6 Steps the Biden Administration Needs to Take in the Next 6 Months to Combat Plastic Pollution

Photo by Nataliya Vaitkevich from Pexels

As we watched President Biden take his oath of office on Wednesday, January 20, among a small mask-wearing throng of dignitaries and politicians, the country faced an unprecedented challenging time ahead. Already 400,000 Americans have died due to COVID-19, and 24 million more cases of the disease have been confirmed. Numerous small shops and family-owned businesses have been forced to close, and the national unemployment rate is 6.7% — double that of the pre-pandemic level. 8 million Americans fell below the poverty line due to the economic aftermaths of the coronavirus pandemic. And in the last few months, this country has seen extreme polarization as clashes, sometimes violent, occurred along socio-economic and political lines.

These are all important and urgent issues that the Biden administration must actively tackle in order to unite the country and take us out of the current economic recession. Needless to say, the new government should act as quickly as possible to ensure that sufficient aid and resources are going to remedy the hardest hit during this global pandemic. But as these burdens breathe heavily on the collective psyche of our nation, it is easy to miss other slow but equally catastrophic disasters that are in making. We must not forget equally pressing issues, such as the protection of our environment and the mitigation of menaces like plastic pollution that will affect us all in the future.

The Problem

If environmental degradation can be termed a slow killer, plastic pollution can be its poster child.

Just to see how disastrous the problem is, we only need to look at the stark numbers. 41,857 plastic bottles are thrown away every minute in this country. That’s equivalent to 22 billion plastic bottles per year. These bottles will contribute to the 6.3 billion metric tons of plastic already in the waste stream. Only 9% of them will be recycled. The remainder will stay up to a thousand years, breaking into tiny particles called microplastics that will find their way to the oceans, entering the marine food chain and eventually our own. It is estimated that by the year 2050 there will be more microplastic particles in the ocean than the number of fish.

These microplastics float around and flow wherever the prevailing ocean current takes them, making the plastic pollution problem a global one. In a manner no different than other global environmental issues such as global warming or ozone layer depletion, plastic waste generated by one country does not stay a problem for only that country; it becomes a problem for all countries.

Plastic is a cheap, versatile product that has become the prototype of the convenience-based lifestyle. It has almost become essential — we use it in applications from plastic bags to manufacturing. The plastic industry is never shy of harping on the usefulness of plastic. Tony Radoszewski, President and CEO of the Plastics Industry Association, expressed this utility in a Congressional hearing when he said “Today [plastics] make surgery less invasive, receptive, and affordable. And in a century and a half they made cars, trucks, and planes more efficient … and safer.”

But that versatility is also a double-edged sword.

Since its invention in 1907, humankind has produced enough plastic to fill up the Statue of Liberty, from pedestal to torch, 37 million times. Unlike decomposable materials such as paper, the entire amount of plastic produced in the world so far is still with us — and growing.

To understand how to most efficiently combat plastic pollution, it is essential that we examine the source of the problem as well as the plastic’s multifaceted nature.

More than a million marine animals die each year due to consumption of or entanglement with plastic debris. Plastic has been linked to high levels of mercury in fish and seafood. The consequences of plastic pollution, however, are much more far-reaching than simply marine ingestion.

All species of sea turtles in the world have ingested plastic waste. Source: DeepOceanFacts

If plastic was a country, it would have the 5th largest carbon emissions in the world.

In a House hearing on plastic pollution in 2020, Rep. Alan Lowenthal of California, and Juan Parras of T.E.J.A.S., an environmental justice advocacy firm, pointed out that petrochemical facilities are linked to high rates of cancer. These facilities are generally located in disadvantaged communities, widening differences among social classes and leading to health disparities.

Marcus Eriksen of 5 Gyres, a nongovernmental organization, adds that less developed countries that lack systems to collect plastic waste rely on incineration. The toxic fumes from burning plastic, he says, causes social harm.

But that’s not all. Plastic has a definite worldwide supply chain and the livelihood of those involved in that supply chain depends on plastic. 993,000 people in the United States directly depend on jobs in the plastic industry for their income. Plastic has been called the “miracle material” for its numerous utilities. At the same time, managing plastic waste places an economic burden on municipal governments and taxpayers. Looking at plastic through the lens of waste management alone will not solve the problem. We must address the underlying global economic issue as well.

The reasons behind plastic pollution vary from place to place. In countries with rapidly developing economies, the combination of a drastic increase in consumer options and the lack of proper waste systems capable of managing post-consumer waste leads to increased amounts of plastic entering the environment. Until very recently, developed countries could export their plastic waste to less developed countries, increasing the burden on already under-equipped garbage collection and landfill systems. In the high seas, ships and fishing trawlers may accidentally or purposefully dump fishing nets, gear, and packaging materials into the ocean.

Within developed countries like the United States, plastic waste is purely a product of bad habits. After World War II, the living standard of many Americans rose. Along with the increased purchasing power came relentless advertisement schemes from companies marketing their products to a new middle class. 5 Gyres’ Eriksen says that these advertisement campaigns were the driving force behind instigating a throwaway culture. “We had to shift the American mindset away from conservation and more to consumption and the idea that throwing something away and getting something new was okay,” he told me of the American lifestyle shift in the 1950s and 1960s.

“We had to shift the American mindset away from conservation and more to consumption and the idea that throwing something away and getting something new was okay.”

- Marcus Eriksen, 5 Gyres

He also explains that many companies engaged in planned obsolescence, and intentionally allowed their products to malfunction after several years so that consumers were forced to repurchase. The US has the world’s highest per capita plastic waste generation rates.

US has the world’s highest per capita plastic waste generation rates. Graphics: Author

Another aspect of the problem is a lack of knowledge about the issue. Combating the problem starts with recognizing “how large the problem is”, according to Jim Holmes of Clean Oceans International. Holmes also expresses concern that many of us do not really know where our waste is going and that just placing that plastic wrapper in the trash bin is not enough.

The key to combating the global plastic pollution problem is to take into account the social, environmental, and economic perspectives and combine bipartisan legislation with awareness programs. And we must consider the domestic and international sides of this issue as well.

Fortunately, initiatives have been taken by the government, NGOs, and the plastic industry to counter plastic waste. The Biden administration should encourage, support, and help fund such efforts. But it needs to drive a strong, all-encompassing policy enhanced by multiple perspectives that attacks the base of the problem.

What a Biden Administration Needs to Do

Here are the 6 steps the Biden administration needs to take within the first 6 months of office with regards to plastic pollution and the environment

1. Implement the Save Our Seas 2.0 Act

2. Oversee the Passing and Implementation of the Break Free from Plastic Pollution Act of 2020

3. Oversee the ratification of the Basel Agreement

4. Enact a foreign policy to engage international cooperation regarding plastic pollution

5. Create a special presidential envoy to the United Nations to focus on plastic pollution

And finally, leveraging all of these:

6. Start a global discussion on crafting an international, broad-based agreement that combats plastic pollution holistically.

1. Implement Save Our Seas 2.0 Act

The Save Our Seas 2.0 Act, sponsored by Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-AK), became a law on Dec. 18 of last year. Its primary goal is to reduce marine debris, like plastic waste. But it has not yet been fully implemented and the task of enforcing the act falls under the purview of the Biden administration. The Save Our Seas 2.0 Act is truly bipartisan legislation, with 5 Democrats, 3 Republican, and even an independent among the co-sponsors. The act focuses on combating marine debris, enhancing global engagement with regards to the issue, and improving domestic waste infrastructure. Part of this includes the creation of a Marine Debris Foundation, an organization for aiding government agencies in reducing pollution of the oceans. The Save Our Seas 2.0 Act provides incentives for innovators who create technologies to reduce plastic waste by establishing a “Genius Prize”, as well as for fishermen who dispose of plastic found at sea. Furthermore, the act calls for reports on uses of plastic waste as a building material and on microfiber pollution with an emphasis on a circular economy and recycling.

Most importantly, the Save Our Seas 2.0 Act provides space for interagency cooperation, prioritization of efforts to combat marine debris, United States leadership in international forums, and negotiation of an international agreement, making it a must-have stepping-stone for future action. The Biden administration must implement and enforce the law to lay the groundwork of any other action it decides to take regarding plastic pollution.

2. Pass and Implement the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act of 2020

Supporting the passage of the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act of 2020 is one of the next steps the Biden administration needs to take after the Save Our Seas 2.0 Act has been fully implemented. Co-sponsors include former senator and vice president-elect Kamala Harris. The bill was proposed by Sen. Tom Udall (D-NM), who resigned from office on January 3 of this year, so initiative needs to be taken to make sure that the act still passes Congress and is adequately enforced. The Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act’s strength is its setting of standards. It creates requirements for waste management systems. In addition, the legislation puts an emphasis on recycling, reusing and the phasing out of single-use plastics. It makes producers of plastic waste fiscally responsible for cleanup efforts. The act calls for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to standardize labeling of plastic products. Christopher Chen of COARE, a California-based organization for promoting executive action on plastic pollution expressed his concerns about proper labeling of plastic packaging.

“[The plastics industry] created their resin code to look like the recycling symbol. And now, whenever people see that, they think ‘It has chasing arrows and a number in it. It’s recyclable’ and throw it in the bin. And that’s a problem.”

- Christopher Chen, COARE

This is where proper education about this issue also comes into play.

In addition to these goals, the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act of 2020 acknowledges the consequences of plastic waste, such as carbon emissions and air pollutants. If the Save Our Seas 2.0 Act lays the foundations, the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act of 2020 is certainly the basement. To move forward in combating the plastic pollution problem, these two pieces of legislation must be implemented.

But as detailed as these acts are, they fall short from a variety of perspectives. Both the Save Our Seas 2.0 and Break Free From Plastic Pollution Acts allocate too little money and time for plastic pollution to be addressed as a government priority.

Unfortunately, when it comes to monetary allocation, the Save Our Seas 2.0 Act falls short, setting aside just 55 million dollars per year to combat marine debris. To put that into context, that’s a little less than $7 per ton of plastic debris alone that will be spent on prevention, cleanup, enforcement, and conservation of the affected areas. Needless to say, this amount is miniscule compared to the need. Furthermore, the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act of 2020 allows up to 3 years for parts of the act to be fully implemented. This is simply too slow for a problem that has immediate and irreversible consequences.

These pieces of legislation are also not broad-based enough to combat plastic pollution as a whole. The Save Our Seas 2.0 Act addresses marine debris while the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act of 2020 takes on producer responsibility. But just managing the side effects will not terminate the disease. We need to attack the base of the problem. And while we must keep our home in order, the scope of this problem is much larger and cannot be solved by domestic action alone.

Improving consciousness about plastic mismanagement or investing in trash cleanup systems for disposing plastic are needed steps, but they alone will not be effective.

To see why, we should first recognize that plastic waste is not a local, but a global problem. As mentioned before, plastic produced by one country quickly spreads everywhere through waterways and ocean currents. Because of this, plastic waste can be found on every continent including Antarctica. Although an individual community can do its part to help, it can do very little to stop the scourge of the plastic problem around the world. For plastic waste to really be handled on the international level, we, as a country, must exert our influence around the globe.

3. Ratification of the Basel Agreement

This means we must formulate a foreign policy that has bipartisan support at home and engages other governments around the world to act in this regard. This foreign policy should serve as the pillar of an international broad-based agreement that addresses plastic pollution.

When we observe the international landscape today, such an agreement is sorely lacking. For example, Annex V of MARPOL only narrowly addresses dumping of solid waste from surface water vessels, a small part of the total plastic pollution. Similarly, the Basel Agreement prevents countries from exporting their plastic waste to others, another vertical view of the problem. Many other pieces of legislation, such as Save Our Seas 2.0, have hinted at the need of international cooperation, but none have hit the problem at the bull’s-eye.

The Basel Convention took place in Basel, Switzerland. Image by adege from Pixabay

While they may be inadequate, the foundation of the proposed foreign policy will not be solid unless the United States vigorously takes part and ratifies such agreements and legislation. Failure to do so will send the wrong signal to our allies and partners, as well as to the larger global community. The narrow focus of the Basel Agreement should not prevent United States from adopting and ratifying the agreement. This will also give the US more negotiating power with the 187 signatories of the Basel Agreement

Nevertheless, more definitely needs to be done. Rejoining the Basel Agreement will also open the door for the Biden administration to create an international agreement that directly attacks the plastic pollution problem at the root. Unless such an international broad-based agreement is created, the true solution to the plastic pollution problem will remain out of reach.

4. Enact a Foreign Policy for Combating Plastic Pollution

In a previous article, I outlined the three main pillars of such a foreign policy. These policy proposals are:

Policy 1: Reduce global plastic waste going into the oceans to 4 million metric tons by year 2030.

Policy 2: Set up a global economic fund to aid in the phasing out of plastic.

Policy 3: Implement the above using financial incentives or embargoes, as necessary.

Any foreign policy is always a give and take. U.S. needs to provide incentives to other countries to curb their plastic production, and come up with an amicable solution that works for the majority of the countries. The above policies create a framework to start with, and painstaking work will be needed to transform these into an international agreement. It will perhaps take many years to complete but we need to start now given the urgency of the plastic pollution problem.

Phasing out plastic itself is not enough to address the main issue behind plastic pollution. Plastic definitely has its uses, and the international agreement needs to set definite plans for future alternative materials. This is something the economic fund in Policy 2 can help with.

5. Create a Special Presidential Envoy to the United Nations for Plastic Pollution

The Biden Administration should start this process by appointing a special envoy to the United Nations solely for the purpose of plastic pollution. This will help to put the issue under the spotlight and facilitate international dialogue on this pressing problem. It will also help prioritize plastic waste management as a key part of our country’s agenda. The job of this envoy would be to represent the US’ interests to the world in mitigating plastic debris as well as advising the UN committee that will be crafting the agreement. The envoy should work closely with the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP), the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), and various international economic commissions to address the multi-faceted consequences of plastic pollution.

6. Start a global discussion on crafting an international, broad-based agreement that combats plastic pollution holistically

Eventually, the overarching goal of all of these steps is to create an international atmosphere that culminates into a fair, all-encompassing, truly global, and yet flexible international agreement. Fair — as it takes care of the need of those plastic-producing countries which will lose a means of revenue after such an agreement. All encompassing — as it targets all aspects of plastic pollution. Truly global — having the support of our allies but also having reach to our future partners in this mission. And flexible enough to be tolerant of countries’ individual capabilities and dependence on plastic products.

At the same time, this agreement must not fall prey to exploitation by other countries. Transparency needs to be an integral part in ensuring the agreement is being upheld. A future plastic pollution envoy can engage with various UN commissions to supervise the process.

Urgency and Future Action

The steps detailed in this article will take a long time to complete. But initiative on them must start immediately. The future of the environment and mankind alike will depend on the actions taken during this administration to combat one of the most pressing issues of our generation. Plastic pollution will affect us long after the current pandemic and long after this presidency if left untended.

We need to act now.

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