but the more they recycle the bottles, the more their tax is reduced.
Germany literally pays their citizens to recycle. When a citizen buys a bottled beverage, they pay a deposit that they can get back when the bottle is returned to a bottle disposal unit. Different bottles have different values; tin cans, for example, can pay up to $0.28 per can.
The European Union
Last October, the EU voted for a ban on a variety of single-use plastics across the union. While the ban still needs to jump through more legislative hoops, it will hopefully go into effect by 2021.
While all of these policies show hope for a cleaner future, how do we ensure that they are actually implemented and successful?
One of the hardest parts of making change a reality is enforcing new policies.
Last December, when the French President Emmanuel Macron imposed a tax on diesel fuel to decrease greenhouse gas emissions, citizens violently protested in opposition; as a result, Macron had to rescind the tax. While in theory new policies may help the environment, the reception from the masses is just as important.
Even in Kenya, where the plastic bag ban has made the country’s roads and communities noticeably cleaner, many citizens are suffering economically. The Guardian reports that “the new bags are six times more expensive than plastic”, but without subsidies from the government, local sellers are forced to pay the extra cost. One woman shared that her “business is badly affected”; while she agrees with the plastic ban, the lack of alternatives is hurting her livelihood.
Clearly, plastic policies must account for the economic and social ramifications such policies bring with them, or else they will fail to instill real change. Providing cleaner alternatives and incentives, like those in Norway and Germany, for companies and citizens to recycle fosters less economic strain and more positivity for communities while decreasing the amount of plastic waste that ends up in our oceans.