When I became a climate activist more than a decade ago, focusing on single use plastics seemed like a great way to introduce people to climate action. The fact that each of us make decisions every day that impact our plastic consumption made single use plastics a relatable topic to start the conversation about reducing our carbon footprint.
Since then, plastic has become its own crisis — contributing to climate change and creating seemingly endless and destructive waste. Made from fossil fuels, plastic is durable enough to last for hundreds of years, yet more than half of all the plastic we produce is used only once and discarded within a few minutes. Since 2000, more single use plastic has been manufactured than in the entire previous century. Despite some progress to stem the tide in the past several years, we are experiencing a number of setbacks: with the demand for oil at an all-time low, the industry is keen to expand plastics production while the coronavirus pandemic has increased our use of disposable products. To make matters worse, a new study shows that microplastics are now in the air we breathe.
During the pandemic, we have taken solace in the evidence that nature has been given a break from human activity — we marveled at photos of wildlife reclaiming Yosemite and other national parks. Unfortunately, a recent study published in the journal Science shattered this illusion of a planet healing itself with a shocking discovery: after collecting rainwater and air samples for 14 months, scientists calculated that over 1,000 metric tons of microplastic particles — the equivalent of 120 million plastic bottles — are falling onto our western U.S. national parks each year. Although these parks only represent six percent of our country’s total area, and scientists have yet to study how heavily populated areas are being affected, the writing seems to be on the wall.
While plastic dust floats around indiscriminately, plastic production and disposal facilities are located primarily in underserved communities of color. Plastic manufacturing emits dioxins, acid gases, and heavy metals, creating toxic pollution that most affects those who live near these factories. In a predominantly Black neighborhood in Louisiana coined “Cancer Alley” due to its plethora of refineries spewing cancer-causing fumes, an effort is underway to stop new plastic plants from being built. The Story of Plastic features interviews with activists in Houston where incidences of asthma and other respiratory diseases are impacting frontline communities. I have seen the film, and while it’s rather gut-wrenching, it provides an excellent overview of the global plastic crisis and how it is exacerbated by social and racial inequities. Those who do not live near a production or disposal facility have exported the human cost of plastic on to others, and are in a way complicit in the social and environmental impact.
No matter where you live, you are consuming plastic — literally. A 2019 study found that the average person ingests five grams of plastic per week, almost equivalent to the weight of a credit card. These microplastics primarily come from — but are not limited to — seafood, beer, bottled water and salt. While we do not yet know the impact of extensive plastic exposure, studies are underway to assess the health risks given this ingestion rate.
In light of the negative impacts of plastic, is the fossil fuel industry taking steps to increase producer responsibility and decrease waste? No, quite the opposite: they view plastic as a growth industry. Fossil fuels have been losing market share for several years as renewables come online and electric vehicles impact petroleum sales; producing plastics is a way to continue selling that petroleum. Currently, plastic only represents about eight percent of oil use, but the industry is investing in new and expanded facilities in an effort to increase production by roughly 50 percent in the next decade – a trajectory that would TRIPLE plastic exports by 2030.
When the pandemic struck, the fossil fuel industry capitalized on consumers’ fear, positioning single use plastic as the “safe” alternative to reusable products. In response, Greenpeace produced a white paper exposing the industry’s non-science-based misinformation campaign to exploit COVID-19 as a way to increase plastic production. Health experts from all over the world recently released a statement claiming that reusables can be used safely by employing basic hygiene, providing another boost of confidence for the resumption of reusable items.
In April, Governor Newsom suspended California’s 2016 bag reduction law — which CEC and a statewide coalition advocated to pass — for 60 days as a pandemic precautionary measure. During that time, an estimated ONE BILLION additional plastic bags were distributed in our state. The suspension expired on June 22 and thankfully, Governor Newsom did not renew it. Unlike the state, the City of Santa Barbara decided to keep its plastic bag reduction law in place, instead issuing a city-wide proclamation to suspend the ten cent fee for paper and thick plastic bags. This suspension is still in effect for stores inside of the city limits, however, stores beyond Santa Barbara can resume the ten cent fee. No stores on the Central Coast should be distributing thin plastic bags, which are already banned under the state’s bag reduction law. Please feel free to share this information where you shop. Reusable bags are not disallowed by any of these temporary changes in regulations. If your favorite stores are still not allowing reusable bags, consider asking the cashier to put your items back in the cart for you to self-bag. When you resume dining at restaurants, mention that you prefer to eat from real dishes with metal cutlery. A recent article in Grist provides a wide range of data that shows reusable items are at least as safe if not safer than disposables — with the added benefit of decreasing plastic pollution.
What else can a conscious consumer do? Fortunately, there are more plastic free options for everyday products than ever before. For example, I have switched to bar shampoo, household cleaning products in tablet form (just add water!), and bamboo toothbrushes.
As individuals, making even one decision a day to #ditchplastic has a positive, tangible impact on the climate crisis: one less plastic bag, bottle, or container that goes to the landfill or ends up in the ocean. As a species, we have a challenging road ahead, but our collective actions can push the pendulum in favor of climate resilience. Let’s work together to reduce our carbon footprint and fight back against the plastic crisis, one bottle at a time.
CEC invites you to join us for Plastic Free July, an annual opportunity to come together and reaffirm our commitment to reusable products. There are many ways to engage — attend one of our webinars, take the Plastic Free Pledge and follow us on Facebook,Twitter and Instagram for plastic reduction ideas and additional resources. Learn more at https://www.cecsb.org/plastic-free-july/.
Kathi King is the Outreach and Education Director at CEC and plays a key role in organizing CEC’s Santa Barbara Earth Day Festival. Kathi manages CEC’s Ditch Plastic program including the successful Rethink the Drink bottled water reduction program in area schools. She is on the board of the Montecito Association and is on the Santa Barbara School District’s Sustainability Sub-Committee.