Groundbreaking Legislation Would Help U.S. 'Break Free From Plastic'
The world is in the midst of a plastic pollution crisis, and the current U.S. waste management system is not dealing with it effectively. Only eight percent of plastic waste in the U.S. is actually recycled. The rest is incinerated, landfilled or shipped overseas to countries even less equipped to process it, where it risks joining the eight million metric tons of plastic that end up in the world's oceans every year.
That's why Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) and Rep. Alan Lowenthal (D-Calif.) introduced the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act of 2020 Tuesday, a comprehensive piece of legislation that is being hailed as a first-of-its-kind attempt to address the root causes of the crisis on the national level.
"Our bill is a game-changer—the first bill to comprehensively tackle the plastic crisis," Udall said in a press call Monday.
Today’s the day—we’re introducing the #BreakFreeFromPlastic Pollution Act. Tune in now: https://t.co/QYQW5e50BW— Tom Udall (@Tom Udall)1581438805.0
The bill has several ground-breaking components.
- It requires plastic producers to take responsibility for their waste. The bill would shift the burden of waste collection and management from local governments and taxpayers to the manufacturers of items like packaging, containers, food service products and paper, who would be charged with designing and funding recycling systems.
- It establishes a nation-wide beverage container refund system. Anyone buying a beverage container of any type would be charged an extra 10 cents that would be refunded when they returned the empty item.
- It phases out the most polluting single-use plastics. Starting in Jan. 2022, highly polluting items like plastic bags, polystyrene containers and plastic stirrers and cutlery would be phased out. Straws would only be available by request. The bill would also introduce a nationwide plastic bag fee.
- It mandates minimum recycled content. The bill would require products to be made with increasing percentages of recycled material. For example, plastic bottles would need to be made of 25 percent recycled material by 2025 and 80 percent by 2040.
- It considers environmental justice. The bill would prohibit the U.S. from shipping waste to countries that cannot manage it. It would only be able to export waste to countries in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, and only with their consent. Further, it puts a pause of up to three years on the granting of permits for facilities that create plastic so that the Environmental Protection Agency can update its safe air and water standards for these facilities.
Lowenthal said he and Udall had been working on crafting the legislation for about a year.
"First and foremost, the Break Free from Plastic Pollution Act removes the burden of waste collection and recycling from the cities, from states, and, most importantly, from taxpayers, and puts it where it belongs: on the producers and the companies putting out these unsustainable products into the marketplace," Lowenthal said in Monday's press call.
After decades of treating our land, waterways, and oceans as plastic waste dumping grounds, we now face a global cr… https://t.co/1Kaz5ny9Lw— Rep. Alan Lowenthal (@Rep. Alan Lowenthal)1581457380.0
This distinguishes it from previous legislative attempts to deal with plastic waste, such as the Save Our Seas 2.0 Act, which passed the Senate in January. That act focuses more on plastic already in the environment and puts the onus for recycling and cleanup on the government, rather than on producers.
The new bill has won widespread approval from environmental groups, many of whom worked with Udall and Lowenthal's offices to develop it.
"It's high time for companies to do more than just say they will recycle. Plastic pollution has become one of the greatest threats to our oceans. This bill would finally tackle the plastic crisis at its source by reducing the amount produced in the first place, and encouraging a shift to refillable and reusable alternatives," Oceana chief policy officer Jacqueline Savitz said in a statement emailed to EcoWatch. "We need to turn off the faucet, not just run for the mop."
Yvette Arellano, policy and research grassroots advocate at Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services, praised the bill for its attention to the health impacts of plants that convert fossil fuels to plastics, which especially impact low-income communities of color in Texas and along the Gulf Coast.
"I really want to thank the Senator and the Representative for this, not ambitious, but common sense piece inside of this act. It's very meaningful for us to maintain that human health is being impacted in our most vulnerable communities," she said during the press call.
"It's a link we rarely see being made," she added.
With its pause on new plastics plants and its shift of responsibility to producers, one might expect the new bill to meet resistance from the plastics industry. But the bill's sponsors and supporters do not expect this to stymie their efforts.
Udall said he and Lowenthal had spoken with industry actors while writing the bill, and incorporated some of their ideas.
Scott Cassel, founder and chief executive officer of the Product Stewardship Institute, said in a press call that he had worked with the plastics industry for 20 years.
"Producers have a pattern of how they will oppose things in the beginning and then will come to the table," he said.
He added that attempts to deal with the plastic pollution issue on the state and local level had led to a regulatory patchwork that created a "headache" for producers, meaning there might be an appetite for the comprehensive national approach proposed by the new bill.
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By Melissa Hawkins
After sustained declines in the number of COVID-19 cases over recent months, restrictions are starting to ease across the United States. Numbers of new cases are falling or stable at low numbers in some states, but they are surging in many others. Overall, the U.S. is experiencing a sharp increase in the number of new cases a day, and by late June, had surpassed the peak rate of spread in early April.
Seven day rolling average of number of people confirmed to have COVID-19, per day (not including today). This chart gets updated once per day with data by Johns Hopkins. Johns Hopkins university doesn't provide reliable data for March 12 and March 13. Johns Hopkins CSSE Get the data
To Have a Second Wave, the First Wave Needs to End.<p>A wave of an infection describes a large rise and fall in the number of cases. There isn't a precise epidemiological definition of when a wave begins or ends.</p><p>But with talk of a <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/jun/27/new-covid-19-clusters-across-world-spark-fear-of-second-wave" target="_blank">second wave in the news</a>, as an <a href="https://www.american.edu/cas/faculty/mhawkins.cfm" target="_blank">epidemiologist and public health researcher</a>, I think there are two necessary factors that must be met before we can colloquially declare a second wave.</p><p>First, the virus would have to be controlled and transmission brought down to a very low level. That would be the end of the first wave. Then, the virus would need to reappear and result in a large increase in cases and hospitalizations.</p><p>Many countries in <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/s41562-020-0908-8" target="_blank">Europe and Asia have successfully ended the first wave</a>. <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/jun/08/new-zealand-abandons-covid-19-restrictions-after-nation-declared-no-cases" target="_blank">New Zealand</a> and <a href="https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2020/06/08/how-iceland-beat-the-coronavirus" target="_blank">Iceland</a> have also made it through their first waves and are now essentially coronavirus-free, with very low levels of community transmission and only a handful of active cases currently.</p>
Different States, Different Trends<p>Looking at U.S. numbers as a whole hides what is really going on. Different states are in <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/coronavirus-us-cases.html" target="_blank">vastly different situations right now</a> and when you look at states individually, four major categories emerge.</p><ol><li>Places where the first wave is ending: States in the Northeast and a few scattered elsewhere experienced large initial spikes but were able to mostly contain the virus and substantially brought down new infections. <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/new-york-coronavirus-cases.html" target="_blank">New York</a> is a good example of this.</li><li>Places still in the first wave: Several states in the South and West – see <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/texas-coronavirus-cases.html" target="_blank">Texas</a> and <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/california-coronavirus-cases.html" target="_blank">California</a> – had some cases early on, but are now seeing massive surges with no sign of slowing down.</li><li>Places in between: Many states were hit early in the first wave, managed to slow it down, but are either at a plateau – like <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/north-dakota-coronavirus-cases.html" target="_blank">North Dakota</a> – or are now seeing steep increases – like <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/oklahoma-coronavirus-cases.html" target="_blank">Oklahoma</a>.</li><li>Places experiencing local second waves: Looking only at a state level, <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/hawaii-coronavirus-cases.html" target="_blank">Hawaii</a>, <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/montana-coronavirus-cases.html" target="_blank">Montana</a> and <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/alaska-coronavirus-cases.html" target="_blank">Alaska</a> could be said to be experiencing second waves. Each state experienced relatively small initial outbreaks and was able to reduce spread to single digits of daily new confirmed cases, but are now all seeing spikes again.</li></ol><p>The trends aren't surprising based on how states have been dealing with reopening. The virus will go wherever there are susceptible people and until the U.S. stops community spread across the entire country, the first wave isn't over.</p>
What Could a Second Wave Look Like?<p>It is possible – though at this point it seems unlikely – that the U.S. could control the virus before a vaccine is developed. If that happens, it would be time to start thinking about a second wave. The question of what it might look like depends in large part on everyone's actions.</p><p>The <a href="https://dx.doi.org/10.1086%2F592454" target="_blank">1918 flu pandemic</a> was characterized by a mild first wave in the winter of 1917-1918 that went away in summer. After restrictions were lifted, people very quickly went back to pre-pandemic life. But a second, deadlier strain came back in fall of 1918 and third in spring of 1919. In total, <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/flu/pandemic-resources/1918-commemoration/1918-pandemic-history.htm" target="_blank">more than 500 million people were infected</a> worldwide and upwards of <a href="https://theconversation.com/compare-the-flu-pandemic-of-1918-and-covid-19-with-caution-the-past-is-not-a-prediction-138895" target="_blank">50 million died</a> over the course of three waves.</p><p>It was the combination of a quick return to normal life and a mutation in the flu's genome that made it more deadly that led to the horrific second and third waves.</p><p>Thankfully, the coronavirus appears to be much more <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.meegid.2020.104351" target="_blank">genetically stable</a> than the influenza virus, and thus less likely to mutate into a more deadly variant. That leaves human behavior as the main risk factor.</p><p>Until a <a href="https://theconversation.com/what-needs-to-go-right-to-get-a-coronavirus-vaccine-in-12-18-months-136816" target="_blank">vaccine or effective treatment is developed</a>, the tried-and-true public health measures of the last months – <a href="https://theconversation.com/this-simple-model-shows-the-importance-of-wearing-masks-and-social-distancing-140423" target="_blank">social distancing,</a> <a href="https://theconversation.com/masks-help-stop-the-spread-of-coronavirus-the-science-is-simple-and-im-one-of-100-experts-urging-governors-to-require-public-mask-wearing-138507" target="_blank">universal mask wearing</a>, frequent hand-washing and avoiding crowded indoor spaces – are the ways to stop the first wave and thwart a second one. And when there are surges like what is happening now in the U.S., further reopening plans need to be put on hold.</p>
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By Emma Charlton
Gluts of food left to rot as a consequence of coronavirus aren't just wasteful – they're also likely to damage the environment.
Methane on the Rise<p>Not only is this a tragic waste of food at a time when many are going hungry, it is also an <a href="https://donatedontdump.net/2014/07/07/the-effects-of-food-waste-on-the-environment-by-junemy-pantig/" target="_blank">environmental hazard</a> and could contribute to global warming. Landfill gas – <a href="https://www.epa.gov/lmop/basic-information-about-landfill-gas" target="_blank">roughly half methane and half carbon dioxide (CO2)</a> – is a natural byproduct of the decomposition of organic material.</p>
Food decay leads to production of greenhouse gases, methane and carbon dioxide. EPA<p>Methane is a potent greenhouse gas, 28 to <a href="https://www.ipcc.ch/site/assets/uploads/2018/02/SYR_AR5_FINAL_full.pdf" target="_blank">36 times more effective than CO2 at trapping heat</a> in the atmosphere over a 100-year period, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.</p><p>"Many export-oriented producers produce volumes far too large for output to be absorbed in local markets, and thus <a href="https://unctad.org/en/pages/newsdetails.aspx?OriginalVersionID=2333" target="_blank">organic waste levels have mounted substantially</a>," says Robert Hamwey, Economic Affairs Officer at UN agency UNCTAD. "Because this waste is left to decay, levels of methane emissions, a greenhouse gas, from decaying produce are expected to rise sharply in the crisis and immediate post-crisis months."</p>
Food supply chains are easily disrupted. UN FAO<p>Dumping food was already a problem before the crisis. In America alone, <a href="https://www.refed.com/?sort=economic-value-per-ton" target="_blank">$218 billion is spent growing, processing, transporting</a> and disposing of food that is never eaten, estimates ReFED, a collection of business, non-profit and government leaders committed to reducing food waste. That's equivalent to around 1.3% of GDP.</p><p>Since the pandemic took hold, <a href="https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-52267943" target="_blank">farmers are dumping 14 million liters</a> of milk each day because of disrupted supply routes, estimates Dairy Farmers of America. A chicken processor was forced to <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/11/business/coronavirus-destroying-food.html" target="_blank">destroy 750,000 unhatched eggs a week</a>, according to the New York Times, which also cited an onion farmer letting most of his harvest decompose because he couldn't distribute or store them.</p>
Food Prices Collapsing<p>The excess has also seen prices collapse. The <a href="http://www.fao.org/worldfoodsituation/foodpricesindex/en/" target="_blank">FAO Food Price Index</a> (FFPI) averaged 162.5 points in May 2020, down 3.1 points from April and reaching the lowest monthly average since December 2018. The gauge has dropped for four consecutive months, and the latest decline reflects falling values of all the food commodities – dairy, meat, cereal, vegetable – except sugar, which rose for the first time in three months.</p><p>All this while the pandemic is exacerbating other global food trends.</p><p>"This year, some 49 million extra people may fall into extreme poverty due to the COVID-19 crisis," said António Guterres, Secretary-General of the UN. "The number of people who are acutely food or nutrition insecure will rapidly expand. <a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fGhLKAbNDiY&feature=youtu.be" target="_blank">Even in countries with abundant food, we see risks of disruptions in the food supply chain</a>."</p>
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