For decades, the plastic industry has profited from plastic pollution, fueling our dependence on plastic, and misleading us into thinking we can recycle away the problem. In February of this year, the United Nations agreed to finalize a plastic pollution treaty by 2024 to address the growing problem of plastic pollution. Despite the agreement, the pathway of how to get there is unclear, and is also what some consider a minefield, because plastics producers and environmentalists have different motives.
While plastic might not be at the forefront of everyone’s minds when they think of addressing the climate crisis, plastic pollution has made its way into our water, soil and our landfills. In fact, by 2050 the plastics industry could account for 20% of all oil consumption in the United States alone. Since 2010, fossil fuel companies like Exxon and Shell have spent more than $180 billion in new facilities to make plastic. These facilities will increase plastic production by 40% in the next few years.
The Pandemic Has Accelerated Plastic Pollution
During the pandemic, two decades of progress that our City had made on reducing plastic pollution has been significantly pushed back. The shelter-in-place order saw more consumers ordering items for delivery wrapped in plastic shipping packages, more single-use plastic utensils and other food service items for delivery orders, and a shift back to plastic grocery bags. Meanwhile, we also continue to increase our consumption of food and beverage wrapped in all types of plastics. In a report released from Oceana, we learned that Amazon increased its plastic waste by 29% in 2020.
This is why I held a public hearing on the impact of plastic pollution on our City’s budget and environment. What we have found is that annually there are more than 15,000 tons of plastic collected in our waste stream, but according to Recology, we can expect much more plastic and plastic wrapped items imported and distributed in San Francisco every year. Almost all of these plastics cannot be recycled and have no redeeming value, especially due to food and other types of contamination.
Holding Corporate Polluters Accountable
We know we cannot recycle our way out of our plastic pollution problem, so I am exploring every legislative tool available to me, including a possible tax measure to make corporations who profit from plastic pollution pay their fair share, a ban on plastic shipping materials, and potentially filing lawsuits against bad actors that insist their materials are recyclable, when they are in fact being sent to the landfill or finding their way into our water streams. For far too long, disadvantaged and low-income communities have disproportionately suffered the detrimental impacts of plastic pollution and fossil fuel extraction. It is time to hold corporate polluters accountable.
Help Consumers and Businesses Make Better Choices
Most importantly, we have to shift our City to integrate reusable materials in our daily lives. The only way to reduce plastic consumption and pollution is by transitioning to reusable materials altogether. We must dedicate city resources and funding to support our businesses so they can adapt and incorporate reusable materials in the way they operate and provide services. We must educate consumers to make better choices and push for more competitive and sustainable options in the marketplace.
We all can accept the urgency and recognize that the climate crisis is here. We all must act now in order to meet our environmental goals set out in the City’s Climate Action Plan by 2030. I hope you will join me in this fight against plastic pollution and sign up to learn more about what we are doing at bit.ly/plastictaxsf.
This article was published in the Richmond Review in April 2022.