Federal lawmakers finally have a real plan to fight plastic pollution — will they step up to the plate?

Federal lawmakers finally have a real plan to fight plastic pollution — will they step up to the plate?
© Greg Nash

The United States has stood still as the European Union, Thailand, China and numerous other countries put in place national policies to address the growing plastics crisis threatening our oceans. Finally, the U.S. is poised to take an important step, thanks to the introduction of groundbreaking federal legislation.

Last month, Sen. Tom UdallThomas (Tom) Stewart UdallLWCF modernization: Restoring the promise OVERNIGHT ENERGY: House Democrats tee up vote on climate-focused energy bill next week | EPA reappoints controversial leader to air quality advisory committee | Coronavirus creates delay in Pentagon research for alternative to 'forever chemicals' Senate Democrats demand White House fire controversial head of public lands agency MORE (D-N.M.) and Rep. Alan LowenthalAlan Stuart LowenthalAct now to protect our nation's birds Overnight Energy: EPA declines to regulate chemical tied to developmental damage | Democrats unveil .5T infrastructure plan | Land management bureau eases requirements for oil, gas royalty cut requests Land management bureau lessens requirements for oil and gas royalty cut requests MORE (D-Calif.) announced the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act of 2020 (S. 3263 and H.R. 5845), first-of-its-kind legislation that curbs plastic production and holds plastic producers responsible for the waste they create.

If passed, the U.S. would phase out some of the single-use plastics most commonly found polluting our beaches, including plastic carryout bags, polystyrene foodware and plastic utensils. This would pave the way for a societal shift from a throwaway culture to a reusable, refillable one. 

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Local governments across the nation have been passing similar initiatives, refusing to wait for federal action and instead of passing laws that reduce the production and use of single-use plastic items like bags.

While these policies reduce plastic pollution and strengthen a burgeoning movement to address the problem, alone they won’t be enough to combat the growing tide of plastic flooding the market.

Federal regulation of single-use plastic will be necessary to counter a plastic production rate that’s already too high and projected to quadruple between 2014 and 2050. 

The Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act would enable states and cities to continue to lead the way in regulating single-use plastic. Local governments should be able to protect their communities from plastic pollution, and this bill would ensure they can pass additional policies if they choose to do so.

After all, those municipalities and states have been shouldering the burden of plastic waste — another issue this bill would address. The new legislation would set up a nationwide beverage container refund program and shift the responsibility of financing and managing plastic waste to the companies producing it in the first place.

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Finally, the new bill would prevent U.S. plastic waste from being shipped to developing countries. Wealthier countries like the United States have long shipped their plastic trash overseas because it’s cheaper than managing it at home.

Many of the countries receiving these shipments don’t have the infrastructure to effectively recycle them, so the plastic Americans proudly place in recycling bins often ends up polluting waterways across the globe. 

It’s no secret our recycling system is flawed — only 9 percent of the plastic waste ever generated has been recycled.

Meanwhile, an estimated 17.6 billion pounds of plastic enter the ocean every yearroughly the equivalent of dumping a garbage truck full of plastic into the sea every minute. The plastic chokes and entangles hundreds of marine species,  from fish and sea turtles to dolphins and whales. 

And it’s not just an ocean issue. Plastic has now infiltrated our soil, food, drinking water, air and bodies  A 2019 study estimated we’re consuming the equivalent of a credit card’s worth of plastic each week. Scientists are still researching how this is affecting our health

We can’t recycle our way out of the plastics crisis, and producers have made it clear they’re not going to break their plastic habit on their own. To save our planet, we need robust, comprehensive policies that stop plastic pollution at its source and require companies to switch to sustainable alternatives. 

While we’re demanding federal action, Oceana is also working to ensure the passage of strong policies in places like California, where state legislation that would reduce single-use packaging and foodware is awaiting a vote.

America has always been considered a world leader — it’s time we joined the others in combatting the plastics crisis threatening our planet and future. The Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act has the power to unify the nation in this fight and make a monumental impact on a global threat. 

Christy Leavitt is the plastics campaign director at Oceana, the largest international organization dedicated solely to ocean conservation.