JOURNAL NEWS 03/21/17
By Michael Shank
America has a dangerous addiction to plastic. If recent trends in New York State are any indication, it’s not going away anytime soon, thanks to multi-million-dollar lobbying by the plastics industry. The recent showdown over plastic bag fees in Albany shows the unwillingness of even climate-committed states like New York to curb plastic consumption.
New York State had been on the front lines of state-based climate action. But in shutting down New York City’s attempt to curtail consumption of single-use plastic bags and institute a simple 5-cent fee, legislators in Albany showed a clear unwillingness to lead on sustainability. New York’s consumption of plastics continues unabated, using 10 billion single-use plastic bags and 1 billion plastic bottles every year. This can’t continue.
Plastics prevention has often been framed as a waste issue, couched as preventing plastics from ending up in our waterways. When Washington, D.C., instituted a 5-cent fee on plastic bags, the monies went to cleaning up the city’s Anacostia River. The fee was effective. In less than five years, plastic bag consumption in the nation’s capital dropped by 50 percent. This was a major flaw in New York City’s bag fee. It generated no revenue for the cleanup of the Hudson River. The monies, instead, went to the businesses instituting the fee.
There is no question that plastic waste is a huge problem, as University of Miami researchers indicated in a recent study that shows the realities of our oceans’ garbage patches. In 2050, our oceans will have more plastic than fish, as 8 million tons of new plastic end up in our seas annually. This puts our marine food system, which is a major source of protein for many developing nations, at serious risk. But even before fish become toxic and untenable as a food source, there is an equally concerning issue: the oil and carbon dependency of these plastics.
The carbon footprint is formidable. Twelve million barrels of oil are needed to produce 30 billion plastic bags in the U.S. Add another 17 million barrels of oil to produce America’s plastic bottles. When you factor in the full life cycle – which includes sealing, labeling, refrigerating and transporting – the energy footprint is even greater. The production of plastics now accounts for 6 to 8 percent of global oil consumption.
The water footprint is equally problematic: It takes 3 liters of water to produce just 1 liter of bottled water.
Recycling does little to keep this carbon and water footprint in check. Every year, Americans discard an average of 33.6 million tons of plastic, and only a very small portion of that is recycled: 6.5 percent. Another 7.7 percent of American plastic is burned in waste-to-energy plants, some of which exist in Westchester County. Those remaining millions of tons of plastic end up in landfills, where they leak pollutants, or they end up inside our fish, birds, and bodies.
Until a price is put on petroleum, as leading Republicans recommended last month, new plastic will continue to be the cheaper option for business. It’s time for plastic to reflect its true cost to society by putting a price on carbon.
Until then, it’s all about consumer power. This is one carbon emission over which New Yorkers have near complete control. It’s up to us to choose tap water over bottled water. Not only does this lighten our individual carbon footprint, tap water is the healthier and more cost-effective option. Bottled water is far less regulated than tap and up to 2,000 times more expensive.
It’s also up to New Yorkers to put pressure on municipalities and businesses to ban plastic. The public health argument is one of the strongest arguments. Plastics contain toxic chemicals that are harmful when heated, worn or pressured. It’s time to kick these cancer-causing chemicals to the curb. Over 200 municipalities have said they don’t want them in their communities and have banned one-time use plastic containers. It’s time for New York cities to join ranks.
This is the next phase of climate action. Plastics aren’t just a waste problem, they’re a carbon problem. And unlike power plants, energy markets, and smart grids, it’s one New Yorkers can control. It’s time to kick the habit.
The writer, a Peekskill resident, teaches sustainable development at NYU’s Center for Global Affairs.