I go by my chosen restaurant for a quick bite. I open the chips, unwrap the sandwich, use one pack of ketchup, skip the straw, consume my meal, stuff everything back in the plastic bag.
Once home, I deconstruct the leftover contents: paper napkin to compost, but plastic fork, ketchup, chip packets and external plastic bag are tossed in the trash bin that will end up in the landfill.
This scenario is repeated millions of times throughout the world each day.
Until recently we’ve not given much thought to the role of plastic as a climate change contributor. That’s no longer the case. On average each person in the United States generates about 185 pounds of plastic waste material annually, much of which is single-use plastic.
Think of snack bags, clear plastic wrap for leftovers, disposable flatware from drive-through or take-out restaurants, all those beautifully displayed containers of fresh fruit at grocery stores.
The list goes on. Single-use plastic accounts for half of the plastic produced each year worldwide. The item is then replaced, setting in motion an unending cycle of waste and contributing to the 400 million tons of greenhouse gases (GHG) generated annually by the plastics industry (UN Report, April 2021, https://www.unep.org/)
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A huge environmental issue
Former Vice President Al Gore, founder of The Climate Reality Project, commented in a recent report, Plastics Waste Makers Index (www.minderoo.org): “Since most plastic is made from oil and gas -- especially fracked gas -- the production and consumption of plastic are becoming a significant driver of the climate crisis. … The plastic waste that results, particularly from single-use plastics, is piling up in landfills, along roadsides, and in rivers that carry vast amounts into the ocean.”
Twenty companies are responsible for producing more than half of all single-use plastic waste in the world, helping fuel the climate crisis and creating an environmental catastrophe. Global businesses responsible for 55% of the world’s plastic packaging waste are either state-owned or multinationals, including Exxon Mobil, Dow Chemical and China's Sinopec.
The United Nations report, "NEGLECTED: Environmental Justice Impacts of Marine Litter and Plastic Pollution" (https://bit.ly/3xgE6fT), details cases of environmental injustice. In addition, more than 8 million tons of plastic enter our oceans every year, drowning wildlife and wrecking ecosystems.
The cost to human health is enormous, especially in Black, Brown, indigenous and low-income communities where most petrochemical facilities and plastic-burning incinerators are located. The harm is worldwide, affecting indigenous people who are displaced to make way for oil extraction as deforestation proceeds unchecked.
Actions we can take
The mess we’re in is quite overwhelming, and there’s no time to waste. Numerous international, national and local organizations, and governmental bodies are working to make a difference. We can do our part, too:
-- Acknowledge that we cannot recycle our way out of the plastic waste conundrum, nor can individuals fix it alone. Attempting to do so absolves those who created the crisis.
-- Learn about Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR), which places a shared responsibility on producers and other entities in the product chain. It encourages product design changes that minimize negative impacts on human health and the environment at every stage of the product's lifecycle. As consumers, we can promote EPR by lobbying for changes in the way plastic waste is accounted for and managed.
-- Support adoption of policies and legislation that place limits on production, use and disposal of single use plastics. The Waste Reduction Subcommittee of Napa Climate NOW! is currently drafting a county-wide Plastic and Foodware Reduction Ordinance aimed at saving businesses money and reducing waste and emissions. Encourage your representatives to promote it when finalized.
-- Contact Senate and House members and ask them to support the Break Free from Plastic Pollution Act of 2021 (https://bit.ly/3xgMVXg).
-- Conduct a kitchen inventory. Do you go through a ton of zip-top bags? How about cling wrap or disposable tubs and other containers? Keep going one by one and ask why you use a particular item. Is there an alternative? If so, resolve to make a change. (see www.seriouseats.com/how-to-tackle-the-single-use-plastic-crisis-in-your-kitchen-5184422)
-- Skip the stuff. When it’s time for take out, check the type of containers used by your favorite restaurant and compliment those trying to reduce use of plastic in favor of reusable or compostable material. Ask that service ware not be included in your order and skip the straws. Ask if you can bring your own non-plastic containers. Such steps save money for the restaurant -- an estimated $5,000/year for many establishments -- and decrease plastic waste. See more suggestions at upstreamsolutions.org/
-- Join advocacy groups lobbying for change. As the Minderoo Foundation report concludes, “Solving the issue will require drastic changes from producers, investors and banks … producers of polymers – known as the building blocks of plastics – should begin disclosing their single-use plastic waste ‘footprint,’ while banks and investors should move to ‘phase out entirely’ any financing that goes toward the production of single-use plastics.” (cdn.minderoo.org/)
Let’s put aside the plastic, and let’s do it today.
Lynne Baker is a retired registered nurse, a mom, a grandmother and an active member of Napa Climate NOW! is a local non-profit citizens’ group advocating for smart climate solutions based on the latest climate science, part of 350 Bay Area. Like, comment, and share their daily Facebook and Instagram posts @napaclimatenow ! or visit napa.350bayarea.org.