Recently, the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works convened for a hearing titled “Examining the Impact of Plastic Use and Identifying Solutions for Reducing Plastic Waste.” The final hearing for the committee of the 117th Congress began with Sen. Jeff Merkley discussing the plastic problem, ranging from how plastic does not break down to the ways it has infiltrated seemingly everything through that process.
Merkley last year introduced the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act that includes provisions like establishing a national system that would allow for better methods of recycling plastic bottles in an effort to reduce waste and prevent more plastic from going to landfills. For now, there is no nationwide bottle bill, though there are 10 states with their own bottle laws. The legislation also includes financial incentives for recycling as well as for material recovery facility operators that run recycling and reclamation facilities.
Cleaning up our plastic footprint would make a significant difference when it comes to reducing emissions and even ensuring the health of future generations, as one expert explained to the committee. Dr. John Peterson “Pete” Meyers detailed the dangers of microplastics as well as the many chemicals that go into plastic components. “Most chemicals in plastics have not been tested for safety. None have been tested thoroughly. But if you don’t test, you don’t know if they’re safe,” Meyers warned, detailing that 75% of off-the-shelf plastics have at least one toxic component.
This is an issue that has seemingly plagued the planet since the first synthetic plastic was created in 1907. Some 115 years since that discovery, humans now produces about 400 million tonnes of plastic waste worldwide annually, according to the United Nations Environment Program. That waste poses a danger to animals and humans alike as well as fragile ecosystems—and it’s only getting worse, Meyers said: “The abundance of plastic everywhere is a major factor in why it’s worse.”
I’ve written previously about ocean plastic cleanup and communities fighting back against a proposed bottled water plant. But in the fight against plastic waste, bills like Merkley’s and a planned national bottle bill could make a substantial difference—in the U.S. at least. Experts at Beyond Plastics, one of whom spoke during the hearing, believe plastic’s existence poses the same type of threat as the coal industry once did. Part of that is because of just how hard it is to recycle plastic products.
“Plastic recycling remains a major failure. It clocks in at under 10%,” Beyond Plastics President Judith Enck said. She detailed the many things that go into plastic production that makes it near-impossible to recycle certain plastics at all. Enck called for “reduction, refill, and reuse… then rely on paper, metal, glass. Get the toxics out, particularly out of the paper, and make sure those materials are made with recycled content and make sure they are recyclable,” Enck continued. “Reduction is the way to go.”