Plastic Pollution: Delayed Action or No Action Will Have Disastrous Consequences

On December 19, the city council of Oakland, California, passed a comprehensive new reusable foodware policy that is good for people, the planet, and small businesses. By requiring reusable foodware and beverage systems to exist at eateries, municipal facilities, and large events throughout the city, the policy works to address the urgent interconnected crises of plastic pollution, mass consumerism, and climate change. The policy was authored by Councilmember Dan Kalb, co-sponsored by Councilmember Noel Gallo, and supported by Reusable Oakland, a coalition of 19 local environmental organizations and businesses.

With this new law, Oakland joins the City of Berkeley, which enacted the world’s first reusable foodware policy in 2019, and the 27 local jurisdictions in North America have enacted similar policies since, according to the Story of Stuff Project.

The City of Oakland has taken bold action to change a throwaway economy that extracts limited natural resources and uses polluting industrial processes to make products consumed in minutes that instantly become trash. Serving food and beverages in reusables is a triple play: it’s a climate and plastic pollution solution, it saves Bay Area businesses an average of $4,000 per year, and reduces government costs of litter cleanup and managing waste.

— Miriam Gordon, The Story of Stuff Project

Oakland Recognizes Benefits of Reuse Over Single-Use

Oakland’s new reusable policy will require food and drink establishments to provide reusable foodware—including plates, utensils, cups, and more—to people who dine in, and allow people to bring in their own clean and washed reusable foodware containers for to-go orders and leftovers. Additionally, the law will prohibit the sale of plastic water bottles and any packaged water at city facilities, gatherings, and large events. Instead, the city will prioritize making water refill stations widely available. 

Importantly, the new legislation addresses single-use bioplastics—plastics made from highly processed plants like sugarcane and corn—and recognizes that these materials are not as environmentally friendly as they seem. Bioplastics are not a solution to plastic pollution: they do not benignly break down, often contain or are coated with hazardous chemicals, drive pollution and injustice, and perpetuate wasteful throwaway systems and single-use habits. Even where compost facilities exist to accept bioplastics, which are rather few and far between, organic plant growers in California and beyond have expressed that they are not interested in taking compost with toxic bioplastics in it as it harms soils.

Switching from single-use to reusables helps people and the planet, but it is also a smart business choice. Oakland’s new policy offers businesses the chance to save hundreds to thousands of dollars annually by eliminating the need to continue buying single-use food serviceware and significantly reducing businesses’ wastes to save on disposal costs. Moreover, businesses making the switch report improved customer experiences and increased customer loyalty.

The policy would be rolled out over a year so that businesses can phase out the current single-use products they have on hand. ReThink Disposable, a technical assistance program that helps food businesses implement best practices to reduce waste and cut costs by minimizing disposable product usage, has already helped 500 Bay Area businesses switch to reusables. The city says it will work with its partners to provide education to the public on what items are or are not in compliance with the ordinance. Grant opportunities will be made available for vendors in need of assistance adding extra dishwashing capacity if needed as they adopt reusable systems.

The Oakland reusable foodware ordinance is an exciting step forward for the Bay Area and for the reuse movement more broadly. Disposable food and beverage packaging clogs our streets, waterways, recycling facilities, and landfills. It costs taxpayer money to clean up, and poses serious social and environmental problems for communities. We applaud the Oakland City Council’s recognition that building reuse infrastructure will not only decrease the negative impacts of plastic pollution on our natural systems, but will also provide economic advantages for the majority of food businesses and event spaces as part of a larger shift towards a circular economy.

— Aidan Maguire, Coalition Manager, Plastic Pollution Coalition

Take Action

Do you work at or own a food or beverage establishment in Oakland, California? Reap the benefits of going reusable: Use our Plastic-Free Eateries Guide to help inform your decision making on what reusable choices are best for you. Once you’ve made the switch to reusables, join our Coalition to stay up-to-date on solutions and learn from other businesses who have joined our Coalition to commit to ending plastic pollution together. And if you’re an individual, take the pledge to say no to single-use plastic.

3

November 13, 2023 , 8:00 am November 19, 2023 , 5:00 pm EST

The third session of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee to develop an international legally binding instrument on plastic pollution (INC-3), is scheduled to take place from 13 to 19 November 2023 at the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) Headquarters in Nairobi, Kenya.

Last month, we were delighted to host many engaged participants who asked excellent questions during our September webinar, Policy Matters: Solutions for a Plastic Pollution Free U.S. During the webinar, we discussed what the Biden-Harris Administration is doing to address plastic pollution in the U.S., and what they could be doing better. 

We are grateful to our September panelists Jonathan Black, Joan Mooney, and Jane Patton, and moderator Christy Leavitt, who answered many of our participants’ questions during the webinar. However, we received so many questions that we ran out of time to get to them all. To shed more light, we are now taking the opportunity to address the top five unanswered questions that we received. Please note these are answers we at Plastic Pollution Coalition pulled together based on publicly available information, as our panelists were not able to provide written responses.

1. How is the United States Government (USG) addressing the need to address and disengage from greenwashed false solutions like mechanical plastics recycling and “advanced recycling” of plastics?

Many activities, organizations, and products associated with the plastics and petrochemical industries bear a green sheen without any substance behind it, or oversell their positive environmental impacts—this is “greenwashing.” Unfortunately, the USG has historically relied upon and supported industries’ greenwashed solutions, namely, mechanical recycling of plastics which has proven to be ineffective at stopping plastic pollution. Plastics were never designed to be recycled; in fact, they are created to be disposed of so that they can be purchased again and again—driving up plastic production, and as a result, profits. 

With the failure of mechanical recycling of plastic now more widely recognized than ever before, in an effort to continue profiting from plastics, the fossil fuel and plastics industries are promoting “advanced recycling” or “chemical recycling” to the USG. “Advanced recycling,” which involves chemically or physically burning plastic into more basic petrochemicals, is even worse for human health and the environment than making new plastic. “Advanced recycling” is associated with various types of serious pollution, environmental injustices, is energy intensive, and creates toxic wastes. Being a downstream treatment for plastics, it is certainly not a solution for preventing plastic pollution. 

Disengaging the USG from these and other greenwashed false solutions remains a major challenge. However, it is a critical time to push policymakers to address plastic pollution at the source. This means calling for an end to production of single-use plastics, which are easily replaced by less wasteful reusable and refillable materials, along with cutting the country’s reliance on fossil fuels in favor of healthier and more regenerative sources of energy.

2. Do the USG, institutions, corporations, and other entities recognize the need to sever their connections with the fossil fuel and plastics industries in order to end plastic pollution and the climate crisis?

Plastics are made of fossil fuels. And it’s clear we must stop using fossil fuels in order to end plastic pollution and the climate crisis. Historically, the USG has supported these industries by subsidizing and otherwise supporting and investing in their ongoing existence. This has caused serious harm to communities and the environment. The USG could support the systems we need by incentivizing strategies and systems that reduce wastefulness through reusing, refilling, repairing, sharing, regeneration, and refusing single-use.

As part of the United Nations (UN) Plastic Treaty negotiations, a High Ambition Coalition of countries chaired by Rwanda and Norway, have called for reduced plastic production along with reduced or eliminated subsidies for fossil fuels. Across the world, institutions—including governments and pension funds—are divesting from fossil fuel income to renewable, regenerative sources of energy and materials. These actions should be greatly expanded, especially in the U.S., where, by some estimates, American taxpayers collectively pay about $20 billion dollars per year to the fossil fuel industry.

3. How are U.S. State and Federal policymakers and agencies working to address their own plastic pollution?

As the representative models of our nation, U.S. State and Federal policymakers and agencies should demonstrate the solutions we need to embrace to end plastic pollution. People model the behaviors they see, as we know from our work with people working in entertainment to Flip the Script on Plastics. Seeing our representatives continue to drink from single-use plastic bottles or using plastic straws or utensils is not encouraging when we know both the harm caused by plastic and that there are better alternatives.

What is encouraging are the recent moves by U.S. State and Federal policymakers to model real solutions. In September 2023, Massachusetts became the first state to ban the purchase of single-use plastic bottles under 21 fluid ounces by state agencies. Last year, the Department of Interior committed to reducing and eventually phasing out the sale of single-use plastic products of all kinds in national parks, wildlife refuges, and other public lands, a commitment doubled down upon this year with the introduction of the Reducing Waste in National Parks Act.

4. How can corporations and industries be held accountable for their plastic pollution and its widespread harmful impacts on human health, the environment, social injustice, the climate, and wildlife?

Plastic production is the cause of plastic pollution. And the industries that extract fossil fuels and produce and sell plastic—as well as the corporations, investments, and other avenues of support these industries receive—should ultimately be held accountable for their actions. Extended producer responsibility (EPR) has been implemented in some U.S. states, such as Maine and Oregon, making plastic producers legally and financially responsible for taking action to limit the environmental and social impacts of their products. EPR policies are more widespread in other parts of the world, including in Canada and the European Union.

To date, much industry and corporate accountability for plastic pollution has had to be elicited in courtrooms. There has been some progress, with California’s government investigating the role of the fossil fuel and petrochemical industries in a “decades-long campaign of deception” about the harmful impacts of plastic pollution and in driving the plastic crisis. In Montana, a court has ruled in favor of youth plaintiffs who argued that the state of Montana has violated its constitution by aggressively pursuing fossil fuel development without regard to impacts to the climate. 

5. What is the USG doing to end the environmental injustices and social costs of plastic pollution and its toxic impacts, and support just, equitable solutions for those communities worst impacted? 

In the U.S., and around the world, poor, rural, BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) have been, and continue to be, unfairly targeted to carry the burden of plastic pollution and other industrial hazards. People living in communities on the frontlines of plastic and other pollution have long called for action and accountability from corporations and governments driving pollution and injustice.

Some progress has finally been made as the USG has recently committed to addressing environmental injustices, establishing an advisory council, and offering grants to underserved communities, among other efforts. However, some of these opportunities for frontline communities have proven highly cumbersome to navigate, minimizing their benefits. Additionally, new USG efforts are falling short of changing in ways that work to significantly oust systemic racism from policies and practices that have long worked to exacerbate injustices. As a result, frontline communities have had to fight for their lives, bringing attention to disproportionate risks faced. Many have succeeded in calling out and starting to rectify injustice—but there is much work to do.

Despite a few significant steps forward, still, disappointingly, the policy landscape in the U.S. has historically favored industry interests over human health and environmental justice. For example, in June 2023, less than six months after the U.S. Department of Justice and Environmental Protection Agency filed a major federal complaint launching an investigation into a plastic factory’s violations of the Clean Air Act and environmental injustices in St. John the Baptist Parish, Louisiana, the investigation was abruptly closed. To date, the complaint and investigation have not been resolved—leaving the people on the frontlines who are worst impacted to continue shouldering a disproportionate pollution burden. 

Take Action

Last month, the UN released a Zero Draft, the earliest iteration of its Plastic Treaty, which it has set out to finalize by 2025. During our October 26 webinar, we will discuss the latest developments in the UN Plastics Treaty negotiations. Learn what Plastic Pollution Coalition members and allies are doing to shape the treaty and what you can do to take action to help. 

We need legislative and regulatory solutions that address the plastic pollution crisis at the source, reduce plastic production and use, center environmental justice, extend producer responsibility by holding corporations accountable, and create policies that support a regenerative circular society free of plastic pollution and its toxic impacts. Such policies are especially needed in the U.S., which is the world’s biggest plastic polluter as a country. With the UN Plastics Treaty now being negotiated, it’s critical that the USG takes a stronger stance on plastic pollution and engage in real solutions.

1

Ahead of UN Plastics Treaty negotiations set to take place in Nairobi, Kenya, next month, Plastic Pollution Coalition is proud to launch the Global Plastic Laws Database in partnership with Break Free From Plastic Europe, Environmental Law Alliance Worldwide, and Surfrider U.S. Following agreement and adoption of the UN Plastics Treaty, the Database will be useful to support its implementation and then necessary to track and monitor its implementation.

The Global Plastic Laws Database is an extensive database and resource library to research, track, and visualize plastic legislation that has been passed around the world. The Database tracks legislation across the full life cycle of plastics and organizes these policies according to life cycle categories and key topics. Adopting policies to reduce plastic pollution on a global scale is widely recognized as a vital step to address this crisis and its associated detrimental impacts on our communities, health, and environment. 

Plastic Pollution Coalition serves as the Project Manager for the Global Plastic Laws Database, working in collaboration with partner organizations who contribute data from around the world. The unique dataset is input by individuals with native language knowledge and local, on-the-ground networks from across a diverse range of geographies. This process ensures the legislative data and resources are accurate, timely, and relevant to a wide range of political and legislative systems. Collectively, the data partners represent combined data from approximately 115 (out of a total of approximately 195) countries in the world.

Recognizing the impacts of plastics throughout its full life cycle, this database is organized into nine topics: Design and Reuse, Extended Producer Responsibility, Maritime Sources, Microplastics, Production and Manufacturing, Reduction, Transparency and Traceability, Waste Management, and Waste Trade. More details on each of these categories appears below.

The Global Plastic Laws Database is updated regularly, providing a way to monitor and identify emerging trends, solutions, and policy innovations at local, national, and international levels.

Key Audiences

This is a valuable resource center for policymakers, organizations, and advocates who are focused on designing effective policies to address the full life cycle of plastics. Businesses and banks can also use the database to find and understand current plastic regulations across their areas of focus; as well as educators, students, and researchers studying plastic policy; humanitarian organizations planning disaster response; and journalists covering plastic pollution and policy.

Supporting a Strong Global Plastics Treaty

The Global Plastic Laws Database helps organize and assess a broad range of policies that have been implemented and may be adapted for national and international policies, such as the United Nations Plastics Treaty. Recognizing the urgency of plastic pollution, the United Nations Environmental Assembly (UNEA) is working to develop an international treaty to unite governments to tackle plastic pollution. If successful, the treaty represents an incredible opportunity to make a difference at the scale needed to begin to effectively end plastic pollution and comprehensively address its numerous and widespread impacts.

The Global Plastic Laws Database is an invaluable resource for use during the UN Plastics Treaty negotiation process by making plastic legislation across all jurisdictions visible and accessible to be adapted and input into the Treaty. Following agreement and adoption of the UN Plastics Treaty, the Database will be necessary to track and monitor its implementation.

Project Partners

Plastic Pollution Coalition serves as the project manager and provides strategic leadership and development for the Global Plastic Laws Database and works closely with three Core Data Partners to track and update legislative data from around the world. 

Break Free From Plastic (BFFP) Europe monitors legislation relevant to plastic along its lifecycle and works with policymakers in countries across Europe and at the European Union (EU) level to design and deliver policy solutions for a future that is free from plastic pollution. The BFFP movement in Europe brings together more than 110 core members, including the Rethink Plastic alliance, which gathers 10 leading NGO working together to secure ambitious EU plastic policies.

Environmental Law Alliance Worldwide (ELAW) tracks and updates a significant proportion of the global legislative activity. ELAW helps communities speak out for clean air, clean water, and a healthy planet. We are a global alliance of attorneys, scientists, and other advocates collaborating across borders in more than 80 countries to build a sustainable, just future.

Surfrider Foundation U.S. tracks and updates all single-use plastic legislative activity in the United States with a grassroots network of over 170 volunteer-led chapters and student clubs. This extensive network helps to ensure the Database will have the most comprehensive U.S. data on single-use plastic legislation across all 50 states.

Life Cycle Categories & Key Topics

Design + Reuse
Laws addressing design or redesign of plastic alternatives for circularity and sustainability, including creating better systems, materials, and products. This could include providing incentives for reusables and refillables, deposit return schemes, etc.

Extended Producer Responsibility
Laws addressing the total environmental cost of a product throughout its lifecycle and intended to shift the responsibility of waste management from local governments to the producer. Extended producer responsibility (EPR) laws will differ based on the specific region and different implementation of EPR.

Maritime Sources
Laws addressing maritime port reception facility regulations, fishing gear requirements, and more.

Microplastics
Laws addressing the redesigning of products to reduce microplastics emissions. This could include microplastics intentionally added (i.e. in cosmetics and other products), pellet loss, artificial turf, microfibers, etc.

Production + Manufacturing
Laws aimed at the raw materials of plastics, including measures to reduce the production of virgin plastics. This could include taxes on virgin resins, caps on production facilities, etc.

Reduction
Laws aimed at reducing single-use plastic items. This could include legislation that targets a particular type of plastic (e.g., macroplastics) and measures that include public information campaigns aimed at reducing consumption.

Transparency + Traceability
Laws addressing the visibility and accessibility of data regarding plastics as they move throughout the value chain, such as requirements for producers to disclose the amount of plastic used, reporting obligations, etc.

Waste Management
Laws addressing the full spectrum of waste management, including end-of-life, disposal, chemical or advanced “recycling,” incineration, etc.

Waste Trade
Laws addressing the transfer of waste from one region to another.

4

October 26, 2023 , 5:00 pm 6:00 pm EDT

We are living in a time requiring unprecedented action to address the intertwined plastic pollution and climate crises and their toxic, unjust impacts on people and the planet. Right now, we have an opportunity to address these deeply interconnected and critical challenges within a United Nations (UN) Plastics Treaty, which is set to be finalized by 2025. With the third of five rounds of negotiations scheduled to take place next month in Nairobi, Kenya, this is a critical time to work toward an effective, equitable UN Plastics Treaty that stops plastics and fossil fuels at the source. Last month, the UN released a Zero Draft, the earliest iteration of the treaty which shows that, despite this being a big step forward, there is still much work to do.

During our October 26 webinar, we will discuss the latest developments in the UN Plastics Treaty negotiations with: Jo Banner, Co-Founder & Co-Director for The Descendants Project; Christopher Chin, Executive Director at the Center for Oceanic Awareness Research and Education; Justine Maillot, European Coordinator at Break Free From Plastic; and Larke Williams, Lead Plastic Pollution Negotiator at the U.S. Department of State. The conversation will be led by moderator Rachel Radvany, Program Associate for Plastics Policy at the Center for International Environmental Law.

Date: Thurs., October 26
Time: 2-3 pm PT | 5-6 pm ET
Click here to convert to your timezone.


Panelists

Jo Banner

Jo Banner (she/her) is the co-founder of The Descendants Project, where she works to challenge systems, primarily legal systems that have exploited the descendants, such as herself, of those enslaved to plantations. As a resident of Louisiana’s Cancer Alley, Jo champions environmental justice causes and is actively developing strategies to transform land slated for use by pollutant-causing industries into green spaces where communities like hers can thrive. She has spoken before the United Nations and participated in the first Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee to develop an international legally binding instrument on plastic pollution. Jo works with several industries, including entertainment, tourism, and green jobs, to provide job options outside the petrochemical industry. Jo utilizes both a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree in Communications to protect Louisiana’s people and its environment fiercely.


Christopher Chin

Christopher Chin is a SCUBA Master Instructor whose passion for the ocean stems back to childhood. He is an accomplished underwater videographer and writer whose footage and work have been featured on the Discovery Channel and Shark Week. In 2006, Christopher co-founded The Center for Oceanic Awareness, Research, and Education (COARE), and he continues to serve as its Executive Director. Christopher is an internationally recognized expert in ocean policy and conservation issues, and has authored, supported, and defended a multitude of laws affecting ocean health and resources. Christopher is an avid advocate for Environmental Justice and co-authored the report “Neglected: Environmental Justice Impacts of Marine Litter and Plastic Pollution”, published by UNEP in 2021. Christopher is an active participant in international fora and has addressed various bodies of the United Nations on a multitude of occasions, and is actively working towards a new global treaty to address plastic pollution.


Justine Maillot

Justine is the Coordinator of the Break Free From Plastic Movement in Europe.  She has an educational background in international, European and environmental law. After working at the EU Unit of Greenpeace for four years on EU ocean and fisheries policy and a 18 month break to work on small, local projects, she joined Surfrider Foundation Europe. This is where she began to work on EU policies on plastic pollution and contributed to the work of the Rethink Plastic alliance and BFFP movement, notably on the Single Use Plastics Directive. Justine then transitioned to Zero Waste Europe and the coordination team of the Rethink Plastic alliance in 2019. She became Coordinator of the Break Free From Plastic Movement in Europe in January 2023.


Larke Williams
Larke Williams

Larke Williams (she/her) is the Lead Plastic Pollution Negotiator in the U.S. Department of State, serving as the senior advisor on plastic pollution and waste management. She has been with the Department since 2016 working on chemicals, air quality and waste issues, and previously served at the U.S. Environmental Protection agency working on climate change, air quality, hydraulic fracturing, and environmental justice. Larke grew up in Los Angeles, California. She graduated from University of California San Diego in 2003 with a B.S. in Chemical Engineering and earned an M.A. in Global Environmental Policy from American University in 2009.


Moderator

Rachel Radvany

Rachel Radvany (she/her) is the Program Associate for Plastics Policy on the Environmental Health team at the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL). She supports the Environmental Health team’s work protecting communities and the environment from the toxic impacts of plastics and other chemicals. She contributes to the team’s work in advancing the negotiation of an ambitious and effective Global Plastics Treaty, including supporting the facilitation of the global Civil Society and Rights Holders Coalition that is weighing in on the negotiations.


Resources