Plastic pollution is a growing threat on par with climate change and an ecological, social, and human health crisis. With the world recognizing the need to move away from fossil fuels, the fossil fuel industry has turned its attention to plastics to make up for dwindling demand, as over 99% of plastics are made from fossil fuels. The petrochemical industry has invested over $190 billion since 2010 to build or expand over 330 new petrochemical facilities, which would put 40% more plastic in commerce by 2027. If current trends continue, plastics will account for 20% of oil consumption by 2050.
Colorado’s Plastic Pollution Reduction Act is Signed into Law
The Plastic Pollution Reduction Act (HB 21-1162) was signed into law by Governor Jared Polis on July 7, 2021. This bill constitutes one of the most comprehensive statewide pieces of legislation that has been passed to tackle the plastic pollution crisis and makes Colorado the first inland state to legislation to phase out single-use plastic products.
Colorado becomes the 10th state legislature to ban single-use plastic shopping bags in certain stores, the eighth to ban Polystyrene food containers, and the first state in the country to reverse municipal preemption (a ban on bans at the city level).
We are thrilled to have worked collaboratively on the passage of this Act along with so many other organizations. This Act will be a huge step forward in protecting Colorado's people, wildlife, waterways, and environment, and we hope other states will follow suit!
What is HB 21-1162?
House Bill 21-1162, also known as the Plastic Pollution Reduction Act, would reduce plastic use in the state of Colorado by prohibiting food establishments from distributing Styrofoam food containers and banning single-use plastic carryout bags by January and September 2022, respectively. The original bill would have striked preemption (a current Colorado state law that prohibits local governments from setting their own bans on plastic), though this portion was stricken in order to keep the bill alive beyond the House Finance Committee. Despite this loss, HB 21-1162 still stands to make a significant difference in Colorado’s plastic use. If passed, the plastic bag ban would take full effect in 2022, at which point customers may purchase recycled paper bags at point of sale for 10 cents, providing incentive to bring reusable bags. Sixty percent of bag fee revenues will be given to the municipality to be used towards initiatives like recycling, composting, or waste diversion programs, as well as related outreach and education.
What’s So Bad About Plastic Anyway?
A plethora of reasons exist to encourage us to use less plastic. To try to name them all would be quite the feat, so let’s start with a few!
“But it’s recyclable!”
It’s no secret that humans love to utilize plastic in a variety of forms. It’s cheap, lightweight, and we can even recycle it once we’re done!…right? Well, not so much. 79% of the plastic that humans have ever created (8.3 billion metric tons) has ended up in our environment, and only 9% has ever been recycled. Contrary to its green image, plastic is extremely difficult and costly to recycle. It degrades during the recycling process and can thus only be recycled a few times. Recycling centers often refuse to accept certain types of plastic, and not many companies want to buy recycled plastic to make into new products because it’s usually more expensive. Plastic bags in particular can cause expensive damage to recycling machinery, and both Styrofoam and plastic bags can contaminate a batch of recycling to the point of the entire unit being thrown away rather than processed.
To make matters worse, our plastic production has skyrocketed from 2 million tons per year in 1950 to over 440 million tons in 2015, with projections anticipating that output will quadruple in the next 30 years. With this explosion of production comes an explosion of waste. Take a moment to think about how you have consumed plastic in the past few days. Was it mainly pieces of packaging material or single-use products thrown out right after you finished with them? This is more than likely: in 2015, 146 metric tons of plastic was made into packaging, and within that same year, 141 million metric tons were discarded. Our use of plastic is largely delegated to items we use up in 5 minutes or less, despite the fact that these items can spend 5 centuries or more in our landfills! Plus, in all that time, plastic never really goes away.
Where does it go then? Over time, plastic breaks down into itsy-bitsy microplastics that mosey their way into our water, soil, and air, where they get consumed by animals and eventually end up in the foods we eat. The average human ingests a credit card’s worth of plastic through food, water and air every single week!
The Plastic Plague
Plastic production, use, and disposal presents a multitude of health risks to humans, including but not limited to links to cancers, birth defects, impaired immunity, endocrine disruption, and developmental and reproductive effects. Contact with plastic products exposes people to the many toxic chemicals added to plastic during production, which can decrease sexual function and fertility and increase occurrences of mutations and cancers. Polystyrene food containers are known to leach carcinogenic toxins into our food, yet we use them any time we want takeout! Despite all of these blatant risks to human health, plastic continues to litter (no pun intended) our everyday routines.
Furthermore, plastic pollution disproportionately impacts Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) communities. Plastic production facilities and disposal sites are more commonly located in BIPOC communities. Increased proximity to such facilities increases exposure to polluted air, soil and water, leading to not only the health risks listed above, but also negative effects on skin, eyes, respiratory, circulatory, reproductive, digestive, neurological and immune systems. The cyclical nature of plastic consumption perpetuated by plastic manufacturers supports the furthering of fracking and its subsequent pollution in BIPOC communities. The end of plastic’s lifecycle treats BIPOC communities no better than the beginning does: the disproportionately-nearby landfills release toxic methane, and the 79% of US incinerators located in such areas release heavy metals like lead and mercury into the air, causing many life-threatening health issues. From cradle to grave, plastic’s lifecycle poses serious and unequal consequences to BIPOC communities.
A Planet of Plastic
Not only does plastic seriously harm human health, it also contributes to climate change and damages our ecosystems. Plastics are primarily produced from petrochemicals, made from fracked oil and natural gas, contributing to large amounts of greenhouse gases. The extraction and transportation of fossil fuels alone adds millions of metric tons of CO2 to the atmosphere every year. The actual refining of plastic is one of the highest greenhouse gas producing industries: 17.5 million metric tons of CO2 produced annually. Even plastic waste produces greenhouse gases, emitting methane as it degrades in the environment. The exorbitant amounts of microplastics that have ended up in our ocean (which, by the way, might outweigh fish by 2050), can even interfere with the ocean’s ability to absorb carbon, weakening one of our greatest carbon sinks. The very existence of plastic is catapulting our planet towards greater climate change.
Even on a local scale, plastic is severely harming our environment: Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park is subjected to almost 10 metric tons of plastic particles deposited by wind and rain each year, the highest average found out of all of the conservation sites measured. Plastic bags pose a threat to cattle and horses that may swallow and choke on them, and they were the largest source of litter in Colorado creek cleanups. Plastics are commonly mistaken for food by numerous animal species, causing obstructions, stomach ruptures and starvation, and may have long-term effects related to reproduction and survival, posing the threat of extinction. Colorado’s history of beautiful nature and wildlife is under attack from plastic pollution, which is why we must act now to combat this issue.
How Can You Help?
Reduce Your Use
Try to buy locally rather than online to avoid ending up with all of that unnecessary packaging waste. Investing in getting your own reusable items, such as reusable bags for shopping or reusable utensils for eating can greatly cut down on your daily plastic footprint. Avoiding those tempting single use items, like straws, stirrers, cups, and plastic forks and knives is a great first step. You can learn more about ending plastic straw use with our Suck the Straws Out Campaign. Whether you are a straw-serving business owner or a straw-using individual, you can take the pledge today and help reduce the 500 million plastic straws consumed daily in the US—which is just the tip of the iceberg of our plastic pollution problem. Even purchasing reusable masks can make a huge difference: disposable masks themselves have become a blight on our planet’s health, with so many ending up in our ocean that experts worry there may soon be more masks than jellyfish in the Mediterranean.
Many are currently following or adapting towards zero waste as a solution to plastic pollution. The goal of zero waste is to create as little garbage as possible, preferably by preventing the existence of waste in the first place. Use of disposable products must be reduced (hopefully to zero), and our other products must be built to last. But zero waste is a much bigger movement than just ditching plastic straws. It aims to end the disparity in locations of pollution-causing facilities, provide dignity to those living off the collection of discarded materials, promote community organizing, and hold plastic producers accountable for the effects their practices have on our environment. See this resource to learn more about Zero Waste with GAIA!
The fight to save our planet from plastic pollution will be arduous, but you can start lending your help today. Every action, from small changes in your daily life to big moments in legislation, is a step towards a healthier future for our planet.