by Brooke Lappe
Single use plastics are the most commonly thrown away plastic items, and include straws, utensils, bottles, and grocery bags. Chemically, single use plastics last forever but are generally designed to be used only once and thrown away. Of the more than 300 million tons of plastic produced per year, 50% is designed for single use. Almost all commonly used plastic is not biodegradable, and only 2% of plastic waste is recycled. Additionally, recycling cannot keep up with the increase in plastic production which is predicted to quadruple by 2050. An estimated 17.6 billion pounds of plastic leaks into the marine environment from land-based sources every year. This waste ends up in our landfills, parks, streets, and can wash into rivers and oceans where it can harm wildlife. These plastics never go away, but generally breakdown into smaller and smaller pieces known as microplastics and work their way into the food chain through fish and then eventually into us.
Why is this a problem?
Plastics have caused worsening problems in the global marine environment since the 1970s. Single use plastic items are made of fossil fuels and synthetic chemicals, so they contribute to climate change. They put marine life at risk, who can mistakenly consume plastic which can lead to starvation, suffocation, laceration, infection, and reduced reproductive success and mortality. As a coastal state, Georgia relies on its rivers and oceans for tourism and commercial fishing. Marine and coastal organisms rely on the water for habitat. In 2017, all of the top ten items found in trash cleanups were single use plastic items.
Microplastics not only threaten ecosystems but affect humans as well. Emerging research shows humans inhale microplastic through the air and consume microplastics through seafood, and processed food and beverages. These plastics contain chemicals that impact humans reproductive, endocrine, and nervous systems when consumed.
Consumers can make their voice heard to representatives and lead by example by limiting plastic use, recycling their plastic, and choosing companies that are reducing or eliminating single-use plastics.
Companies can adopt alternatives to single-use plastics, following the lead of companies such as Walmart that is banning plastic bags in certain states starting July 1st, 2021.
Governments can enact legislation to encourage the use of compostable, biodegradable, reusable, or recyclable alternatives.
Encouragement can range from:
- Charging a single-use fee of 10 cents per item.
- Offering discounts on products in acceptable packaging or for the use of reusable bags or containers.
- Banning all single-use plastics.
Studies have shown that charging for plastic bags, via a tax or fee, was the most effective measure to decrease plastic usage, and that very small financial incentives (5 to 7 cents) can lead to behavioral changes. Ban-only legislation can have diminished results depending on the city.
Alternative products range from cost neutral to $0.06/unit in additional cost, depending on the alternatives being selected. Violations can be fined $50-250 per violation, after a warning with no violation charge.
Facts & Analysis
The city of Clarkston passed a resolution to implement the “Acceptable Packaging and Products” ordinance, that serves to eliminate the use of polystyrene/plastic foam and single-use plastic products and other non-locally recyclable and non-property compostable food packaging. This was to protect the wildlife of its surrounding river sheds, and downstream waterways, and maximize the operating life of landfills and lessen the economic and environmental costs of managing waste.
However, only 30% of recyclable products are recycled. And an increased demand for commercially compostable products will encourage supply of composting infrastructure. In addition, increased awareness on composting will help divert more compostable products from landfills to commercial compost facilities
However, this claim does not take the product’s full lifecycle into consideration. Unlike plastics, petroleum is not a core ingredient for paper products, and if compostable products are properly disposed, they contribute to carbon sequestration through composting and soil nutrient cycling.
However, the Center for Disability rights supports the ban and advises environmental groups and ADA advocates to have a conversation to come up with viable solutions. They emphasize that “the focus must shift from banning straws to pressuring the manufacturers and corporations to create an environmentally and disability-friendly alternative.”
- ASTMD6400 standard specification: This is a standard specification for compostability used by most ordinances for determining “approved” alternatives to single-use plastics. Conducted by the American Society for Testing and Materials, (ASTM) certified products undergo a third-party test to determine if they can be aerobically composted in municipal or industrial facilities.
- BPI: The Biodegradable Products Institute is North America’s leading certifier of compostable products and packaging.
- Composting: A foundation of fertilization and food production, composting is the process of breaking down organic material – such as food scraps, leaves, and compostable products – into “compost,” a nutrient-dense fertilizer. The key ingredients for composting are oxygen, carbon, nitrogen, and heat. Composting has a variety of benefits, including sequestering carbon dioxide, replacing toxic chemical fertilizers in food production, and diverting up to 30% of the trash we currently send to landfills and incinerators in the United States.
- Compostable: means a product will break down into, or otherwise become part of, usable compost in a safe and timely manner in an appropriate composting facility or a home compost pile or device. The product has been certified as compostable by Biodegradable Products Institute (BPI) or American Society for Testing and Material (ASTM D6400), or similar national or international certification authority.
- Compostable Bag: refers to a bag that meets the current ASTM D6400
for compostability. Compostable food service ware also must meet ASTM-Standards
for compostability, and any bio-plastic or plastic-like product must be clearly labeled, preferably with a color symbol, to allow proper identification such that the collector and processor can easily distinguish the ASTM standard compostable plastic from non-ASTM standard compostable plastic.
- Postconsumer recycled material (PCR): a material that would otherwise be destined for solid waste disposal, having completed its intended end use and product life cycle. PCR content is often mandated for paper bags used by vendors in districts with single-use plastic bans.
- Reusable bags: typically defined as an alternative carryout bag that is specifically designed and manufactured for multiple reuses and meets all the following requirement:
- A minimum lifetime of 125 uses, the capacity of 22 pounds over 175 feet
- Machine washable material that can be cleaned or disinfected
- Made of film plastic and is a minimum of at least 2.25 mils thick.
Share this information with your legislator to urge action on single use plastics in Georgia. Download the handout below.
Learn more about the science of plastic recycling.