Biden Can Fight Plastic Pollution With These 8 Actions

And he doesn't need the support of Congress to do so.

plastic pollution on beach
Plastic pollution along a beach.

Getty Images/Florian Roden

A coalition of prominent environmental groups hopes that the new United States president will take serious action on curbing plastic production. While plastic serves a purpose in certain situations (like medical procedures, food handling, high-tech fabrics, etc.), it has proliferated far beyond its necessary uses and is creating an environmental disaster with lasting repercussions.

An estimated 300 million tons of plastic are produced around the world every year, and half of that is for single-use. With more than 99% of plastic made from fossil fuels, this production drives demand for yet more oil and gas extraction – an industry we need to be moving away from. A mere 8% of plastic is recycled in the U.S., with the remaining 92% getting burned, buried, or blown away into the environment.

Contact with plastics creates health hazards for humans and wildlife alike. Food wrappers and containers expose people to leaching chemicals that have been linked to conditions such as ADD/ADHD, obesity, and cancer. Animals ingest stray plastics and can be suffocated or starved as a result of digestive tract blockages. 

The most effective way to address this problem is to reduce the amount of unnecessary plastic produced. And so, this has become the focal point of the environmental groups' new campaign called #PlasticFreePresident. It is aimed at the Biden administration and urges the executive branch to take bold action within its first year in office. It outlines eight actions that President Biden can take immediately without the support of Congress, setting the nation "on a pathway to a plastic pollution-free future," as described on the campaign website. 

Treehugger reached out to Stephanie Prufer, oceans campaigner for the Center for Biological Diversity. She explained that the Presidential Plastics Action Plan grew out of a campaign to slow the flow of plastic into oceans, landscapes, and landfills.

"We quickly realized how crucial it was to address the increasing US plastic production and proposals to build some of the world’s largest plastic-making plants in this country. There’s just no way to control plastic pollution while industry is aggressively expanding plastic production using our oversupply of fracked gas. 
We did two national petitions in 2019 calling for the Environmental Protection Agency to update its decades-old regulations on air and water pollution from petrochemical facilities, but both were ignored by the Trump administration. So with a new president who had pledged strong action on climate and environmental justice, we and our huge national coalition wanted to create a road map for the executive actions that are so desperately needed."

What the Biden Administration Can Do About Plastic

Prufer said the plastics industry has gotten away with blaming consumers for the plastic pollution problem for too long. It's now time for the federal government to "treat plastic pollution as the climate and environmental justice crisis that it is." To do so, the Biden administration would have to take the following eight steps:

1. Use the federal government's purchasing power to eliminate single-use plastic items and replace them with reusables. 

The government is likely the country's largest consumer of disposable plastic goods, so initiating a ban on single-use plastics on all government property, including national parks and federal facilities, would have a ripple effect throughout the industry. "The new strategy should have ... sufficient funding for any new capital costs, such as installing dishwashing equipment, water fountains, and other improvements."

2. Suspend and deny permits for new or expanded plastic production facilities and associated infrastructure. 

The petrochemical sector has seen billions of dollars in investment in recent years, thanks to the abundance of shale gas as feedstock and demand for ethane, a key component of plastic. More than 300 new facilities are planned for construction in the US. This has to stop: "This dirty industry disproportionately fouls the air and water of poor communities and communities of color."

petrochemical facility in Louisiana
Vapor rises from a flare stack and chimneys in Louisiana, US. Getty Images/Bloomberg Creative

3. Make corporate polluters pay and reject false solutions.

It's time to hold companies accountable for the waste they produce and put an end to voluntary measures that distract from the real scale of the problem. Setting minimum recycled content standards for containers is one place to start, as well as imposing tariffs on imported single-use plastics.

4. Advance environmental justice in petrochemical corridors.

Communities in regions where new and expanded plastics facilities are being built are at risk, and they need more help than ever. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) could be a powerful advocate for their wellbeing.

5. Update federal regulations to curtail pollution from plastics facilities using best available technology.

Standards are out of date when it comes to permitting plastics facilities to operate. The government must tighten regulations, consider listing plastic as hazardous waste, and start paying closer attention to microplastics in water.

6. Stop subsidizing plastics producers.

"For too long, the United States has subsidized the fossil fuel industry. It's time to stop the flow of financing to the petrochemical industry and the oil and gas industry that supplies its feedstocks.

7. Join international efforts to address global plastic pollution.

For too long the US has refused to join forces with other countries fighting this crisis, but now it's time to "become a proactive partner with key allies to address the global plastic crisis by targeting production, consumption, and disposal."

8. Reduce and mitigate impact of lost fishing gear.

Lost fishing gear, also known as ghost nets, is a huge source of ocean plastic pollution. It changes marine environments, entangles animals, degrades into microplastics, poses navigational hazards, and more. Better monitoring and retrieval efforts are desperately needed.

These actions represent a significant departure from the status quo, but the group is optimistic that the time is right. Prufer continued, "President Biden’s executive actions on climate change and environmental justice recognize the dangers posed by the petrochemical industry and its pollution. These seem like positive signals and we’re hopeful that the administration is committed and ready to take bold actions on the plastic pollution crisis soon."

Readers can sign this petition urging President Biden to take action on plastic. More information is available on the #PlasticFreePresident website

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