Quantcast
Popular
iStock

Can Plastic Ever Be Made Illegal?

By Danielle Corcione

I thought I knew what garbage looked like. Then I arrived in Bangalore, the third-largest city in India.

There was trash almost everywhere you looked. Plastic bottles, food packaging and other waste that could've potentially been recycled contaminated the landscape, even in people's front- and backyards. When I'd ride into the city from the ashram where I was staying in the countryside, I'd inhale toxic fumes of garbage piles burning and observe wild animals rummaging through fields of trash.


During my first day on Commercial Street, one of the city's busiest thoroughfares, I could feel the pollution sink into my pores and ignite oils on my face. The ground was no better. While wearing only flimsy flip-flops, I nearly stepped on a rat with a candy wrapper in its mouth.

My experiences weren't just anecdotal. According to a 2016 study by the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore generates 5,000 metric tons of garbage a day, of which only 10 percent on average is recycled. The city's landfills, however, can only handle 2,100 tons of waste per day.

When I returned home, I quickly learned that Bangalore was not alone, and how the U.S. plastic lobby keeps its waste pollution behind closed doors. New York City—which has a population 1.5 million fewer people than Bangalore—throws away twice as much garbage; according to GrowNYC, residents of the Big Apple produce 12,000 tons of solid waste a day.

My experiences inspired a radical belief in me, going beyond plastic-bag bans and littering fines: Plastic should be illegal.

Communities around the world have taken action to ban single-use plastic bags. I began to wonder, could we ever take things a step further by banning plastic altogether? That's not an easy question, I quickly learned, because not all plastics are created—and therefore, disposed of—equally.

When we explore the possibility of banning plastic, we need to be specific about which kinds. The base of all plastic is resins, which are composed of polymers. Different chemicals are required to make the many different types of resin. According to the American Chemistry Council, some common types include:

  • Polyethylene terephthalate, found in water bottles;
  • High-density polyethylene, included in bags for grocery and retail purchases;
  • Low-density polyethylene, used for food packaging and shrink wrap;
  • Polypropylene, utilized for medicine bottles and bottle caps; and
  • Polystyrene, typically in the form of Styrofoam.

Each of those types of plastic comes with different potential environmental costs. "The plastics of greatest concern from an environmental health perspective are polyvinyl chloride (vinyl), polystyrene, polycarbonate, and acrylonitrile butadiene styrene," said Mike Schade, Mind the Store campaign director of Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families. "Using vinyl products exposes consumers to hormone-disrupting phthalates, which are dangerous at very low levels of exposure." Even getting rid of vinyl is dangerous, he said, because when incinerated, it's one of the most toxic man-made chemicals.

Additionally, I found that not all plastics are regulated equally. Although there hasn't been any federal U.S. legislation yet banning vinyl, or any other type of plastic, cities and states have successfully passed and adopted measures to ban plastic bags. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, Austin, Cambridge, Los Angeles, Chicago, Seattle and San Francisco are among the cities to implement straight bans as opposed to fees. Meanwhile, statewide bans have passed in California and Hawaii.

"When it comes to high density polyethylene and other [types of] plastic bags, the biggest issues are with them clogging up landfills, polluting parks, and waterways," Schade said. "Plastic bags are a huge solid waste problem and a waste of precious resources."

According to the Earth Policy Institute, the U.S. consumes 100 billion plastic bags each year, which is enough to circle the equator 1,330 times.

What if plastic bags were to be banned in the U.S., as they were in Kenya earlier this year? Unfortunately that legal battle would require likely copious amounts of money to fight the plastic industry, most notably the American Progressive Bag Alliance, a pro-plastic lobbying group run by the American Chemistry Council. In her documentary Plastic Patch: The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which I initially watched after returning from India, journalist Angela Sun revealed that the council is an umbrella organization for Dow Chemical Company, DuPont and ExxonMobil.

According to a recent report in The Huffington Post, the group is the moneybag behind legislation to ban the banning of plastic bags. These types of laws have already passed in states like Florida and Arizona. As depicted in Sun's film, the American Progressive Bag Alliance ran negative, untruthful commercials urging Californians to vote against that state's proposed plastic bag ban years ago. This year, the Iowa became the most recent state to ban plastic bag bans following a push from the organization and the American Legislative Exchange Council.

Ironically, experts tell me that plastic-bag bans can actually endanger municipalities by instigating lawsuits from "big plastic."

"Cities potentially expose themselves to lawsuits over environmental claims if they only ban plastic bags, but allow other bags to be given away for free," explained Jennie Romer, a New York City-based attorney and founder of Plastic Bag Laws. Romer works with grassroots organizations in New York City to push for plastic-bag fees; according to The New York Times, Gov. Cuomo quashed a measure to implement a 5-cent fee on plastic bags earlier this year.

There's a reason why conversations about the plastics industry revolve around plastic bags: it's a gateway to other environmental issues. Romer explained that once people get accustomed to having certain plastics banned, the plastic industry becomes concerned about the potential of all plastic products being banned rather than just bags. In other words, I realized that plastic bag legislation isn't really about plastic bags; it's about what other types of plastic can be potentially banned in the future.

While governments can regulate the plastics industry, ultimately, the effort to reduce plastic consumption comes down to shifting consumer behavior, Romer said. She adds that implementing fees encourage consumers to be more mindful compared to straight bans.

"People just don't get a bag when they get an item or two or they bring a bag when they don't want to pay a fee," Romer explained.

While plastic bags are her focus, Romer also consults on expanded polystyrene, found in Styrofoam. She believes this type of plastic requires a straight ban because it breaks up more easily and cannot be recycled, unlike high-density polyethylene in plastic bags.

Sun told me the government should have a role in regulating the labeling of plastic products. "Just because Bisphenol A [or BPA] is a buzz word and in social consciousness, the chemical industry can easily make a slight change and call it something else and still have a BPA-free label on it because it's technically free of BPA," she said. "Putting a BPA label on a baby bottle doesn't mean it's necessarily OK to be used."

Sun also stresses that while governments should implement policies to reduce plastic consumption systematically, it's up to individual people to raise awareness about the issue. No matter how much policy can influence our everyday lives, reducing plastic ultimately falls us—as individual consumers—to take action. This both inspires me and disappoints me, because it's difficult to fight against a culture specifically designed to consume plastic. After all, bringing your own reusable bag doesn't go very far when most of the products you purchase are packaged in plastic.

"Social change is hard to do, but it can be done little by little," explained Sun. "Empowered citizens in different realms have pushed and lobbied for this change. It's power to the people."

While bans, whether they are for plastic bags or certain types of resin, seem to be the best idealistic policy for the environment, I learned that they can make governments vulnerable to lawsuits by the plastic lobby. While fees can inspire a change in consumer behavior without the potential of legal action, even those are difficult to just get passed. If we seriously consider banning plastic, not only do we have to specify which kinds, but we also need to work around a system heavily influenced by plastic manufacturers. Otherwise the U.S.' garbage problem could start to look a lot more like Bangalore's.

Reposted with permission from our media associate The Revelator.

Show Comments ()
Sponsored
Animals
The turkey ranch in Sonora is where Diestel keeps its pasture-raised birds. Jeanne Cooper

Popular Diestel Turkey Sold at Whole Foods Tests Positive for FDA-Prohibited Drugs

Diestel Turkey, sold by Whole Foods and other retailers at premium prices, says on its website that its "animals are never given hormones, antibiotics or growth stimulants."

But Diestel Turkey samples tested by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) suggest otherwise, leading consumers to wonder: Can these companies be trusted?

Keep reading... Show less
Animals

Slaughter of 90,000 Wild Horses Could Proceed Despite 80% Objection From American Public

The American Wild Horse Campaign on Thursday harshly criticized Interior Sec. Ryan Zinke's appointment of Brian Steed, the former chief of staff for U.S. Rep. Chris Stewart (R-UT), as the acting director of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) as dangerous and out of step with the wishes of the vast majority of Americans.

"Rep. Stewart is leading the charge to slaughter America's wild horses and burros over the opposition of 80 percent of Americans," said Suzanne Roy, AWHC Executive Director. "Putting his deputy at the helm of the agency charged with protecting these national icons is like putting the wolf in charge of the chicken coop."

Keep reading... Show less
Renewable Energy

Bright Idea: This Lamp Harvests Its Own Energy From Plants

Now that's green energy. Dutch product designer Ermi van Oers and her team are working on the first atmospheric lamp powered by living plants.

The Living Light does not require an electric socket. It can harvest its own energy through the photosynthetic process of the encased plant, which means the potential of this off-grid light source could be "huge," as Van Oers told Dezeen.

Keep reading... Show less
Climate

Landmark Youth Climate Lawsuit Heads to Federal Appeals Court

There has been a significant development in the constitutional climate change lawsuit so far successfully prosecuted by 21 youth plaintiffs: The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has decided to hear oral argument over whether the Trump administration can evade trial currently set for Feb. 5, 2018. Oral arguments will be heard before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco on Dec. 11 and can be watched on a live stream beginning at 10 a.m. PST.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored
Climate
Martin Schulz / Flickr

Pope Francis: These 4 'Perverse Attitudes' Could Push Earth to Its Brink

Pope Francis issued a strong message to negotiators at the COP23 climate talks in Bonn, Germany on Thursday, warning them not to fall into "four perverse attitudes" regarding the future of the planet—"denial, indifference, resignation and trust in inadequate solutions."

Francis, who has long pressed for strong climate action and wrote his 2015 encyclical on the environment, renewed his "urgent call" for renewed dialogue "on how we are building the future of the planet."

Keep reading... Show less
Climate
The Greenpeace ship Esperanza sits near the Statoil contracted oil rig Transocean Spitsbergen. Greenpeacce

Groups Sue Norway Over Failure to Protect Environment for Future Generations

By David Leestma

Greenpeace and the Nature and Youth environmental group opened a lawsuit this week over Norway's failure to abide by its constitutional obligation to safeguard the environment for future generations.

The lawsuit, which focuses on local environmental damage and the contribution that oil extraction will make to climate change, challenges 10 licenses issued by the Norwegian government for exploration in the Barents Sea. Given to Statoil, Chevron and other oil companies, the licenses violate Norway's constitution and the Paris agreement, according to the plaintiffs. Government lawyers claim the case is a publicity stunt that risks valuable jobs.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored
Food
Lia Heifetz of Barnacle Foods hauls kelp for salsa. Bethany Sonsini Goodrich

A Plea for Kelp: These Farmers and Chefs Want to Make Seaweed the Next Superfood

By Sarah Bedolfe

Summer in southeast Alaska is kelp season for the cofounders of Barnacle Foods, Lia Heifetz and Matt Kern. Each week, the pair watches the tides and weather, waiting for the right moment to cruise out to the abundant kelp beds offshore. They lean over the side of the boat and pull up the fronds and stalks, one piece at a time. As soon as they get back to shore, they start processing the day's harvest into a local delicacy: kelp salsa.

Salsa and Alaskan algae might seem like odd bedfellows, but for Barnacle Foods, it's a calculated decision. The kelp's savory notes make the salsa's flavor "a little more explosive," according to Kern. And the pairing is also a practical one. "Salsa is such a familiar food item," Heifetz said. It's "a gateway to getting more people to eat seaweed."

Keep reading... Show less
Popular
Lorie Shaull / Flickr

Massive Pipeline Leak Shows Why Nebraska Should Reject Keystone XL

About 210,000 gallons (5,000 barrels) of oil leaked Thursday from TransCanada's Keystone oil pipeline near Amherst, South Dakota, drawing fierce outcry from pipeline opponents.

The leak, the largest spill to date in South Dakota, comes just days before Nebraska regulators decide on whether its controversial sister project—the Keystone XL (KXL) Pipeline—will go forward.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored

mail-copy

The best of EcoWatch, right in your inbox. Sign up for our email newsletter!