Plastic bottles. Take-out containers. Food wrappers.
These single-use plastics are ubiquitous throughout our daily lives. Sadly, these are materials meant to be used once and thrown away. Researchers estimate that about 9.1 billion tons of plastic have been produced since plastic production took off in the 1950s, and 60 percent of that production, around 5.5 billion tons, has ended up in a landfill or the natural environment (Source). Today, the world is producing around 330 million tons of plastic waste every year (Source). For context, that’s almost the weight of the entire human population (Source).
The rise of single-use plastics contributes significant amounts of pollution to our oceans. The use of plastics, which are produced from petrochemicals, also increases our dependence on oil consumption, precisely at a time when we need to be shifting away from oil.
So what can we do?
Thankfully, legislators Ben Allen, Nancy Skinner, Henry Stern, and Scott Wiener have co-authored bills to ban single-use plastic. SB54 and AB1080 are companion bills currently making their way through the California State Legislature. These bills would require manufacturers and retailers in California to reduce single-use plastic packaging and products by 75 percent by 2030; and after 2030, all single-use plastics sold in the state would need to be compostable or recyclable. If passed, these bills would make California the first state in the nation to make plastic manufacturers responsible for their impact on the environment. It is particularly important that we pass these bills before the legislative session ends on August 31. If we miss this window of opportunity, the bills must be re-introduced in the 2021 legislative session and start over as new bills.
Currently, we are dealing with multiple crises–a public health crisis and economic crisis, along with the ongoing environmental justice emergency. So, plastics and the environment may not be on our minds. However, now more than ever is the time that we should be investing in our planet’s sustainability, as plastic pollution worsens these existing crises. The single-use plastics bills aren’t just about cutting down the amount of trash that makes its way into our oceans and landfills. These bills also present opportunities to address pollution in low-income communities and communities of color, create green jobs in the state, relieve local governments of financial burden, and prevent expansion of fossil fuel production into petrochemicals (single-use plastics are profitable!).
These are reasons why banning single-use plastics now is more important than ever:
- Protecting low-income communities and communities of color: The production of plastic uses a fracking byproduct, with the oil wells causing toxic air pollution and ground pollution near vulnerable communities. These communities, in turn, are more susceptible to severe symptoms of coronavirus, which is one of the reasons we are seeing more COVID-related deaths in low-income communities and communities of color.
- Creating thousands of green jobs in California: CalRecycle estimates that meeting the state’s recycling goals with in-state infrastructure could generate an additional 110,000 jobs, in addition to the existing 125,000 people employed in recycling today. Wasting our natural resources is actually costing us much-needed jobs and money.
- Providing financial relief for local governments: Recycling, which used to be a revenue generator, has become an added burden on local governments dealing with severe budget shortfalls amid the closure of China’s market for recycling (2018 National Sword Policy). SB54/AB1080 will significantly reduce this burden by allowing funds to be freed up and utilized for other efforts.
There’s no doubt that single-use plastics are convenient and cheap. But whatever convenience we’re gaining in the short term is more than offset by the long-term negative impact on our environment, its wildlife, our health, and our economy. We need to keep in mind that investing in sustainability has many upsides that companies ignore: more jobs, more innovation, and healthier individuals, to name a few. Our future is going to hinge on our ability to make decisions with the long-term social impact in mind. Change is difficult but necessary, and we can begin by continuing California’s climate leadership and passing SB54/AB1080.