Plastic Pollution is a Crisis, But Solutions for a Circular Economy Exist

Ocean Pollution – Floating Bags and human plastic waste in the open ocean. 3D illustration.

Plastic pollution is at a crisis level and as we’ve written, the COVID-19 pandemic has only compounded the need to rethink our waste and recycling systems. But governments, companies, and NGOs are forging a path to create these solutions.

In California, as the LA Times editorial board wrote, state lawmakers previously proposed to establish the California Circular Economy and Plastic Pollution Reduction Act, which would put the responsibility for and the cost of dealing with discarded plastic packaging and takeout containers on the companies that make them, rather than the consumers who buy them.

And just yesterday, we saw the launch of the U.S. Plastics Pact, a collaborative led by The Recycling Partnership and World Wildlife Fund (WWF), as part of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s global Plastics Pact network. The pact is an initiative to unify diverse public-private stakeholders across the plastics value chain to rethink how plastic is designed, used, and reused, in an effort to create a circular economy for the material in the United States.

Why This Matters: There’s far more plastic in the oceans than we’ve previously estimated and new evidence shows that microplastics can be found in human organs. And while we don’t fully understand the health implications of plastic pollution, it’s all the more reason to create closed-loop systems to prevent it in the first place.

More on the Plastics Pact: The U.S. Plastics Pact is in line with the Ellen McArthur Foundation’s vision of a circular global economy for plastic. The U.S. pact brings together plastic packaging producers, brands, retailers, recyclers, waste management companies, policymakers, and other stakeholders to work collectively toward scalable solutions for a truly circular plastics economy.

According to WWF’s press release,

As of today, more than 60 Activators – including for-profit companies, government agencies, and NGOs – have joined the U.S. Plastics Pact, representing each part of the supply and plastics manufacturing chain. By joining the U.S. Plastics Pact, Activators agree to collectively deliver these four targets:

  1. Define a list of packaging to be designated as problematic or unnecessary by 2021 and take measures to eliminate them by 2025.
  2. By 2025, all plastic packaging is 100% reusable, recyclable, or compostable.
  3. By 2025, undertake ambitious actions to effectively recycle or compost 50% of plastic packaging.
  4. By 2025, the average recycled content or responsibly sourced bio-based content in plastic packaging will be 30%.

Hope in California: The two California bills that made up the California Circular Economy and Plastic Pollution Reduction Act, Senate Bill 54 and companion legislation Assembly Bill 1080, ultimately stalled in the state legislature in 2019. The bills are an important roadmap and goal for fixing a recycling system that puts the burden on consumers and cash-strapped municipalities and should be revisited.

Go Deeper: This week, the University of California announced that all 10 campuses will phase out single-use plastic bags in retail and dining locations and then eliminate single-use plastic food service items and plastic bottles. According to UC’s press release,

“Given that the 10-campus UC system has such significant purchasing power across California, the new policy will accelerate efforts to eliminate single-use plastics, which have become a major environmental threat around the globe.”

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