In the early 60s, at the dawn of the plastics revolution, less than half a million tons of plastic were produced each year. Today, it's more than 380 million tons – nearly half of which is for single-use items, which often become trash within minutes of use. In Part I of this article, we discussed how the Norfolk Southern train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, exposed the extent and devastation of the plastics crisis and the urgent need for change. In Part II, we'll talk about solutions.
Two months before the derailment, the United Nations kicked off negotiations for a global plastics treaty with the promise of limiting the production and use of plastic. Those negotiations are a critical opportunity to fundamentally rethink the plastics economy and rein in the destruction.
How can we chart a path away from our current predicament? It's not complicated. First, we need to refuse, rethink, and redesign.
Refuse, Rethink, ReDesign
According to the Ellen McArthur Foundation, by 2040, a circular economy approach to addressing plastics has the potential to reduce the annual volume of plastics entering our oceans by 80%; reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 25%; generate savings of $200 billion per year and create 700,000 net additional jobs.
This framework calls for eliminating all problematic and unnecessary plastic items; innovation to ensure that the plastics we use are reusable, recyclable, or compostable; and keeping the plastics we use circulating in the economy and out of the environment for as long as possible. For this approach to be viable, products must also be non-toxic, to ensure we don't continually recirculate hazardous chemicals through the economy and the environment.
The entire National Health Service in Scotland has adopted a model approach to better use plastics – an approach that may be useful for other sectors. Their goal is to reduce plastics wherever possible and, for the plastic they use, remain in the economy for as long as possible while reducing waste and harm. Their plan includes phasing out plastics that cause the most significant environmental and human health damage and avoiding single-use plastics where possible. They will give preference to polymers which can be recycled to a high standard using local infrastructure. The plan includes reducing packaging, prioritizing reusable schemes, actively seeking to eliminate suspected hazards, and switching to safer alternatives for all other uses.
Bold commitments and the resources to make them happen are what we need at the institutional, municipal, state, and national levels. A lot is already happening. PVC has been restricted in countless corporate, institutional, city, and state frameworks across the globe. There are alternatives for many uses. For example, PVC has been restricted in some food packaging in Canada and South Korea.
Single-use plastic restrictions are widespread throughout the world. Starting in 2021, single-use plastic plates, cutlery, and straws cannot be placed on the market in the European Union. The same measure applies to cups, food and beverage containers made of expanded polystyrene, and all products made of oxo-degradable plastic. In Scotland, there is a nationwide ban on certain single-use plastics. To prevent plastic pollution, the Government of Canada now restricts the manufacture, import, and sale of six categories of single-use plastics that threaten the environment. Many countries have Extended Producer Responsibility for Packaging laws. The policies require product manufacturers to be financially responsible for the end-of-use of their products and packaging by sharing the recycling costs or proper disposal. Companies representing 20% of all plastic packaging produced globally have committed to ambitious 2025 targets for packaging reduction. Plastic bags have already been banned in two U.S. states and hundreds of towns and cities. This is a short summary of a very long list, but these efforts are not enough. The Ecology Center has resources to help.
There is so much more to do, and we all need to take action close to home. Here are a few essential steps that the State of Michigan should take:
Reject False Solutions to Plastic Pollution
The Michigan Legislature should repeal the "chemical recycling" deregulation provisions that were railroaded through the House and Senate during the Legislature's lame-duck session late last year. Then they should go further, and prohibit new high-heat waste facilities that industry is marketing as the solution to the plastic pollution problem, but are nothing more than dirty old technologies being put to new purposes.
Restrict Single-Use Plastic and Phase Out the Most Dangerous Plastics
In 2018, the State of Michigan preempted local governments from enacting their own restrictions on single-use packaging. Washtenaw County had adopted an ordinance to do just that, and other communities were exploring similar measures. The Michigan Legislature should repeal this preemption law. Then they should go further and phase out all non-essential uses of PVC, polystyrene, and other dangerous and unnecessary plastics. The state could even leverage its $25 billion in purchasing power to immediately prohibit state government buyers from purchasing single-use and toxic plastics.
Make the Polluter Pay to Prevent Plastics Pollution
Michigan's Bottle Bill was once the strongest in the U.S., recycling most of the state's beverage containers. But it hasn't been updated in decades, and the growth of non-carbonated beverages in plastic bottles and the diminishing value of a dime has undermined its success. The Bottle Bill needs to be expanded and modified while protecting people who are forced to drink bottled water.
We should also create an Extended Producer Responsibility law that makes manufacturers and packagers responsible for the "end of life" of their products. European countries, Canada, and four U.S. states have EPR systems, which can be designed to promote waste reduction, reuse, non-toxic design, and recycling.
Address the Growing Microplastic Pollution in the Great Lakes
Every year, 22 million pounds of plastic pollute the Great Lakes, and the damage piles up on beaches, in fish, and even within our bodies. There are numerous sources of microplastic pollution, and its remediation is virtually impossible, so prevention is the only solution. Michigan should create a statewide microplastics strategy like California did in 2018. And it should also designate microplastics as a pollutant to be regulated under the state's surface water laws.
The Ohio train derailment exposed glaring weaknesses in our regulatory system, including our continued reliance on toxic chemicals and our weak regulatory system for managing them. Advocates have outlined a plan to address these weaknesses. Chemical safety experts and rail safety proponents have long urged strong action. But ultimately, we can only solve the problem with federal and international action. At the international level, we need a strong global plastics treaty. Advocates are already developing a health-centered agenda for the negotiations – we need to pressure U.S. negotiators to support the most sweeping treaty.
While we need systemic change, each person has a role to play, too. The Ecology Center has recommendations for individuals to take action, but we all must put our shoulders to the demand for policy and institutional change to move quickly to alternatives.
We've gotten used to plastics in every part of our lives, but it wasn't that long ago that we did without it for most uses. While some plastics will continue to have a role in the economy, toxic plastics, unrecyclable plastics, and most single-use plastics are not necessary. The products we use daily have an outsized impact through their mining, manufacture, transport, use, and disposal – and those that are resource intensive or made from toxic materials will contaminate communities on the way to your home. None of us escape from the cost of this toxic life cycle. We don't have to live like this. The challenge is for all of us to demand a change.