New EPA Rule a Step Forward for “Filtered Not Bottled” Water, More Amendments Needed

As strongly recommended by Plastic Pollution Coalition and other leading experts and community advocates, on November 30 the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) included in the newly drafted Lead and Copper Rule Improvement (LCRI) language that could mitigate the distribution and use of hundreds of billions of single-use plastic water bottles across the United States over the next 10 years. 

The LCRI strengthens the Lead and Copper Rule that was originally published in 1991 to control lead and copper in drinking water, and the Filtered Not Bottled campaign has been pushing for the inclusion of language to proactively recommend the distribution point-of-use filters to impacted households within the LCRI. The newly drafted rule requires water systems with consistently high levels of lead to make available to customers filters certified to remove lead from water, rather than single-use water bottles. This is a very significant step forward.

It is critical we do not allow additional serious pollutants to be introduced into the environment and our bodies while the U.S. addresses getting toxic lead out of our drinking water. Plastic pollutes at every stage of its existence. We are grateful the EPA draft rule will advance access to filters, which can provide families with a safer, sustainable clean water solution to protect them for many years to come, while also reducing the use of plastic bottled water.

— Julia Cohen, Co-Founder and Managing Director, Plastic Pollution Coalition

In the United States there are an estimated 12 million lead pipes, otherwise known as lead service lines, bringing water into the homes of 22 million or more people. There is no safe level of lead in drinking water, and exposure can result in cognitive delays, cancer, and cardiovascular disease. The Biden-Harris Administration had previously committed to removing 100% of lead service lines within the next 10 years. However, because there is no safe level of lead exposure, many communities are now facing the question of how to get clean drinking water while they wait up to a decade for their lead pipes to be replaced. One thing is clear: single-use plastic water bottles are not the solution.

The Problem with Single-Use Plastic Bottles

Single-use plastic water bottles, like all plastics and especially single-use plastics, pollute throughout their existence. Unfortunately, consumption of single-use plastic bottles continues to grow, with 3 million single-use bottles used per hour in the U.S.; most of these bottles are not recycled and end up in landfills, incinerators, or are shipped overseas, driving pollution and injustice. Unfortunately, government and aid agencies have historically provided communities facing water pollution from lead and other contaminants with single-use water bottles—a regrettable substitute and another form of pollution.

Single-use plastic bottles are not only a source of pollution at the end of their use, but also during their production, transportation, and consumption. Plastic production emits highly toxic chemicals into primarily poor, rural, and Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) communities. People living on the front lines of plastic production face a heightened risk of experiencing asthma, cardiovascular disease, and cancer. Plastic bottles release toxic chemicals and microplastics into the water they hold, which in turn enters human bodies when consumed. Chemicals found in the water inside plastic bottles include hazardous heavy metals, including lead and antimony, and hormone disruptors, such as phthalates and bisphenols. 

Plastic Pollution Coalition has spent the last 14 years breaking the “myth” of single-use plastic bottles as a safe source of water and other beverages, exposing single-use bottles as pollution to communities, the environment, and the drinks they contain. We advocate for safe, simple solutions such as reusable, plastic-free bottles and water filters.

Filters, Not Bottles, as a Solution for Safe Drinking Water

In 2022, Plastic Pollution Coalition launched the Filtered Not Bottled campaign to call on the EPA and local governments to recommend and support distribution of filters to households impacted by lead pipes for use before, during, and up to 6 months after lead service line replacement.

Home water filters certified to remove lead are an economical, accessible, and healthy way to ensure families impacted by lead lines have access to clean water for drinking, cooking, and washing. Pitcher filters and replacement filters for one year can cost as low as $50, while single-use bottled water can cost $1,820–-$2,080 a year per person at $7.00–$8.00 per gallon and 5 gallons per person per week. Filters also drastically reduce plastic pollution that ends up in community waste infrastructure and in the surrounding environment. Supplying water to impacted communities for just 6 months could use as many as 32 billion single-use plastic water bottles. Filters, depending on the brand and model, can also reduce microplastics, chlorine, and other common water contaminants. 

In September of 2022, Plastic Pollution Coalition and other leading experts and community groups submitted a Letter to the EPA outlining our recommendations for filter distribution. Over the past year, we have attended meetings with the White House Center for Environmental Quality, EPA Office of Water, and leading federal elected officials, built relationships with impacted communities and local advocacy groups, distributed education materials, and increased public involvement with a petition and campaign letter to the EPA. We are pleased to see the EPA has utilized the Lead and Copper Rule Improvement draft to take an important step towards filter use and protecting impacted communities from lead and plastic pollution.

Where the LCRI Draft Rule Falls Short

The LCRI is a big win for Filtered Not Bottled and clean water across the country. However, the draft currently falls short on key measures that community groups, scientists, federal legislators, and leading advocacy organizations, such as Natural Resource Defense Council, have been calling for to best protect the impacted communities. We are hopeful the draft will be amended to include the following key measures:

  1. Reduce the lead action level to 5 parts per billion (ppb). While the proposed rule does reduce the lead action level from 15 ppb to 10 ppb, there is no safe level of lead in drinking water and reducing the action level to 5 is critical to protect communities.
  2. Require water systems to fund full lead service line replacement. The proposed rule must be amended to require water systems to not only fund the lead service line replacement on public property, as the current version states, but also the small portions of pipe on private property connecting the public systems to households and other infrastructure.
  3. Advise against toxic plastic pipes as the replacement pipe alternative. The draft rule failed to recommend safe pipe material for replacement and did not advise against plastic pipes associated with release of microplastic and chemicals into water, including PVC and PEX (as was recommended in the Letter to the EPA submitted September 2022 and in a recent report “The Perils of PVC Plastic Pipes” authored by Beyond Plastics and Plastic Pollution Coalition).

I applaud the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s decision to require the removal of lead pipes used for drinking water nationwide, but EPA administrator Michael Regan needs to take that one step further and advise local governments not to replace lead service lines with PVC plastic pipes. Like all plastic, PVC and CPVC contain chemical additives—some toxic and many untested for toxicity—that can leach into our drinking water. The Biden administration must ensure we don’t leap from the frying pan into the fire by replacing lead pipes with another material that threatens public health, like PVC, especially when safe alternatives exist.

— Judith Enck, former EPA Regional Administrator and current Beyond Plastics President

The EPA will be accepting public comment on the proposed rule before it is finalized in October 2024, and will also be hosting an information webinar on December 6, 2023, and a virtual public hearing on January 16, 2024.

Take Action

Making pitcher filters available to the communities most impacted by lead is a big step forward for clean water free of lead and plastic pollution. Ultimately, it’s a move that will help communities impacted by lead pipes, as well as those where plastic is produced, transported, and disposed. 

Plastic Pollution Coalition, through its Filtered Not Bottled campaign, continues to advocate for safe, sustainable solutions to address polluted drinking water, without single-use plastic. While more work is needed to ensure this language is kept in the draft rule and improved along with other key measures, today we can celebrate a positive step forward!

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By Earth Island Institute

Berkeley, CA (September 1, 2020) — The Plastics Free California initiative is heading to the November 2022 ballot after qualifying with 870,000 voters signatures — significantly more than the 623,212 signatures required. Two of Earth Island Institute’s projects, California Climate and Agriculture Network and Plastic Pollution Coalition, supported the initiative campaign.

Should the initiative pass, it will reduce plastic pollution, restore and protect environments harmed by plastic pollution, and increase recycling. It will achieve this by funding environmental restoration and protection of streams, rivers, beaches, and oceans harmed by plastic trash pollution; reducing the amount of plastic pollution in California by ensuring that all single-use plastic packaging be reusable, recyclable, or compostable by 2030; reducing the amount of single-use plastic sold in California by 25 percent by 2030; instituting a statewide ban on non-recyclable plastic Styrofoam food containers; funding new recycling plants that will turn single-use trash into new products; protecting drinking water, reducing runoff from pesticides, and funding new composting facilities; and charging corporate plastic manufacturers a penny tax on its single-use plastic packages to fund plastic recycling and environmental clean-up of plastic pollution.

“We have an opportunity with this initiative to support a clean environment for all of California, including our rural communities, by moving away from harmful plastics and towards sustainable solutions like compost production and healthy soils practices,” said Jeanne Merrill, policy director at California Climate and Agriculture Network. The penny tax on the single-use plastic packages would fund the healthy soils program.

“Garnering so many signatures even during the Covid lockdown shows how much the public wants this. It shows that California residents want to take responsibility for our roles in the plastic pollution crisis and enact real solutions to solve it, using just and equitable source reduction and waste reduction efforts. We are showing that we are ready to lead the way to clean up California with the Plastics Free California initiative,” said Jackie Nunez, founder of the Last Plastic Straw and advocacy program manager for Plastic Pollution Coalition.

In February, Earth Island Institute filed a first-of-its-kind lawsuit against 10 major food, beverage, and consumer goods companies for the nuisance created by their plastic packaging, including polluting California waterways with plastic trash and touting products as recyclable when they’re not. The ongoing lawsuit was also filed on behalf of four of Earth Island’s projects that work on plastic pollution issues, including Plastic Pollution Coalition, International Marine Mammal Project, Sharks Stewards, and 1000 Fountains.

Study Recommends Solutions, Including Phasing Out Single-Use Plastics 

WASHINGTON, DC — In 2019 alone, the production and incineration of plastic will add more than 850 million metric tons of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere—equal to the pollution from 189 new coal-fired power plants, according to a new report, Plastic & Climate: The Hidden Costs of a Plastic Planet. The rapid global growth of the plastic industry—fueled by cheap natural gas from hydraulic fracturing—is not only destroying the environment and endangering human health but also undermining efforts to reduce carbon pollution and prevent climate catastrophe.

This is the conclusion of a sweeping new study of the global environmental impact of the plastic industry by the Center for International Environmental Law, Environmental Integrity Project, FracTracker Alliance, Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives, 5 Gyres, and Break Free From Plastic.

The new report gathers research on the greenhouse gas emissions of plastic at each stage of the plastic lifecycle—from its birth as fossil fuels through refining and manufacture to the massive emissions at (and after) plastic’s useful life ends—to create the most comprehensive review to date of the climate impacts of plastic. 

With the ongoing, rapid expansion of the plastic and petrochemical industries, the climate impacts of plastic are poised to accelerate dramatically in the coming decade, threatening the ability of the global community to keep global temperature rise below 1.5°C degrees. If plastic production and use grow as currently planned, by 2030, emissions could reach 1.34 gigatons per year—equivalent to the emissions released by more than 295 500-megawatt coal power plants. By 2050, the production and disposal of plastic could generate 56 gigatons of emissions, as much as 14 percent of the earth’s entire remaining carbon budget.

The rapid growth of the industry over the last decade, driven by cheap natural gas from the hydraulic fracturing boom, has been most dramatic in the United States, which is witnessing a dramatic buildout of new plastic infrastructure in the Gulf Coast and in the Ohio River Valley.

For example, in western Pennsylvania, a new Shell natural gas products processing plant being constructed to provide ingredients for the plastics industry (called an “ethane cracker”) could emit up to 2.25 million tons of greenhouse gas pollution each year (carbon dioxide equivalent tons). A new ethylene plant at ExxonMobil’s Baytown refinery along the Texas Gulf Coast will release up to 1.4 million tons, according to the Plastic and Climatereport. Annual emissions from just these two new facilities would be equal to adding almost 800,000 new cars to the road. Yet they are only two among more than 300 new petrochemical projects being built in the US alone, primarily for the production of plastic and plastic additives.

Plastic in the environment is one of the least studied sources of emissions—and a key missing piece from previous studies on plastic’s climate impacts. Oceans absorb a significant amount of the greenhouse gases produced on the planet—as much as 40 percent of all human-produced carbon dioxide since the beginning of the industrial era. Plastic & Climate highlights how a small but growing body of research suggests plastic discarded in the environment may be disrupting the ocean’s natural ability to absorb and sequester carbon dioxide.

Plastic & Climate uses conservative assumptions to create a projection of plastic’s climate impacts under a business-as-usual scenario, meaning that the actual climate impacts of plastic are likely to exceed these projections.

The report identifies a series of actions that can be taken to reduce these climate impacts, concluding that the most effective way to address the plastic crisis is to dramatically reduce the production of unnecessary plastic, beginning with national and global bans on nearly all single-use, disposable plastic.

The proposed solutions include:

  • ending the production and use of single-use, disposable plastic;

  • stopping development of new oil, gas, and petrochemical infrastructure;

  • fostering the transition to zero-waste communities;

  • implementing extended producer responsibility as a critical component of circular economies; and

  • adopting and enforcing ambitious targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from all sectors, including plastic production.

Carroll Muffett, President, Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL):

“Humanity has less than twelve years to cut global greenhouse emissions in half and just three decades to eliminate them almost entirely. The massive and rapidly growing emissions from plastic production and disposal undermine that goal and jeopardize global efforts to keep climate change below 1.5 degrees of warming. It has long been clear that plastic threatens the global environment and puts human health at risk. This report demonstrates that plastic, like the rest of the fossil economy, is putting the climate at risk as well. Because the drivers of the climate crisis and the plastic crisis are closely linked, so to are their solutions: humanity must end its reliance on fossil fuels and on fossil plastics that the planet can no longer afford.”

Dianna Cohen, Co-Founder and CEO, Plastic Pollution Coalition:

“We commend CIEL and partners’ new report Plastic and Climate: The Hidden Costs of a Plastic Planet for demonstrating the alarming climate impacts of plastic. Plastic pollution is an urgent global crisis, and plastic pollutes at every stage: from extraction to disposal and incineration. This is a decisive moment when we will no longer accept business as usual. Join us in demanding a shift in the system for the health of the Earth and all its living creatures.”

Visit Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL), Environmental Integrity Project, FracTracker Alliance, Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA) Sound Resource Management Group, Inc., 5 Gyres, or #breakfreefromplastic.