S.F. invites world to join in zero-waste initiative
San Francisco’s color-coded trash bins — the black, the blue and the green — marked a breakthrough in waste reduction when they hit the curbs nearly two decades ago. Now, the pioneering program that encouraged residents to separate their recyclables and food scraps from their garbage is headed to a whole new level. City officials want people to generate no garbage at all, or at least as little as physically possible, and they’re asking the rest of the world to join their cause. The ambitious zero-waste initiative, which would cut greenhouse gas emissions from landfills, will be promoted on the international stage next month when San Francisco hosts the Global Climate Action Summit. The three-day event beginning Sept. 12, with such environmental notables as former Vice President Al Gore, chimpanzee expert Jane Goodall and actor Alec Baldwin, is all about encouraging climate action at the local level. The hope of the San Francisco summit is to advance the 2015 Paris agreement. Nearly 200 nations pledged three years ago to keep global temperatures from rising 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels, the point at which scientists expect catastrophic consequences from global warming, including more intense wildfires and higher seas. The effort to hit the 2-degree mark, though, has gotten harder since President Trump last year vowed to pull the U.S. out of the Paris climate accord. He’s since started reversing Obama-era policies designed to limit heat-trapping gases. The United States is responsible for about 17 percent of the world’s emissions. Absent federal leadership, organizers of the San Francisco summit expect to roll out initiatives among cities, states and other subnational governments, as well as from businesses, with such climate goals as making buildings more energy efficient, increasing investment in environmentally friendly bonds and generating zero waste. “Yes, I know President Trump is trying to get out of the Paris agreement, but he doesn’t speak for the rest of America,” said Gov. Jerry Brown in a recent plug for the summit, which he helped schedule. “We in California and states all across America believe it’s time to act, to join together.” The no-waste initiative led by San Francisco remains, at this point, more of a vision than a doable goal. The city and its contractor Recology have vastly expanded the number of things that can be recycled or composted, successfully diverting more than 80 percent of the trash that otherwise would be sent to landfills. Yet many items inevitably end up at the dump. And as perplexing as it is to deal with stubborn items like throwaway packaging of an online meal kit, city leaders are eager to develop new methods for getting difficult materials out of the waste stream. “We can’t say just because it’s too big and hard we won’t keep at the journey,” Raphael said. Waste reduction has long been viewed as a vital way to limit methane, a potent greenhouse gas that is produced when organic materials decompose. But waste experts say the climate benefits of recycling and composting go even further. Harder-to-measure gains come from reduced energy use when products are made from recycled materials instead of created from scratch and from composting food scraps, which enhance the ability of soil to store carbon.
San Francisco’s color-coded trash bins — the black, the blue and the green — marked a breakthrough in waste reduction when they hit the curbs nearly two decades ago.
Now, the pioneering program that encouraged residents to separate their recyclables and food scraps from their garbage is headed to a whole new level. City officials want people to generate no garbage at all, or at least as little as physically possible, and they’re asking the rest of the world to join their cause.
The ambitious zero-waste initiative, which would cut greenhouse gas emissions from landfills, will be promoted on the international stage next month when San Francisco hosts the Global Climate Action Summit.
The three-day event beginning Sept. 12, with such environmental notables as former Vice President Al Gore, chimpanzee expert Jane Goodall and actor Alec Baldwin, is all about encouraging climate action at the local level.
The hope of the San Francisco summit is to advance the 2015 Paris agreement. Nearly 200 nations pledged three years ago to keep global temperatures from rising 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels, the point at which scientists expect catastrophic consequences from global warming, including more intense wildfires and higher seas.
The effort to hit the 2-degree mark, though, has gotten harder since President Trump last year vowed to pull the U.S. out of the Paris climate accord. He’s since started reversing Obama-era policies designed to limit heat-trapping gases. The United States is responsible for about 17 percent of the world’s emissions.
Absent federal leadership, organizers of the San Francisco summit expect to roll out initiatives among cities, states and other subnational governments, as well as from businesses, with such climate goals as making buildings more energy efficient, increasing investment in environmentally friendly bonds and generating zero waste.
“Yes, I know President Trump is trying to get out of the Paris agreement, but he doesn’t speak for the rest of America,” said Gov. Jerry Brown in a recent plug for the summit, which he helped schedule. “We in California and states all across America believe it’s time to act, to join together.”
The no-waste initiative led by San Francisco remains, at this point, more of a vision than a doable goal. The city and its contractor Recology have vastly expanded the number of things that can be recycled or composted, successfully diverting more than 80 percent of the trash that otherwise would be sent to landfills. Yet many items inevitably end up at the dump.
And as perplexing as it is to deal with stubborn items like throwaway packaging of an online meal kit, city leaders are eager to develop new methods for getting difficult materials out of the waste stream.
“We can’t say just because it’s too big and hard we won’t keep at the journey,” Raphael said.
Waste reduction has long been viewed as a vital way to limit methane, a potent greenhouse gas that is produced when organic materials decompose. But waste experts say the climate benefits of recycling and composting go even further. Harder-to-measure gains come from reduced energy use when products are made from recycled materials instead of created from scratch and from composting food scraps, which enhance the ability of soil to store carbon.
‘Recyclable’ is a word, not a promise — most plastic goes to landfills
Photo: Will Waldron / Albany (N.Y.) Times Union
It seems like every week, a corporation maligned for its role in the plastic pollution crisis comes out with some new recycling pledge, accompanied by fanfare and applause. Just last month, Starbucks announced that it will be phasing out plastic straws in favor of “recyclable” plastic lids (containing more plastic than the old straw-and-lid combo did). Earlier this year, Pepsi pledged to make its packaging 100 percent recyclable by 2025, and Unilever committed to making its packaging 100 percent recyclable, reusable or compostable. Sounds like a step in the right direction — right?
No. These announcements may sound great, but they look painfully naive in the face of the growing storm that is the global plastic recycling market. At the same time that the news is filled with these flashy industry recycling pledges, we are getting an increasingly frantic story from across the country and the world that our plastic simply isn’t getting recycled.
A 2017 study found that of all the plastic ever created, only a paltry 9 percent has been recycled, and the rest is clogging our streets, waterways, and has even made its way into our food systems. Beyond the fish on our plate, tiny pieces of plastic have been found in sea salt, honey, and even beer. Not to mention 94 percent of the United States’ drinking water.
For decades, brands have bankrolled flashy media campaigns to convince us that our switch to disposables over reusables was perfectly fine for the planet because we could just recycle them into new products. The ugly truth is that instead of dealing with the mounting piles of plastic waste enabled by this harmful mind-set, we sent much of it to China, burdening that country with the responsibility of land-filling or burning the large quantities that couldn’t be recycled. Now China has had enough, restricting imported waste in 2017 and imposing tariffs of 25 percent as of Aug. 23, and the West’s fantasy that its plastic waste was being taken care of elsewhere has come crashing down.
As of January 2018, cities across the country have had to break it to their citizens that the yogurt cups, takeout containers, and single-use cutlery that they were dutifully putting into the recyling bin were being sent straight to a landfill. Last month Waste Management, the largest waste company in America, announced that it would not be collecting plastics with codes #4 through #7 for recycling in Sacramento, making the Starbucks “sippy cup” lid just another disposable item destined for the landfill.
So where does that leave those lofty corporate “recyclability” goals? Most likely in the garbage with the rest of the plastic.
We can’t count on recycling to save us from the plastic pollution crisis, especially when the plastic industry is planning on increasing production in the next decade. Even if we were to miraculously find a way to recycle the millions of single-use throwaway plastic Starbucks cranks out every year, more and more plastic will overwhelm recycling systems and decimate the market.
As consumers, we must demand that these companies do more than give us the same-old “recycling will save the day” line, and take things into our own hands. Cities and states can be the first line of defense against plastic pollution through sound policy that minimizes waste instead of merely managing it.
As of now, food and beverage single-use disposables make up approximately 25 percent of all waste produced in California, gumming up recycling systems and clogging our landfills. Berkeley is tackling this problem head-on. A proposed ordinance from a coalition spearheaded by the city’s recycling provider, the Ecology Center, would mandate that all restaurants provide reusable foodware to customers dining in, and charge a small fee for takeout disposable foodware. Takeout items would need to be compostable or recyclable by local standards.
This is one of the most ambitious waste reduction policies in the country, and would force global chains like Starbucks and McDonald’s to limit their use of throwaway items and change packaging design. Imagine if cities across the country adopted the same measures. Companies like Starbucks would have to wake up and smell the coffee.
Plastic recycling has long been used as a crutch to justify industry’s ever-increasing production of single-use plastic. We need bold, innovative solutions to the plastic pollution crisis at the global level, not tired, recycled promises.Monica Wilson is the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives’ policy and research coordinator and the associate director of GAIA’s U.S. office. She has been working on waste issues around the world for more than 15 years.
Taking the Greenwash route to fix the plastic crisis
This article is in response to the article titled “Are plastic alternatives a blessing or a curse” by Anton Hanekom, Executive Director of Plastics SA. The issue with plastic is evident for everyone to see: it fills our streets and waterways and now we know that plastic particles have entered our food systems too. So how do we address this issue? How can we prevent our families from ingesting toxic plastic during every meal? Certainly not through the continued production of plastic! Mr Hanekom makes a compelling argument that in South Africa recycling has saved tons of CO2 emissions and landfill, space but what he does not mention is that we are only recycling roughly 9% of the plastic that we are producing. So while recycling is doing some good, clearly we cannot recycle our way out of plastic pollution. It is pretty much an industry tactic to lead us to believe that despite the ever-increasing amount of plastic entering into our ecosystem, recycling is the answer. This provides a convenient excuse for industry to continue to churn out massive amounts of plastic packaging. We need to shift away from believing that recycling alone is the solution to this problem. The idea that people are to blame for plastic pollution was intentionally planted by the fast-moving consumer goods industry to protect their business model. While people do need to act responsibly and know how to manage their waste, companies that are producing this waste need to step up and take some accountability. If producers of plastic packaging were financially responsible for the full lifecycle of their products, it would be in their interest to design products that can be easily repaired or failing that, recycled. Instead industry pushes the blame onto the consumer, so they don’t have to foot the bill for the waste their products create. Phasing out single use plastic such as sachets, straws, and cutlery while implementing a separation at source programme would be the ideal start we need. We have to start taking a zero waste approach to waste management in our country. Packaging that cannot be reduced, reused or recycled should not be produced. Furthermore, we cannot change from plastic to another form of packaging and continue to ‘over package’ for this will result in a future crisis. Who has not been frustrated by the very many layers of plastic on one product? Mr Hanekom makes reference to the amount of jobs that the recycling sector creates. Waste pickers are an important part of our waste management system, sorting through waste in far from ideal conditions like landfill sites or in the streets. Although they are responsible for a large quantity of materials being diverted from landfill, we are investing very little in this key component of our waste management system , according to the South African Waste Pickers Association. The glut of new plastic in the marketplace kills the plastic recycling economy, along with the livelihoods of thousands of waste pickers. According to a report by GAIA titled “Recycling is Not Enough”, production of virgin plastic leads to low market prices, particularly as prices don’t factor in the externalities of plastic production, such as climate impacts, toxic chemicals in the production system, pollution from oil, coal and gas extraction and the health impact on society. Low virgin plastic prices outcompete recycled plastic, and there are no mechanisms in place to ensure manufacturers will use recycled plastic content in their products. In order to save our recycling economy, we simply need to stop making so much plastic. GAIA is the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives, a network of organisations who believe in a just, Zero Waste world centered around respect for ecological limits and community rights, where burning and dumping is replaced with people-powered solutions. Niven Reddy is a Campaigner at groundWork who coordinates the African region for GAIA.
Defend the Defenders: Ellen Sue Gerhart needs our support!
Written by Ethan Buckner. Originally published in Earthworks website. Late last Friday afternoon, four officers with the Huntingdon County Sheriff’s Department arrested grandmother, retired teacher, and advocate Ellen Sue Gerhart on her own property – likely in retaliation for her tireless work to protect her family’s land and Pennsylvania’s waterways from Energy Transfer Partners’ Mariner East 2 pipeline. Ellen will be in court on Friday, August 3, facing a slew of charges that could lead to her being thrown in jail for six months with no trial. She is currently being held in solitary confinement and on hunger strike – even while incarcerated, she is taking every opportunity she has to draw attention back to the dangers of the Mariner East pipeline project. Ellen Sue Gerhart is a retired special ed teacher and longtime Huntingdon County resident who has lived on her family’s land for 35 years in peace. Over three years ago, her tranquil retirement was abruptly disturbed with a notice that pipeline builder Energy Transfer Partners (ETP) planned to build a polluting, volatile Natural Gas Liquids Pipeline straight through her land in order to supply raw materials for plastics manufacturers in Europe. The Gerharts never gave ETP permission to build a pipeline through their land, but ETP seized it anyway using eminent domain law. For the past three years, Ellen has been an outspoken, compassionate, and selfless leader in her advocacy against the pipeline. She helped host Camp White Pine on her land, a longstanding tree sit that effectively prevented pipeline construction on the family property for 741 days. She’s known at Camp White Pine as mama bear, and is known across Pennsylvania as a powerful and loving voice for justice. In my visits to Camp White Pine over the past few years, I’ve had the immense privilege of witnessing Ellen in action – as a mother and grandmother, and a creative, witty, tireless, and grounded advocate. After meeting Ellen, it doesn’t take long to understand that she is a force of nature. It’s remarkable what she’s been able to accomplish under the most dire of circumstances: since deciding to oppose ETP, Ellen and her family have been subjected to harassment, intimidation, surveillance, and violence, but continue to persist in their work. The Gerharts are currently using all legal avenues to oppose the project, including contesting the permits granted to ETP and the abuse of eminent domain. They have also levied a federal civil rights lawsuit against Energy Transfer Partners, private security contractor TigerSwan, the Pennsylvania State Police, the Huntingdon County Sheriff Department, and a creator of a fake grassroots facebook page called PA Progress over continuous harassment the family has faced since deciding to oppose the pipeline project. As has been widely reported, the damage from the Mariner East pipeline project extends well beyond the boundaries of the Gerhart’s property. Since construction of Mariner East began, ETP has reported an astounding 111 spills along the pipeline route, with more occurring each week. Over two dozen residential water wells have been contaminated due to pollution related to the pipeline’s construction. We are living in a precarious moment in American history. With democracy, human rights, and our environment under attack on all fronts at the federal level, it is more important than ever to stand beside those directly targeted for standing up for justice. Ellen Sue Gerhart needs our support. Let’s make sure she gets home. We are working to raise $25,000 for the Gerharts’ legal fund and are grateful for any and all support – visit bit.ly/standwithellen to donate.
We’re Literally Eating and Drinking Plastic. Fossil Fuels Are To Blame.
by Darcey Rakestraw. This piece originally appeared on Food & Water Watch’s website. The plastics industry sees fracking as a huge opportunity for their profit margins. But plastic has already entered our food and water supply and our bodies—one more reason we need to move off fossil fuels before the problem gets even worse. Care about plastic pollution? Then it’s time to work to start moving away from fossil fuels. Plastic is a serious problem, and it’s time we addressed it at its source: fossil fuel production. Plastics are increasingly fueled by fracking in the U.S.—the extreme method of extracting fossil fuels that is polluting our air and our water, and exacerbating climate change. Fracking provides the cheap raw materials for plastics production, which has lead industry publication Plastics News to say fracking “represents a once-in-a-generation opportunity.” More fracking equals more profit in plastics (which equals, you guessed it…more plastics.) It is so pervasive in our environment that it’s become commonplace to digest it through the microplastics present in our food and water.
Plastic Free July: a wakeup call for corporations and businesses
Will Europe’s new plastic directive make a global difference in plastic pollution?By: Delphine Lévi Alvarès, European coordinator of the #breakfreefromplastic movement & Coordinator of the 'Rethink Plastic’ Alliance' Last month, people all over the world took the opportunity to celebrate Plastic Free July - taking selfies with reusable straws or bottles, sharing tips on how to avoid packaging by DIY beauty or cleaning products, and bringing reusable containers and cutlery when eating out. These simple actions to cut plastic pollution have been elevated to a new dimension thanks to the recently tabled European directive “on the reduction of the impact of certain plastic products on the environment”. In this legislative proposal, the European Commission lays out measures to tackle the most commonly found items found from European beaches after decades of citizen and scientific monitoring. All the most notorious items of the plastic free July are there, together with a range of measures envisaged to tackle the issues related to these products. If you have been following #plasticfreejuly it seems quite obvious that the main solutions are often as easy as a child’s play: refuse, do it yourself, use reusable alternatives and bring refillable containers. So why do we need regulation? Because solutions are still far from being mainstream, and the reusable option is still too often unavailable or more challenging to come by. Alternatives should be made more uniformly available, easier, and more affordable to allow for a greater number of people to be able to embrace a plastic pollution free lifestyle. Companies should stop producing problematic items, because as long as these are widely sold, they will be bought. The Rethink Plastic alliance - the EU policy arm of the Break Free From Plastic global movement - started campaigning on the plastics issue in 2016. During this time, we called for regulation on the most polluting items and European decision makers kept telling our policy officers that “Europe cannot start regulating people’s bathrooms and kitchens” and that tackling specific items was so symbolic that it was almost ridiculous. And still, after a year and a half of campaigning, here it is, a beacon of regulation to tackle the most problematic single use items! This is definitely a leap forward in the battle against plastic pollution. After decades of blindness and timid measures, this is a sign the European Commission is waking up to the call from the citizens of Europe, and working to ensure Europe is finally doing its part to solve this global crisis. But is Europe’s reduction of single-use plastics and increase of recycling going to make a global difference in plastic pollution? The answer is yes, but it requires a deeper look. For one: It is certainly going to make a difference to the total amount of waste ending up in the environment and in particular, ocean plastic pollution. Second: The move is also a strong symbolic statement against our throwaway society, that could help mainstreaming a smarter lifestyle in Europe and spreading the message outside our borders that our current model of consumption has to change. However, European decision makers, both legislators and business leaders, have to face the absurd reality of the double standards that European businesses are applying abroad. Whilst they appear to be on board with the idea of new Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) schemes on problematic products, they are still more inclined to point at the global South as polluters, and support false solutions such as incineration or short term actions like cleanups, than to acknowledge their responsibility in creating this pollution. The same companies opening markets in Europe with the “Green Dot” symbol indicating they have financially contributed to the waste collection and managements costs, simultaneously open markets in Asia without contributing to the end-of-life handling costs of these products. Furthermore, there is no Producer Responsibility Organisation (PRO) holding companies accountable for the recyclability of their packaging or products, meaning, they are putting the same product from the same brand in two different kind of packaging. For example, the same shampoo that comes in an easy to collect and recyclable 750mL bottle in Europe, is put on the Asian market in a small format, multilayered sachet which is extremely difficult to collect and even more so to recycle. These sachets are prolific in communities across Asia and the companies are not required to contribute to the costs or meet any recycling target. Companies like Unilever and Procter & Gamble have been so busy exporting our western way of consumption - with design adjustments to match the different economic realities - that the environmental impact of such packaging has been considered completely secondary. In the process of exporting these low-value packaging overseas, they also have discovered a formidable marketing tool: sachets containing everything you can imagine (from shampoo, to soup or cleaning products) cover the shelves of any local store, with bright colours and catchy fonts, drawing the eyes and inviting the consumer whilst building “brand awareness” to an ever greater degree. The same consumer also sees these packaging everywhere on the floors, the rivers banks, the beaches and as long as they will not associated with the cause of the pollution, they become another marketing opportunity. And we could argue that it is the same with all the disposable products that EU is targeting today. The Asian and African markets are flooded with these products, and none of the producers contribute to handle their end-of-life disposal or recycling. Additionally, companies invest billions in advertising to convince people that they need their throwaway products. In a recent presentation made by the petrochemicals industry, along with millenials from Europe and US, consumers in the Asian markets are the main opportunity for business growth. However, whilst it might still look like an opportunity today, consumption patterns are changing in these geographies. Our friends who have been opposing single-use plastics by making “Plastic Free July” their daily life for decades are not alone anymore. A vibrant and growing movement of people refusing plastic and promoting a zero waste lifestyle are being more and more visible. Package free shops are flourishing all over Asia (see examples from Malaysia, China, Philippines) and groups emerge to spread these best practices (like Zero Waste Shanghai). In fact all across Asia, changemakers are working to counter mainstream images of poor Asians drowning in plastic waste. Thanks to their work and the intelligence, it is increasingly obvious that a large chunk of the plastics ending up in the ocean in Asia actually comes from the Western world. European and American companies find it convenient to put cheap single-use plastic products and packaging on the market, but recyclers in these regions are often unwilling to recycle this low grade, and thus low value, material. Most of the time this packaging is shipped to South East Asia where brokers sell it to family businesses who handle it in unregulated conditions. This had reached such an alarming level that China closed its borders to this category of waste (and several others) last January. This move has had concerning repercussions for the other countries in the region, to the point that Vietnam has also temporarily closed its borders to scrap plastics and Thailand has pledged to start sending plastic scrap back where it came from as part of a crackdown on illegal waste imports. So, how will the new EU legislation on single-use plastics influence this? The proposal is being discussed in the European Parliament through the summer, and a couple of important votes will take place in October. The Council of the Environment ministers of the European Union will amend the text and is expected to handover their conclusions before the end of the year. It is critical that this process leads to the adoption of a strong legislation to reduce the use of single-use plastics in Europe and better management of plastic waste. However, it would be a missed opportunity to not use this momentum to encourage European businesses to apply the same standards here and abroad when it comes to product design. European public authorities must be incentivised to take responsibility for their plastic waste as part of a necessary self reflective activity following this zero waste moto: if you cannot reduce, reuse, or recycle it, you should not be producing it in the first place.
Why Straw Bans Don’t Suck
Written by Priscilla Villa. Article originally posted here. For the past couple months, the debate on plastic straw bans has been in the limelight, for reasons good and bad. Straws are one of the many single-use plastics — use once, then throw away — and according to the Global Survey by the Ocean Conservancy, are one of the top 10 items picked up by clean-up crews on beaches. Not to mention, the heartbreaking video of a turtle with a straw stuck in its nose illustrating how thoughtless daily use of a product can create havoc in our environment. On the other hand, the disabled community needs straws of some type, and others in the environmental community, wonder if straw bans are a distraction from more important fights. Earthworks has documented tremendous climate, public health and environmental impacts from oil, gas and petrochemical production, and plastics are a growing market for the oil and gas industry. Although cities like Seattle and companies like Starbucks, have promised to ditch plastic straws, given the pushback the straw ban strategy is encountering from people of good will, the question still remains, “Are plastic straw bans a real solution?” In short, lifestyle change alone is not enough; but can be an important first step towards system change. Here’s why. Fracking has created a cheap and abundant supply of ethane, the source material for plastics. With 99% of all plastics coming from oil and gas, ditching plastics is a strategy to transition away from climate and health polluting fossil fuels. By 2050, the oil and gas industry plans to increase plastics production by ⅓. With the construction of 264 planned US plastics producing facilities, the oil and gas industry would spend $164 billion to produce 34 billion metric tons of plastics. These investments will lock in plastics production for decades and increase global dependency on plastics. So, while fracking creates plastics, plastics in turn is fueling fracking. In general, straws aren’t a new concept to human culture. The earliest recording of straws dates back to 5,000 years ago! Rye straws were used in the early 1800s and by 1888, Marvin Chester Stone created the paper straw, the precursor to the plastic straw. The problem is that today, over 500 million plastics straws are used daily, all of which are thrown away after a single use. Banning plastic straws and bags may seem like a drop in the bucket, unless we think of these types of corporate and government actions as first steps towards reduction in the demand for plastics production. Individual lifestyle changes are as important with plastics as they are with energy consumption; they help us walk our talk and they point the way towards lasting solutions. Refusing that one straw stops one piece of plastic; Starbucks refusing a million straws goes further, and in the end, we need to reduce demand for single-use plastics, full stop. A managed decline from oil and gas production is going to have to include a just transition away from single-use plastics. From oceans to climate change, the straw ban also starts a much needed conversation around our unnecessary dependence on plastics. As we told Starbucks’ CEO Kevin Johnson in an open letter this week, Starbucks needs to go much further than banning straws; the company needs to take action to reduce the amount of plastic in all of their products, eliminate problematic packaging altogether, and come up with a sustainable solution that is suitable for all. Earthworks is proud to stand with the Break Free From Plastics movement to transition society at large away from all single-use plastics and reduce demand for oil, gas and petrochemical production.
Why Texas should ban plastic bags [Opinion]
Article by Rosanne Barone originally posted here.
There's no question. Plastic pollution is a serious problem.
For decades, advocates have been alerting us to the floating gyres of trash out at sea and here on Galveston's shores, where sea turtles ingest plastic bits and plastic bags clog their digestive tracts. These days you can't go long without seeing the next viral photo of some horrifying intertwinement of animal and plastic debris posted alongside the countless solutions proposed to address the problem.
Consumers have long been encouraged to reduce, reuse and recycle their plastic. Recently, we've begun to hear about companies taking responsibility for the problem, too. Starbucks claims they will phase out plastic straws by 2020 and restaurants all over the world, including in Houston, are experimenting with alternatives to single-use plastics.
But when should government step in? And can government even do so in a state like Texas?
This question has come to a head in the last few weeks. A Texas Supreme Court decision found in late June that the City of Laredo's ordinance to restrict plastic bags was invalid under Texas law, as are 10 similar ordinances in cities across Texas. Even so, Supreme Court justices Eva Guzman and Debra Lehrmann in a concurring opinion emphasized that not just protectors of marine life, but business owners like fishermen, boaters, cattle ranchers and cotton ginners know that plastic bag pollution is a big enough problem for lawmakers to start taking seriously.
It's easy to see how we got here. Chemists spent several decades at the beginning of the 20th century experimenting with the newly discovered polyethylene, a chemical component produced from natural gas and oil. In the 1950s, Swedish chemists discovered a stronger and more flexible plastic (HDPE) and patented the first manufactured thin-film plastic bag.
As soon as Mobil Chemical (now ExxonMobil) got wind of this invention, they obtained dozens of production patents, suppressing competition and producing their own bags by 1977. They quickly swept up the major grocery chains, and their customers, as lifelong partners.
But the proliferation of plastic bag use impacted a whole lot more than just the company's bottom line. It changed our way of thinking to accept that using an item for a total of 12 minutes — the average time of a bag's use — and then disposing of it is somehow OK.
This culture opened the floodgates for a whole lineage of single-use disposable plastics, and now it's nearly impossible to avoid the plastic packaging that's covering almost everything we want to buy.