- Environmental Health -

The Last Straw

Americans are the biggest offenders when it comes to single-use plastics, but efforts to ban the packaging are on the rise.

Hand holding plastic cup on beach

Much of what we buy — food, bottled water, and many other products — is either packaged in or made of plastic that we discard after a single use. This waste accounts for nearly half of all plastic waste worldwide.

Americans are the biggest offenders, generating the most per capita — an average of some 200 pounds per person annually, according to the EPA. These plastics include, in order of greatest magnitude, cigarette butts, drinking bottles, bottle caps, food wrappers, grocery bags, lids, straws, stirrers, and Styrofoam takeout containers.

We recycle only 9 percent of this plastic waste; the remainder is packing our landfills, littering the environment — and harming our health. Styrofoam takeout containers, for example, contain styrene and benzene, proven toxins and carcinogens.

Efforts to ban single-use plastic packaging are on the rise, though many are struggling to keep pace with the problem, often because of industry lobbying. New York City, for instance, banned Styrofoam containers in 2015, only to be sued by a coalition of plastic manufacturers and recycling firms. The law was overturned but, after a long legal battle, reinstated in 2017.

A 2018 United Nations report, Single-Use Plastics: A Roadmap for Sustainability, makes the case for curtailing plastic use and highlights the status of bans:

  • More than 60 countries have introduced some sort of ban or levy to curb plastic waste.
  • Africa leads the way with 25 countries prohibiting plastic-bag production and use.
  • The European Parliament in 2019 passed a measure banning single-use plastic, including cotton swabs, cutlery, plates, straws, drink stirrers, and even balloon sticks. The ban is scheduled to go into effect by 2021.
  • California banned plastic bags in 2016; New York and Delaware proscribed them in 2019. Several cities — including Austin, San Francisco, and Montreal — have also approved bans. (Meanwhile, Michigan enacted a law in 2017 banning such bans; Arizona, Idaho, and Missouri have enacted similar embargoes.)
  • Political action often is most effective at local levels: Every county in Hawaii, for instance, now prohibits single-use bags, effectively creating a statewide ban.

This originally appeared as “The Last Straw: Banning Single-Use Plastics” in the October 2019 print issue of Experience Life.

is an Experience Life deputy editor.

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