For the past 10 years, activists have considered July a plastic-free month — one where individuals commit to giving up single-use plastic for the month. While this campaign has effectively highlighted the problem of plastic pollution, it is time to move beyond awareness to action. Solving our plastic problem requires action by governments and businesses, not just individuals.
Just last month, a cargo ship caught fire, spilling thousands of containers filled with plastic pellets or nurdles into the ocean, causing the worst beach pollution in Sri Lanka’s history. Unfortunately, spills involving nurdles, the precursor of plastic products like bags and bottles, are not unusual. Nurdles have been washing up on beaches across the globe — from South Africa and Australia to the Gulf Coast and the Great Lakes. An estimated 250,000 tons of nurdles enter the ocean each year.
There is no way to effectively remove these lentil-sized pollutants from waterways or beaches. Their chemical composition and size allow ocean currents to carry the tiny bits of plastic to beaches thousands of miles away. Along the way, nurdles are mistaken for food by fish, sea turtles, sea birds and impact these creatures’ nesting habitats. The impacts on marine wildlife are devastating.
But pellets are only part of the problem. Equally problematic are the products these pellets become: single-use bags, bottles, wrappers, and the like. A study published in June 2021 cataloged over 12 million pieces of litter and found that bags, bottles, food containers and cutlery together with wrappers account for almost half of the human-made objects recovered. Plastic from production to disposal is also an environmental justice issue, disproportionately impacting Black, Indigenous, and people of color in the United States and the world.
These alarming facts have elicited various responses. Advocates are calling for a global plastic pollution treaty and a virgin plastic tax. And, with the pandemic nearing an end, cities, states and countries are enacting or reviving legislation banning single-use plastic products like carry-out bags and containers.
Because plastics are commonly used in a variety of products, not just bags and food containers, bans and taxes can only do so much. Additionally, studies have shown that bans and taxes have spillover effects. For example, one study found that people purchased thicker plastic bags for dog waste and trashcan liners after a single-use plastic bag ban went into effect.
In addition to banning or taxing plastic, plastic producers must be held responsible. Records show that despite the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) concern with plastic pellets in the 1990s, plastic producers were able to avoid additional regulation by proposing a self-monitored program called Operation Clean Sweep, which continues today. At the same time, to sell more plastic, plastic manufactures, including bottling companies, promoted a recycling program that has largely failed.
Given the inadequacies of self-regulation and recycling, interest in extended producer responsibility (EPR) has grown. These laws hold producers responsible for the collection and disposal of their products and could motivate companies to create more environmentally friendly packaging. This month, both Maine and Oregon passed EPR laws. But not all EPR legislation is a win. For example, the EPR legislation proposed in New York gives plastic producers too much control over the crafting and enforcing of producer responsibility plans.
In contrast, under the federal Break Free from Plastic Pollution Act, which was reintroduced in March 2021, the EPR provision includes specific performance targets, governmental enforcement and civil penalties. In addition, the act would ban certain single-use plastics, prohibit the shipment of plastic waste to other countries, invest in domestic recycling infrastructure, and temporarily pause the permitting of new plastic production facilities.
Another federal law, the Plastic Pellet Free Waters Act, which was reintroduced in May 2021, would authorize the EPA to prohibit any discharge of plastic pellets from designated facilities and point sources into waterways.
Along with legislation, litigation can spur companies to act. Citizen lawsuits against plastic pellet producers and transporters have resulted in million-dollar settlements. And companies like Walmart and Coca-Cola are being forced to defend their marketing tactics vis-a-vis plastic recycling, which some call deceptive and full of misinformation.
When crafting solutions, we must consider the entire life cycle of plastic — from production to disposal. We must embrace international cooperation and address the disparate impacts of plastic pollution. We must employ a variety of tactics to hold plastic producers responsible. And we must support campaigns like plastic-free July.
Sarah J. Morath is an associate professor at Wake Forest University School of Law.