The breakdown in global recycling markets and the growing public alarm over plastic waste in the ocean has prompted appropriately consequential action across the globe.
Canada, Peru and Kenya are planning to ban all disposable plastic packaging in the next two years. Britain and the European Union have adopted comprehensive plastic reduction strategies that target the most ubiquitous plastic sources, such as straws and plates, and force plastic manufacturers to pay for cleanup costs. Other countries are looking at similar initiatives.
In the United States, which produces 267.8 million tons of trash each year, the plan is to just do recycling a little bit better.
That at least is the message coming from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which last month released a recycling action plan that barely mentions the most problematic source of trash, disposable plastic. Instead, the plan focuses on four main areas for action: increasing public education about the benefits and methods of properly disposing empty water bottles and milk jugs, encouraging cities to do a better job of collecting and sorting recyclable trash, developing more effective ways of measuring recycling efforts, and finding and developing new markets for recycled products.
Those are not bad ideas, of course. It’s worthwhile to encourage the development of domestic recycling plants, given that the international market has collapsed. Certainly the message to consumers about what’s recyclable — and what’s not — could be clearer.
Mixing recyclable material with non-recyclable material is considered contamination, and high contamination rates prompted the largest buyer of U.S. recycled material, China, to stop accepting most plastic and paper waste as of 2018.
But these aren’t long-term fixes to the recycling crisis. They’re just strategies to hide the effects of an unsustainable consumer culture for a little bit longer while letting the industries that produce and employ single-use packaging off the hook. This was predictable; the working group for the recycling plan was dominated by representatives from business and industry groups such as the American Chemistry Council, Dow Chemical Co. and ExxonMobil (plastic is a petroleum product).
We can do better than this woefully inadequate federal plan of action, and we should.
The first thing is to accept that the U.S., like other countries, has a trash problem that is only getting worse, and that the biggest culprit is the single-use plastic packaging on food and other consumer goods. That waste is difficult and often impossible to recycle. The amount of plastics produced has swamped our best efforts to recycle them.
The second step is recognizing that the federal government is not coming to the rescue anytime soon. Although there are some legislative efforts aimed at reducing disposable plastic, they aren’t likely to go anywhere until there’s a president and Congress ready to admit the U.S. has a plastic production problem and committed to tackling it.
Meanwhile, it will be up to forward-thinking states like California to take action to reduce plastic trash and provide the leadership on this issue that the federal government will not.