In the 1967 film, “The Graduate,” Dustin Hoffman’s character, launching into adulthood, is told to think about one word: “plastics.” This was good for a few laughs, but now many of us only feel dismay when we think of plastics’ devastating impacts to our oceans, climate and healthy communities. The recent Seattle Times editorial “U.N. Agreement on Plastic Pollution Is a Positive Ste,” highlighted several of these.
The Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act offers a chance to address the plastics crisis. This federal bill would phase out single-use plastic products, prevent shipping plastic waste to developing countries, pause new and expanded plastic production facilities, make producers responsible for their waste and more. While U.S. Sen. Patty Murray has co-sponsored this bill, Sen. Maria Cantwell has not. We urge her to do so soon.
Here’s why this bill is so critical: Our world is choking on plastic. And shockingly, only 9% of all plastic waste ever generated has been recycled. It’s in our rivers, oceans and bodies. As plastic breaks up into increasingly smaller pieces, it becomes microplastics and nanoplastics, invisible to the naked eye. Salmon — a cornerstone species in the Salish Sea — and aquatic life eat plastic, mistaking it for phytoplankton. These salmon are eaten by our resident orcas, eagles and us. A recent study by the University of Newcastle, Australia, estimates the average person may ingest the equivalent of a credit card’s worth of microplastic particles every week.
The Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act would not only tackle ocean pollution; it also addresses the climate crisis. This is because every stage of plastics’ life cycle emits greenhouse gases, starting with fossil-fuel extraction and transport, then plastic manufacture and waste management, and concluding with plastics’ ongoing impact to our waterways. According to the Center for International Environmental Law, in 2019, the production and incineration of plastic added 850 million metric tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, equivalent to driving 185 million cars for a year. In short, plastic emissions threaten our ability to limit global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius.
The petrochemical industry plans to rapidly expand plastic production, exacerbating climate impacts and making climate pledges impossible. If production grows at planned rates, plastics’ emissions could reach an estimated 56 gigatons by 2050, an amount estimated at 10% to 13% of the remaining carbon budget. The plastics industry has 42 plants newly opened, under construction or in permitting. The industry’s contribution to climate change will exceed that of coal by 2030.
The immediate harm of plastic production is concentrated in low-income communities of color. More than 90% of the climate pollution that the plastics industry reports to the Environmental Protection Agency occurs in 18 communities, mostly along the Texas and Louisiana coastlines. People living within 3 miles of these petrochemical clusters earn 28% less than the U.S. average and are likely to be people of color. They suffer high rates of cancer and asthma. Cultural sites are destroyed for new plastics plants. These communities are organizing to fight plastic production facilities because this is a matter of life and death for them.
As our world drowns in plastic, the timing could not be more crucial. The reality is that, though we use many plastic items for a few moments, they are made from a material designed to last forever, and their impacts to our ecosystem persist. We must seek solutions in reusables, and when necessary, in plastic-free compostable fiber foodware made from renewable and nontoxic resources like hemp fiber, which Indigenous cultures have used for centuries.
We urge Sen. Cantwell to join Sen. Murray in co-sponsoring this important bill. We need a plastic-free and climate-friendly future.