We humans are fouling the world with plastic. From the deepest trenches of the ocean to the highest mountains, no place on earth remains unpolluted by plastic.
The earth’s fish, birds, and mammals choke on it, or get tangled in it. The chemicals embedded in plastics disrupt our hormones and sicken us in ways we are only beginning to understand. Even human blood and breast milk contain microplastics.
The petrochemical industry led us down this path, convincing us that single-use plastic was cleaner, easier, and modern. As for what to do with plastic waste and litter, corporate public relations offices told us in the 1970s that recycling would solve that problem. Today, only 6-9% of the plastic in the waste stream gets recycled.
The plastics industry puts those familiar “recycle” triangles on containers to make us feel better about using them. Even toothpaste tubes display a bright green recycle logo. Many such containers are theoretically recyclable, but no recycling program accepts them. The plastic bottles that do get recycled are generally not turned into new containers. They are shredded and used to make clothing, footwear, and furniture, very little of which gets recycled again. In the end, it all gets buried in landfills, incinerated, or shipped overseas to poor countries where it is burned, with disastrous health consequences, or dumped in the ocean.
Where do we go from here?
Our most immediate opportunity is to convince the Connecticut General Assembly to pass legislation for Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) for packaging. What does that mean?
Actually, you’re already familiar with EPR. When you need to dispose of a computer or television, you can take it to a transfer station or an electronics collection event for no charge. That’s because the manufacturers or importers pay to recover and dispose of the materials in those products. You can bring leftover paint to designated paint stores because the disposal cost was included when you bought the paint. We have similar EPR programs in Connecticut for mattresses, thermostats, and, coming soon, gas cylinders.
The proposed EPR legislation for packaging — including “packaging-like materials” such as straws, drink stirrers, and single-use cups and utensils — is a key element of a multifaceted approach to reduce plastic waste.
Manufacturers (or importers) would be required to pay a variable disposal fee, with the level of the fee based on the nature of the materials involved. These fees would be used to support recycling facilities that can handle more types of plastic and thereby increase the percentage of plastic that gets reused in making new products.
The fees would be lowest for packaging made of plant-based, compostable materials. An intermediate fee would apply to packaging designed to be easily recycled. The highest fees would be for problematic mixed materials like plastic bonded to cardboard or different types of plastic bonded to each other. Some plastics — like polystyrene or “Styrofoam” — can and should be banned now that compostable foam is available.
Examples of successful EPR programs in British Columbia and Europe give us confidence that this approach will work in Connecticut. Other states have passed EPR laws that will take effect in the years ahead. But last year, Connecticut’s EPR bill for packaging, SB 115, failed to get a vote in the Environment Committee, though it did receive a hearing.
A local waste hauler argued that the current system is excellent, and EPR for packaging would be the “death knell” for the company — a spurious argument since waste will always have to be trucked to processing facilities. Others argued that SB 115 would burden households and businesses with higher costs, causing hardship to low-income consumers. That argument was contradicted by a study of EPR outcomes in British Columbia. Packaging accounts on average for 1-2% of the cost of consumer items. Simplifying packaging does not noticeably raise its cost.
Even some environmentalists, while supportive of most parts of last year’s bill, objected to a provision for future “chemical recycling” of plastic — a process that breaks down the polymer chains in waste plastic and uses the constituent molecules to make new plastic. Whether this provision is dangerous or prudent is debatable, but either way it is unlikely to have a significant impact for years to come. On a large scale, it’s cheaper to make plastic from oil than to separate, clean, and reformulate used plastic.
The important point is to ask our legislators to act, because it takes several years to set up an EPR program. There’s a widespread consensus that we need to stop making and using throwaway plastic items. In July 2021, Connecticut’s ban on single-use checkout bags went into effect. Shoppers adjusted to bringing their own reusable bags or paying for paper bags. As of January 2023, our state’s bottle bill covers more types of beverage containers. These are important steps, but small ones compared to the deluge of plastic humans are dumping into the environment. EPR for packaging will open another path to slow and reverse the scourge of plastic waste. Connecticut’s Department of Energy and Environmental Protection strongly supports this legislation.
Some major companies have already minimized their use of plastic packaging. They support EPR legislation because it encourages the laggards to follow suit. Have you heard the business community say it prefers “market-based” solutions to pollution? That’s exactly what EPR programs are.
John C. Hall is the Executive Director of the Jonah Center for Earth and Art based in Middletown and Portland.