Use less. Recycle more. Buy this. Don’t support that.
When talking about pollution, especially plastic pollution, the conversation often targets individual action. The choice, and therefore responsibility, always seems to lie with the individual.
And while these shifts in personal choices are by no means futile, it is also imperative that we look to our governments to develop legislation as well. The decline in environmental health due to plastic pollution is not just an individual or community problem, but a global one. And therefore, it demands influence from a wide range of sources, including our governments.
“We have to abandon the conceit that isolated personal actions are going to solve this crisis. Our policies have to shift.” – Al Gore
There are several water pollution issues that countries around the world have begun to effectively regulate through policy and legislation. For example, the Clean Water Act was first passed in 1972 in the United States in order to regulate water quality standards.
This established pollution control regarding point source discharge, non-point discharge, wastewater standards, and contaminants for lakes, rivers, streams, and coastlines. The European Council established it’s first Environmental Action Program (EAP) in 1973. The Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act in India was first introduced in 1974 to provide the prevention and control of water pollution.
These laws became the foundation for pollution regulation and policy control of businesses, fisheries, agriculture, and public wastewater treatment plants.
These same policy concepts can be applied to the plastic pollution problem as well. By enforcing this legislation, governments are doing two things: forcing businesses to adapt to a new standard and promoting a cultural shift in material usage. Through taxation, permit markets, deposit-refund systems, etc., the government develops a shift in how businesses and society manage plastic pollution on a large scale.
Law and regulation surrounding environmental pollution have been successful in the past to correct human error that is otherwise toxic to the environment, such as industrial water and air pollution. Now, environmental policy is beginning to foster the same regulation on plastics.
There are several types of policy control that are either currently in place or in process of being introduced. This ranges from taxation, to deposit-refund systems, to outright banning manufacture of certain plastics.
Plastic Bag Laws
For example, several countries have now banned the production and sale of single-use plastic bags. Countries like Bangladesh, the Phillippines, Cameroon, China, Brazil, and 16 African countries have banned the production of thin or ultralight plastic bags.
In Europe plastic bag taxes have been implemented in Ireland, Denmark, Germany, Austria, The UK, and the Netherlands. The taxes in Ireland are recorded to have cut single-use plastic bag use by 95% and Europe has seen an overall reduction in plastic bag ocean pollution since 2010.
In the U.S., over 150 cities have enacted plastic bag bans or fees.
Around 1 trillion plastic bags are produced each year and are among the 12 items most commonly found in coastal cleanups. Bans such as these not only limit the manufacture of plastic bags, but also force society to find alternatives. In places where plastic bags are banned or taxed, it becomes a lot easier and cheaper to use alternatives such as cotton or jute bags.
Reduction of Plastic Packaging
Styrofoam has managed to infiltrate a wide variety of products and packaging, despite it’s inability to biodegrade. Because of this, over 100 cities in the U.S. have managed to ban Styrofoam in public facilities and/or businesses. Other countries, such as Zimbabwe and Taiwan, have also enacted measures to reduce the use of Styrofoam packaging.
Britain has gone even one step further by encouraging all major supermarkets to ban unnecessary single-use plastic packaging by 2025 and is considering a plastic tax for single-use plastic items. This could include disposable coffee cups, takeaway boxes, and polystyrene packaging.
Canada was the first country to sign a nationwide ban on microbeads in personal care products in July of 2015. Later that year, California signed a ban on microbeads without loopholes, or certain product regulations and the Microbead-Free Waters Act was passed in the United States.
Between 2016 and 2017, several countries in the EU, Australia, and New Zealand either banned, or introduced legislation to ban some form of microbeads. And Taiwan’s ban on cosmetic microplastics will go into effect in July 2018.
However, the banning of microbeads in cosmetics only accounts for about 2% of plastics in cosmetics and is a relatively small amount in terms of microplastics. While the regulation of microbeads globally is an important feat, there is still much to be done in the way of microplastics.
As pointed out by the BBC, in correlation to the banning of microbeads in various countries, still 130,000 tons of microplastics from buildings and 80,000 tons from road paint will end up in the ocean each year.
Though an extremely drastic comparison, this is an example of the disparities in environmental policy and legislation. Yes, each and every one of these laws on plastic pollution reduction is a major step forward in the fight to remove plastics from the ocean and our natural environments. However, proper legislation is often slow to come to fruition, especially regarding environmental concerns.
Many countries have recently made sweeping declarations to reduce plastic waste, but are slow moving in regards to actual, physical laws that demand a change. There are many pitfalls as to why this occurs, but one of the major ones is the lobby of special interest groups.
Take plastic bag bans, for example. Many countries and cities have successfully banned or taxed some form of single-use plastic bags. Many, though, only address certain types of plastic and in countries like China, the ban is hard to enforce. Or, on the opposite end entirely, there are places like Michigan that have actually passed bans on plastic bag ban legislation.
That’s right. A ban on plastic bag bans. But Michigan isn’t the only one and, unfortunately, this isn’t the only case of special interest groups lobbying for a less than environmentally-friendly outcome.
But when it comes to legislation, some is better than none, and while it may not be completely favorable, it is considerably more effective when combined with other plastic pollution solutions like innovative, alternative products, reduction of consumption, and global clean up efforts.
How Can I Contribute?
Legislation may often seem complicated and overwhelming, but there are many things that you can do as an individual to help promote legislation against plastic pollution. Dive in and get involved in politics through manageable recourse such as:
1) Write your local representative. Tell those who represent you how you would like them to vote when it comes to bans, taxes, and plastics management.
2) Looking to make even more noise? Support lobbyists who share your goals. Successful lobbyists don’t always have to be part of big business. Check out the organizations listed below and see how they’re making a difference legislatively.
3) Sign petitions. Many cities, states, and countries are working right now to get plastic legislation on the ballot. Signing petitions is the first step to gain legislative footing on plastic pollution.
4) Educate others. Start the conversation and help others become more aware of the environmental pressures of plastic and what other countries are doing to change it.