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Earth Day 2021: After COVID-19 derailed efforts to reduce plastic waste, will they move forward again?

A plastic bag hangs from a blossoming tree in Philadelphia on March 26, 2021.  (Matt Rourke/Associated Press)
A plastic bag hangs from a blossoming tree in Philadelphia on March 26, 2021. (Matt Rourke/Associated Press)

WASHINGTON – On March 9, 2020, the Washington State Legislature passed a bill banning single-use plastic bags, part of a global wave of efforts to reduce plastic waste.

Two days later, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic, ushering in a new golden age of throwaway plastics – everything from takeout food containers to plastic-based face masks and medical supplies, said Jessica Heiges, a doctoral candidate at the University of California Berkeley’s Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management.

“The amount of meals consumed in disposables has skyrocketed,” said Heiges, whose studies focus on transitioning away from disposable containers. “We’ve also a seen an enormous increase of PPE – disposable masks, gloves, cleaning wipes and so forth.”

Washington’s bag ban was set to take effect Jan. 1, but in December Gov. Jay Inslee put it on hold, citing retailers discouraging reusable bags over concerns of transmitting the virus. Other state and local leaders have made similar moves, suspending or delaying rules meant to cut back on disposable plastic from Oregon to Maine.

Before the pandemic, a global effort to reduce plastic waste seemed to be gaining steam, spurred by a parade of disturbing facts and images of birds and whales starving to death, their stomachs full of plastic.

The average human could be ingesting the equivalent of a credit card worth of tiny plastic pieces each week through food and water, researchers at the University of Newcastle in Australia found in 2019. The Ocean Cleanup, a Dutch environmental nonprofit, estimates a concentration of plastic waste floating between California and Hawaii weighs as much as 500 jumbo jets.

By 2050, the World Economic Forum projects, there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish, by weight.

The recycling industry, already hurting before the pandemic from the Chinese government’s decision in January 2018 to stop importing plastic scrap, can’t keep up. Only about 8% of plastic gets recycled, with more than two-thirds ending up in landfills and the rest incinerated.

Falling prices for oil and gas, from which plastic is produced, have in turn made it harder for recycled plastic to compete with increasingly low-cost new material, an investigation by Reuters last October found.

Throwaway plastic packaging, utensils and bags made life easier well before the coronavirus upended lives across the country, but they gained even more appeal in the early days of the pandemic, when health officials emphasized the risk of spreading the virus via contaminated surfaces.

On Monday, an official from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told reporters the agency has determined risk of transmitting the virus on a surface is far lower than airborne transmission, though hand washing is still important.

“Putting on a show” of cleaning surfaces, CDC official Vincent Hill said, could give people “a false sense of security, if other prevention measures like wearing masks, physical distancing and hand hygiene are not being consistently performed.”

While the CDC doesn’t specifically advise against using reusable shopping bags, it does recommend cleaning them before each use, and the agency defers to local policies on bags.

With the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines progressing, some in Congress are trying to restart efforts to cut back on throwaway plastic.

On March 25, Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley and Rep. Alan Lowenthal of California, both Democrats, introduced the Break Free from Plastic Pollution Act. The bill, which so far has no GOP support, would ban single-use plastics nationwide and require packaging manufacturers to pay for the eventual cost of disposing of their products.

It also would require manufacturers to ramp up the recycled content of their plastic beverage containers from 25% by 2025 to 80% by 2040. To encourage recycling, it would put in place a nationwide 10-cent refund for each bottle returned.

“This is a pretty remarkable piece of legislation,” Heiges said, “because it addresses both the upstream – preventing plastic waste from being generated in the first place – as well as addressing some of the downstream issues: How are we exporting and what are we doing with the material after it’s disposed of?”

The plastics industry, which includes companies like Dow Chemical and Exxon Mobil, opposes the legislation, arguing it threatens an important part of the U.S. manufacturing industry. Without Republican support, the bill is unlikely to pass.

A coalition of environmental groups has mounted a campaign calling on President Joe Biden to use executive actions to combat plastic pollution, including asking federal agencies to stop buying single-use plastic products and cutting subsidies to the petrochemical companies that make plastic.

In December, then-President Donald Trump signed into law the Save Our Seas 2.0 Act, a bill backed by the plastics industry that aims to bolster recycling efforts and fund anti-litter programs. Even as new technology makes recycling more plastic possible, however, the relatively high cost of recycling means most kinds of post-consumer plastic are not economical compared to new plastic.

Heiges said a focus on individual choices obscures the fact the plastic waste problem is the result of a system that encourages consumers to use throwaway plastics, something she hopes will change as the country reemerges from the pandemic.

“It is not the individual consumer,” she said. “It is not their fault that they have to bag their groceries in plastic bags. It is the system’s problem that this is the only thing viable and available to us.”


Orion Donovan-Smith's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.

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