I’m one of many Baltimoreans struggling to combat the plastic pollution crisis through my everyday actions, and, I’d like to say on our collective behalf: We’re beyond frustrated. No matter how hard we try, it is impossible to avoid single-use plastic.
Take food delivery services, for example. At least one of the apps primarily used for restaurant delivery in Baltimore has a default for all orders: no plastic utensils included. If customers want plastic cutlery, they have to check a box. I was thrilled that this national company had done something that could prevent countless single-use plastic items from polluting our environment. Yet, 95% of the time I order, restaurants still throw in a plastic fork, knife and spoon that will likely exist for centuries even though I didn’t need it. You’ve probably had a similar experience if you’ve ever asked for no straw at a restaurant.
The point is, consumers want change, but we can only do so much. It’s not even enough for national food delivery apps to limit single-use plastic. What we need is policy change — now.
And I’m not talking about policies that prioritize recycling and recycled plastic. Despite the plastics industry convincing consumers for decades that plastic pollution would disappear if they just recycled more effectively, the truth is in the numbers. Only 9% of all the plastic waste ever generated has been recycled, and much of our plastic isn’t recyclable anyway.
Even with improvements to the system, recycling will never be able to keep up with plastic production, which is expected to quadruple between 2014 and 2050. To put it into perspective: Recycling is like trying to mop water from an overflowing bathtub while the faucet is still running. We need to turn off the faucet and reduce the production of single-use plastic.
Local, state and federal policies are essential to ensure companies cut back on unnecessary single-use plastic altogether and start shifting toward reusable and refillable alternatives. Baltimore’s plastic bag ban that was recently pushed back, yet again, is an important step forward, but it’s going to take more comprehensive policies to reverse this crisis. Regulating single-use plastics is a critical starting point.
Single-use plastics are flawed by design: They use a material made to last forever but are designed to be thrown away, and are sometimes only used for a few moments before polluting the Earth for years to come. Today, nearly 40% of the plastic produced annually is for single-use plastics and packaging, and unsurprisingly that’s what we’re seeing on our beaches too. The top 10 most common waste items found in worldwide coastal cleanups are single-use plastic products, including food wrappers, beverage bottles, straws, stirrers, grocery bags and takeout containers.
Roughly 33 billion pounds of plastic enter the ocean every year — that’s like dumping two garbage trucks full of plastic into the oceans every minute. About 900 marine species, including many endangered species, are affected by it. We’re seeing this right here in the Chesapeake Bay. The EPA just released a risk assessment showing microplastics could be a threat to striped bass — one of the bay’s most iconic fish — as well as the people who eat them.
Thankfully, federal lawmakers have outlined a plan. The Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act would phase out unnecessary single-use plastic, put a pause on new plastics facilities, protect the low-income minority communities being most affected by plastic’s pollution, and more.
Baltimore federal elected officials Sen. Chris Van Hollen and Reps. Dutch Ruppersberger and John Sarbanes have already co-sponsored this important legislation, but Sen. Ben Cardin and Rep. Kweisi Mfume have yet to sign on. We’re at a pivotal point in our planet’s history. Let’s stop relying on inadequate solutions and urge our elected officials to effectively combat this environmental crisis before it’s too late.
Melissa Valliant (firstname.lastname@example.org) is senior communications manager for Oceana.