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Monday, November 29, 2021

We’re drowning in single-use plastics. A problem this big requires large-scale action

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Single-use plastics “are harmful in the environment, they are difficult or costly to recycle and there are readily available alternatives,” Canadian Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson said last year.

Canada is not alone among nations taking action on single-use plastics. China is implementing a single-use plastic bag ban. Kenya has banned single-use plastic bags, and has banned all single-use plastics in protected natural areas. Zimbabwe has banned polystyrene food containers. The European Union has banned some single-use plastics, with that policy going into effect this year and a 2029 target for collecting 90% of plastic bottles. The United Kingdom has banned some of the same single-use plastics as the European Union. India is phasing out single-use plastics, though it has stopped short of a ban thus far; however, 18 Indian states have banned many single-use plastic products.

In the United States, New Jersey passed a ban on single-use plastic bags and polystyrene, and restricting single-use straws to being given out by request only—plastic straws are important for people with some disabilities, so total bans on them can be an accessibility issue. The New Jersey law begins going into effect in 2022. New Jersey follows eight states banning single-use plastic bags: California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Maine, New York, Oregon, and Vermont. A number of large cities similarly have bag bans or fees. Maine, Maryland, Vermont, New York, and Virginia have also passed polystyrene food container bans. Three states have straws-by-request laws.

It doesn’t take a state or even a big city to pass a meaningful ban on a harmful form of packaging. For instance, in Massachusetts alone, 49 cities and towns have banned some form of polystyrene packaging.

Some opponents of single-use plastic bans claim they aren’t helpful—that paper bags are just as bad, that not getting plastic shopping bags pushes people to buy more plastic garbage bags, or that reusable bags are counterproductive because they’re more resource-intensive to produce. Not so, says the Natural Resources Defense Council: Paper bags are far from perfect and we should try to reduce our use of them, too, but they do break down where plastic doesn’t, and are more likely to be made of recycled material to begin with. Reusable bags may be more resource-intensive to make, but the point is that they can be reused enough times to more than offset that. And, according to one study, while garbage bag sales did go up slightly following California’s plastic bag ban, less than 30% of the reduction caused by the ban was offset by increased garbage bag sales.

In short, reducing your own takeout packaging footprint through individual action is good. Encouraging your favorite restaurant to use more environmentally friendly packaging is even better. But government passage of single-use plastics bans of one kind or another will have the greatest impact. When you hear the issue coming up in your area, let your lawmakers know you enthusiastically support it.


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