Editor’s Note: Jeff Merkley, a Democratic senator from Oregon, and Alan Lowenthal, the Democratic representative in the House for California’s 47th district, are the lead sponsors of the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act of 2021. The views expressed in this commentary are those of the authors. View more opinion articles on CNN.
Our planet is facing a crisis of catastrophic proportions, with the potential to impact life for generations to come. It is not the Covid-19 pandemic – which the US is making great progress toward managing. It is also not the climate crisis, though it is related. We are talking about the plastic pollution crisis.
Many people think of plastic pollution as merely litter, but the reality is that plastic is an ongoing contributor to climate change.
More than 99% of plastic is made from fossil fuels and plastic production is expected to more than double over the next three decades, according to the Center for International Environmental Law. Moreover, one report predicts that plastic pollution in the sea is likely to triple over the next decade – putting our plastic consumption on an unsustainable collision course with our future on this planet. Driving this crisis is the fact that many plastics are manufactured to be used once and then thrown away – spewing pollution, burdening our communities and ecosystems, and overwhelming systems designed to handle waste.
That’s why we are introducing the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act, a comprehensive national strategy to reform the entire plastics life cycle so that we are producing less new plastic, recycling more, and ultimately, breaking the cycle of plastic pollution.
We have long upheld the mantra of the “three Rs”: reduce, reuse, and recycle. And with all those blue bins around, it may seem like every bottle or plastic packaging we throw into them gets recycled and turned into something new. But that is very far from reality.
In the 70 odd years since we began the mass production of plastic, over 8 billion metric tons have been manufactured and over 6 billion metric tons of plastic waste have been produced, according to a 2017 article in the journal Science Advances. According to 2018 data from the Environmental Protection Agency, only 9% of the plastic we throw into those blue bins actually gets recycled.
When it comes to plastics, instead of the “three Rs,” the reality is closer to the “three Bs” – burned, buried, and borne out to sea. The overwhelming majority of our plastic ends up in our landfills and natural environments or incinerated to become carbon pollution in our air.
In America alone, more than 32 million tons of plastic get buried in landfills or burned in an incinerator each year, according to 2018 data from the EPA. This process drives climate chaos and releases toxic pollution that harms the surrounding communities – which are disproportionately Black, brown, and low-income. We cannot tackle the issue of climate change, or environmental justice, without breaking our plastic addiction.
Plastic pollution is more than the ugliness of single-use plastics that wash up on our beaches – it is a human health crisis. Plastics are poisoning our bodies, from the air we breathe, to the water we drink, to the food we grow and eat. On average, we each consume a credit-card-sized amount of microplastics every week – every week! – carrying toxic chemicals such as carcinogens and endocrine-disrupters believed to be changing humans’ reproductive biology.
Plastic pollution is a social justice crisis as well: like so many of the challenges we face today, it’s the most vulnerable, least affluent communities who are paying – and will continue to pay – the highest price for our neglect. But ultimately, it doesn’t matter how much money we have or what color our skin is, nobody wants their children to ingest dangerous chemicals through microplastics. So, we have to act now, with boldness and decisiveness, to take on this crisis.
The Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act would transform America’s approach to plastics and put us on the transformative path we need to fully address this challenge. It requires big corporations to take responsibility for the pollution that their plastic creates by shifting the burden of cleanup to producers rather than consumers, through the design and financing of waste and recycling programs.
It bans certain non-recyclable, single-use plastic products and creates a national beverage container program (better known as “bottle bill”) to provide refunds when people turn in empty bottles. It includes a temporary pause on the construction of new plastic and petrochemical production facilities to ensure enhanced protections are in place to safeguard fence-line and front line communities from direct and cumulative impacts of pollution from these facilities.
Surely, a nation with the skills and creativity to invent a million uses for plastic also has the creativity to find a solution to this crisis and to design better alternatives. The Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act is how we’re going to spark that ingenuity and wean ourselves from our addiction to plastics.
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With President Joe Biden in the White House and pro-environment, pro-racial justice leaders in charge of both houses of Congress, we have a unique window for action. We have an opportunity and a responsibility to act now to meet this challenge head-on before it’s too late.
Our bill puts forward the kinds of proven, practical solutions to plastic pollution that are already being used in states, cities, and communities all across our nation. With it, we can finally break free and create a clean, plastic pollution-free, climate-safe, and environmentally just world that we can proudly pass on to future generations.