There's no escape from plastic.
Look around your kitchen, walk around your favorite park or beach and you'll likely find yourself in the presence of plastic pollution.
The United States produces enough plastic waste every 15 hours to fill Cowboys Stadium, the largest football stadium in the country. We eat about a credit card's worth of plastic every week because microplastics are so omnipresent in our environment. If our waste patterns continue, by 2050 the oceans could have more plastic than fish.
How did it get this way? It's not because people have been clamoring for more plastic in our lives. In fact, it's become nearly impossible to avoid plastic in packaging and consumer products.
Even if you try to recycle that plastic — dutifully checking the number in the triangle on the bottom of the package, making sure your city or town accepts it for recycling — there's still a chance that it will ultimately wind up as waste. Less than 9% of all plastic gets recycled.
It's easy to blame the plastic waste crisis on litterbugs or people who don't recycle. Easy, but wrong.
The real responsibility for the plastics crisis lies with the companies that manufacture these products in the first place.
Product manufacturers don't use plastic because their consumers are demanding it; they use it because it's cheaper than the alternatives. Plastics manufacturers use virgin materials rather than recycled plastics because it's cheaper to do so.
In reality, though, plastic only seems cheap, because product manufacturers don't have to absorb the enormous costs their products inflict on the rest of us. Producers don't have to pay for the costs of collecting and transporting the trash their products become. They don't have to pay employees to pick up plastic litter from parks and beaches — that's left to us. And they don't have to pay the public health costs of pollution from plastic trash in our incinerators and landfills.
As long as producers' responsibility for their products ends the moment they're shipped away, they are going to keep making disposable plastic junk.
States seek a solution
There is a solution, one that's been tried and tested around the world for decades: producer responsibility laws. Under these laws, producers of hard-to-dispose-of products are responsible for the full life cycle of the product, including post-consumer collection, recycling and/or disposal.
Many of us are already familiar with producer responsibility programs for hazardous products such as batteries, paint, mercury thermostats, carpet, pesticides, tires or pharmaceuticals. Dozens of states have programs already in place for these items, including many here in Oregon.
Producer responsibility programs work because they change the incentives that make wastefulness so cheap. When manufacturers are held responsible for their products at the end of their lives, they tend to make different choices when designing those products in the first place: making them more reusable, repairable, recyclable and resilient.
The good news is that nearly a dozen states, including Oregon, are considering producer responsibility bills for packaging and paper products. In Oregon, Senate Bill 582-1 would modernize our recycling system and bring producers in to start bearing some of the costs of the system. Consider letting your state legislators know that you support producer responsibility, so we can make it a reality here in Oregon. You can bet they're hearing from the plastics industry.
Celeste Meiffren-Swango of Southeast Portland is state director for Environment Oregon.
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