The Solution to the Plastic Problem?

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Tired of feeling guilty about all the things you can’t recycle? Maybe it’s time to take a different approach to the plastic problem…

We’ve been struggling with our plastic waste problem as a modern society for years now, but the Covid-19 pandemic has only compounded the problem, as we have experienced increased consumption of packaged products and a reminder of the limitations of recycling systems.

This problem, however, is ultimately more and more frustrating to consumers, as we are continuously sold non-recyclable products and then blamed for not recycling them effectively. Rather than struggle to find ways to recycle items that are not commonly accepted by municipal recycling programs (everything from plastic bags and plastic wrap, plastic-lined paper takeout boxes, styrofoam cups and peanuts and meat trays, bubble wrap, and sealed air pouches, to freezer bags and bottle caps), and continue to feel guilty about the things we have to throw away, why not actually address the problem at the source, and demand responsibility from the companies that are producing and selling us these items?

This concept is called Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR), and it is gathering steam in some countries. With this approach, corporations are held accountable for the proper disposal of their packaging. Such a system would impose fees based on the recyclability of the materials used, incentivizing companies to design more recyclable packaging.

Several U.S. states, including New York, Massachusetts, Maine, and Washington, are currently considering EPR legislation. At the federal level, the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act has been proposed, which aims to establish a nationwide 10-cent deposit on all containers, require producers to manage recycling programs, ban non-recyclable plastic products, and invest in recycling infrastructure.

EPR is lauded as a comprehensive and effective solution compared to piecemeal bans on specific items (i.e. straws, plastic bags, etc.)

According to this article, the U.S. is one of the only developed countries without federal EPR legislation.

So what can you do about it? Here are a few tips:

Start local. Look up who is in charge of your local recycling system, and send them information on this type of legislation. Your city is probably paying through the nose for waste collection and disposal, and might be open to a solution that can save money…

Then, look up whether there is an effort underway in your state that you can join. If not, which state-level political or environmental advocacy organization would be most able to take this on? Let them know this should be one of their priorities this year.

Finally, the federal Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act is not likely to pass through Congress in this tumultuous year. But you can set it up for success by letting both your representative and people campaigning for election know that this is an issue you care about and would like to see get attention.

We can all do our part as individuals to reduce plastic waste by looking for plastic-free packaging whenever possible and supporting brands that offer these options, but EPR offers a big step towards a more sustainable waste management system that will benefit both consumers and the planet in the long term.

While it won’t happen overnight, by working together and putting pressure on our elected representatives, we can encourage a shift towards a more holistic approach to the plastic waste crisis.


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