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Biden must use federal purchasing power to fight plastic pollution crisis

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Every minute, humans around the world buy 1 million plastic drinking bottles. Most plastic ends up in the trash, and too much of that makes its way to our waterways, where it harms wildlife and breaks down into tiny particles that poison ecosystems.

At the current rate of contamination, by 2050 plastic will outweigh all the fish in the oceans.

But with one action, the Biden administration could strike a major blow against plastic pollution. The General Services Administration (GSA) is considering reducing and eventually eliminating the government’s purchase of single-use plastic products — with exemptions for disability accommodations, medical use and personal protective equipment.

This huge step would lower demand for plastics, reducing the environmental harm done in the manufacturing and disposal of plastics and creating a strong market for sustainable alternatives to buy-and-toss plastic goods.

The plastics industry is fighting the move, citing junk science claiming that plastics are an environmentally friendly material. Industry lobbyists successfully obtained an extension to the proposed rule’s comment period, which ends on Sept. 27.

The industry is facing off against more than 180 environmental and community groups, which recently filed a legal petition urging the GSA to adopt this rule.  

It’s a high-stakes fight. The U.S. federal government is the world’s single largest consumer, spending more than $650 billion on products and services annually. As the rule-making body for federal purchases, the GSA has an opportunity to set a powerful example.

Think of how many plastic sporks, straws, water bottles, single-use food service items and personal care products could be prevented from filling our landfills and waterways. Think of how many government meetings and conferences, how many national parks and federal cafeterias, could offer reusable items, stations for filling water bottles and products using minimal packaging.

Single-use plastics damage human health throughout their life cycle. Plastic production contributes to the climate emergency and damages local communities by producing air and water pollution. And as we get more of our food and drinks from single-use plastic wrappers and containers, we’re exposed to chemicals linked to public health crises, including obesity and many forms of cancer.

By phasing out single-use plastic items, the GSA will create incentives for manufacturers to develop more sustainable products, giving all consumers more plentiful and affordable options. This will take us closer to an economy that eliminates waste and protects  not harms — the planet.

Plastic is an environmental justice issue. Just look at the looming expansion of plastics facilities near existing fossil fuel infrastructure, particularly in the Gulf CoastAppalachia, the Ohio River Valley and other low-income and minority communities that already shoulder a heavy burden of oil, gas and plastic industry pollution.

Louisiana’s 19th Judicial District Court recognized that environmental justice issue last week, when it denied air permits to Formosa Plastics for a proposed petrochemical plant in St. James Parish, a predominantly Black area so polluted it’s known as “Cancer Alley.”

Former New York City Mayor and philanthropist Michael Bloomberg also just announced an $85 million campaign to support the work of the frontline communities fighting petrochemical and plastic pollution. The effort aims to stop the construction and expansion of plastic facilities and push for higher standards for existing plants. 

But it’ll take more to stop the plastics-obsessed fossil fuel industry, which plans to increase plastic production by 40 percent over the next decade. That would mean more pollution in communities like St. James Parish.

Addressing such environmental injustices has been a long-standing priority for the president — and he can do that by harnessing the power of the federal pocketbook and leading other nations, and domestic corporations, by example.

The GSA rule is a chance for the Biden administration to do more to combat this crisis than all the local plastic bag bans in the country combined. It’s time for the Biden administration to help stem the flood of single-use plastic that’s contaminating our oceans and poisoning wildlife and our own bodies.

Emily Jeffers is an attorney in the Center for Biological Diversity’s Oceans program.

Tags Biden biden administration Climate change GSA Petrochemicals Plastic Pollution

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