The debate around single-use plastics, no matter the nobility behind this environmental concern, is like a loose screw in the hull of a sinking ship. Sure, it’s a bad problem, but that’s only if the whole situation was not already so devastating.
As an Irish exchange student new to UT, I was surprised by the affordability and convenience of single-use plastics; picking up free disposable bags in Target caught me completely off guard. Back home, consumers in Europe are expected to pay a tax on such waste.
But despite my good habits in Ireland, I found myself hoarding more plastic in my few days on American soil than I ever had in Ireland. Although I was raised and taught to care for the environment, I accrued more than half a dozen plastic bags in the span of two weeks.
Routinely, I would leave plastic bags in my apartment knowing that I could easily pick up another at the store’s checkout. Why be ecologically conscious when businesses subsidize your lazy choices?
In my shock, I wanted to write this article exploring America’s overreliance on single-use plastics. To understand the issue on a grand scale, it was necessary to compare within and outside the United States border to examine the most optimal solutions in caring for the environment.
I hope, to some extent, that this article may shed some light on how America can best move forward in becoming a more sustainable nation.
Disposable Plastics – Defining the Problem
To start, we must consider why single-use plastics are such a problem.
Disposable plastics are notorious for taking hundreds of years to decompose while damaging the environment and harming marine wildlife in the process. For example, a plastic utensil from your typical food service provider will take up to 1,000 years to decompose. A disposable bag takes just as long, despite being used by consumers for an average of 12 minutes.
Plastic waste also suffocates the beauty of marine life, making up 80 percent of “all marine debris found from surface waters to deep-sea sediments,” according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
Birds, fish, turtles, and other animals are endangered by plastic when it degrades into smaller particles, causing injury, choking, and starvation. Every year, over 1 million animals die in the water from plastic waste.
Put simply, single-use plastic harms the world.
America: World Leader in Waste
While America has admirably decreased its carbon emissions by 1 percent a year, the U.S. has found itself taking two steps back for every environmental step forward, having the dubious honor of producing the most plastic waste out of any other country in the world.
Custom to the American lifestyle, people are wasteful with their single-use plastics. According to the New York Times, the average American “uses and throws away 110 pounds” of disposable plastic every year.
Even when measuring waste per capita consumption, the only other countries to compete at this scale in recent years were Australia and the United Kingdom, both of which have already begun to phase out disposable plastics entirely.
Environmental Protection Agency data shows the U.S. generated over 35 million tons of plastic waste in 2018. For context, the U.S. makes up approximately 4 percent of the world’s population, but produces 13 percent of the world’s plastic waste.
Just 30 years ago, the U.S. was producing less than half the plastic waste it is today. Its colossal manufacturing industry for disposable plastic makes America the world’s third biggest exporter, making more than $7 billion in 2018.
Recyclability is one of the biggest concerns for America. Despite the large quantity of plastic it produces, a mere 5 percent of that waste is actually recycled, a decrease of 2-3 percent over recent years. Compared to the European Union’s recyclability rate of 41.5 percent and China’s 30 percent, the U.S. is lagging behind considerably.
Why America? – Deregulation, Conflict of Interests, and Materialism
With a country as vast as America, it’s easy for a problem to spread like wildfire, while solving it can be a daunting task. So, what factors could have contributed to the unsettling rise of single-use plastics?
In terms of policy, the U.S. federal government has little say on the issue, with the states having more authority in governing plastic production and waste management. However, the states’ influence can be easily undermined when people and businesses can pay for out-of-state services that circumvent environmentally friendly practices.
Visual Capitalist writer Bruno Venditti discussed this problem in the case of Michigan: “The availability of cheap landfill space in Michigan attracts trucked-in garbage from out of state and even from Canada.
“That’s because, under the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution, waste is considered a commodity, and states and counties cannot restrict its import or export from other states or even other countries.”
Another factor for the increase of single-use plastics is lobbying and conflicts of interests. America is host to some of the world’s worst polluting companies for plastic waste, making it plausible to incentivize politicians into opposing environmental policies that would increase manufacturing costs.
Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, and Nestle are all American-based companies that were identified as the world’s biggest plastic polluters for the third consecutive year in 2020. The findings come from an international study documenting more than 350,000 pieces of plastic waste found in communities.
Spending millions against policies that would make them liable for plastic waste production, Coca-Cola allocates the bare minimum to sustainability while propping itself up as a company doing its part against climate change. Politics once again becomes a battleground between environmental practices and financial incentives.
The last factor worth addressing is American consumerism. A dramatic rise in plastic production can only be explained by a continued demand for it, causing a vicious cycle to the detriment of the natural world.
From 1990 to 2021,the same period in which plastic production more than doubled, inflation-adjusted quantities of consumption per capita increased in every category except education, based on statistics from the Bureau of Economic Analysis’ consumer spending accounts.
This rise has led some to believe that the 3Rs – Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle – needs an additional R – Refuse. In an article for Medium, Alison Jones, coordinator for Clean Ocean Action explains how refusing to use disposable plastic is “the foundation of the systemic change necessary to shift society towards choosing not to buy and use single-use plastic and instead opt for reusable alternatives.”
These three problems, while not addressing all the reasons for America’s high levels of plastic waste, provides a backdrop as to the current state of U.S. affairs.
So, with the diagnosis out of the way, it is time to heed the work of America’s allies and recognise ways it can reduce its dependency on single-use plastics.
Global Movements to Sustainability
Fortunately for the U.S., it has found itself in a strong current of progress where other Western nations have made great strides in leading sustainable practices. Their solutions provide fascinating guidance on how government policy can shape a better future for the environment.
Most notable has been the European Union, which has been incredibly proactive and vast in its action toward limiting the amount of waste produced by its member states. A directive from 2019 requires countries in the EU to reduce their consumption of disposable plastics, including a mandate demanding water bottles to be at least 25 percent recyclable.
Bans on cotton buds, plates, straws and other products made from disposable plastic have also been enforced in EU markets. Canada and England have followed suit, prohibiting similar items.
This type of policy, which places the burden of recycling material on manufacturers and distributors, is one of the many reasons that Germany has the highest recycling rate in the world. The U.K.’s Plastic Packaging Tax charges companies that produce plastic that is less than 30 percent recyclable. In my home country of Ireland, disposable bags come with a levy of 22 cents, a policy first adopted over 20 years ago.
Elsewhere, South Korea’s government has invested in smart waste management systems, making it one of the world’s best. Accompanied with its culture of responsibility, citizens are educated to recycle properly and fulfill their role as stewards of the environment.
Steps Forward for the States
With all of this said, it’s not always necessary to look outside the American border and check if the grass is greener. The U.S.’ system of federalism already empowers its states to take their own measures, inspiring others with innovative solutions.
Bottle bills, high disposal costs, and curbside recycling infrastructure are some of the most popular features among America’s best states for recycling. If other states followed their lead and implemented similar policies, the U.S. could become a powerhouse for recycling measures.
Acting as a type of deposit, a “bottle bill” places a levy on recyclable beverage containers. Once purchased and consumed, a customer can return their bottle and receive their deposit back. Through this system, people are encouraged to recycle unless they want to miss out on a few cents and pollute the environment.
High landfill costs are another effective means of waste reduction. As I witnessed first-hand in the states with plastic bags, the cheaper something is, the more it will be availed of. Thus, the bells are rung for government intervention to deter this kind of harmful activity to the environment. That is why 8 of the 10 best recycling states have some of the highest landfill costs per ton.
The state of Oregon, like Germany, has implemented policies that make manufacturers pay for disposing the products they produce, swaying them more towards using recyclable material in the manufacturing process.
In 2016, California took the first step when it passed a state-wide ban on single-use plastic bags at major stores. However, this measure did receive backlash at the time, since the promoted alternative of cotton bags requires thousands of uses to negate its environmental footprint.
Fortunately now, nonwoven polypropylene and paper bags are now the frontrunner for eco-friendly products.
Regarding infrastructure, states that spend wisely in curbside collections foster a recycling attitude in local communities. Ball Corporation, an aerospace company dedicated to sustainable packaging, found that this type of infrastructure is“crucial to effective recycling systems”.
Together, these practices already prevalent on American soil provide a framework for other states to build from. It goes without saying that government policy must be prudent when trying to balance environmental concerns with that of the economy. But nevertheless, the aforementioned solutions are instrumental to helping America become a more sustainable nation.
A Final Word
Although this article may seem hyper-critical of the United States, it is only out of my love for this country and her environment that I do so. For a nation abundant in passion, beauty, and charity, there is no greater cause for her than that of stewardship for her surroundings.
To achieve this, other countries have shown America promising signs. By requiring manufacturers to source material with greater recyclability, this can kickstart more eco-friendly practices in the economy as it did in Germany and the United Kingdom.
Other measures, such as disposable plastic bans, could be implemented, but careful attention must be given to provide sustainable alternatives. We cannot expect people to be environmentally friendly en masse unless there are convenient means to do so.
Existing solutions within the U.S. like “bottle bills”, recyclable material quotas, and greater investment towards infrastructure, all provide a useful path forward for America in joining its Western allies at reducing disposable plastics.
But all of this must be done at the state level, thus paving the way for a collective effort across the country.
Only then, can America continue her venture on being a superpower for the greater good.