Blair Horner: Plastic Pollution

Jul 29, 2019

Plastic pollution is a major problem for the world.  Not only does plastic pollution choke waterways, devastate sea life, and pose a health threat, but plastic manufacturing also plays a significant role in the fight over curbing greenhouse gas emissions. 

The crisis over the mass production and disposal of plastic products hit home when the Chinese government made a decision in 2017 not to accept any more of our plastic waste.  China had been one of the nation’s chief dumping grounds for plastic trash since the mid-1990s.  Its refusal to continue has forced American national, state and local governments to grapple with the excessive amount of plastic pollution we generate.

In addition, plastic pollution has had a devastating impact on the world’s oceans.  Pictures of sea life killed or injured by plastic products highlighted, in a way no policy paper could, that plastic trash in the oceans poses a threat to the animals and fish that live there.  Estimates are that by the middle of this century, there will be more plastic than fish – by weight – in the oceans.

Plastic products can leach contaminants that pose a public health threat. Black plastic, used in everything from kitchen utensils to children’s toys, cellphone cases, and thermoses, appears to be particularly dangerous.  The plastic is often sourced from recycled electronics that contain phthalates and heavy metals.  Even at very low levels, these chemicals can cause serious health problems.

The spread of single-use plastics often sold to consumers as protection from contamination, has allowed the underlying chemicals that make up plastics to show up in our food and water.  Bottled water, sales of which are increasing in part because people are seeking alternatives to contaminated local water supplies, now contain plastic as well.  A 2018 study found that 93 percent of bottled water samples contained microplastics, the tiny bits of plastic that result as plastic breaks down into smaller pieces.

Due to the rising environmental and public health threats posed by plastics, a growing number of communities are enacting new restrictions.  In March, the European Union voted to ban single-use plastics by 2021.  In June, Canada followed suit, with its Prime Minister pledging to not just ban single-use plastics such as bags, straws, and cutlery, but also to hold plastics manufacturers responsible for their waste.  One hundred and forty-one countries, including China, Bangladesh, India, and thirty-four African nations, have implemented taxes or partial bans on plastics.

Here in the United States, eight states have enacted plastic restrictions and more than 330 local plastic bag ordinances have passed in 24 states.  Thanks to passage of legislation this year, New York State will ban the distribution of single-use plastic bags in March of 2020.

The industry is now organizing itself to combat this rising tide of new restrictions on plastics.  And here is the global warming tie in.  Plastic is almost entirely the product of fossil fuels.  Plastics are derived from materials such as cellulose, coal, natural gas, salt and crude oil.  

As a result, oil and gas companies are deeply engaged in the current plastics market now worth hundreds of billions of dollars annually.  Historically low oil and gas prices have meant that the cost of making new plastic is very low.  The low prices have led to the expansions of old plastic-producing plants and the construction of new ones by Chevron, Shell, Dow, and Exxon, among other companies.

Given the sources of plastic, the fossil fuel industry has a stake in its success and is deeply involved in fighting efforts to reduce the world’s use of plastics.  The various plastics trade associations include big oil companies. 

Two tactics that they are employing include state laws that prohibit localities from enacting municipal restrictions.  This tactic is based on the reasonable belief that the industry’s wealth and political connections make it far more likely to succeed in blocking legislation at the state level than in the hundreds of localities, which are much more sensitive to an energized public.

They also tout the “recyclability” of plastic.  Recycling plastic sounds good, but essentially doesn’t exist in practice.  For example, in 2015, the U.S. recycled about 9 percent of its plastic waste, and since then the number has dropped even lower.

Plastics just end up being dumped in landfills or burned in incinerators (which creates its own environmental and public health problems).  Given the threat of plastics, what should be done?

Here in New York, the state has enacted a strong ban on the retail use of plastic bags; now it must implement it with strong regulations that do not create loopholes for certain plastic bags and which do not undermine existing local bans.  Then the state should follow the lead of some localities that have banned other plastic products.  And lastly, New York should expand its bottle deposit law to include new products.

The fight over plastics is a fight about the enormous waste our society generates, but it is also a battle with an industry that has done more than anyone to pollute the planet and has threatened life on this planet – through the burning of oil, coal and gas which has triggered global warming.

These are existential fights; ones we have to win.

Blair Horner is executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors.They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.