Rethinking our reliance on single-use plastics

This article, by Travis Wagner of the University of Southern Maine, was originally published on the Bangor Daily News opinion page on April 9, 2019.

A plastic shopping bag sits stuck in a thorny bush by the side of Route 1 in Ellsworth on Feb. 12, 2019. Bill Trotter|BDN

Plastics are an essential material to our modern society. They have a wide range of unique and useful properties including resistance to heat, chemicals and light; they are strong, durable and lightweight; and most importantly, they are inexpensive. But our devotion to single-use plastics with short-term benefits comes with long-term environmental costs. There are state and local efforts in Maine that seek to create a new norm where single-use plastics are not the automatic default choice. These efforts need our support.

At 150 pounds per person per year, the U.S. is the world’s largest per capita consumer of plastic. While plastics are recyclable, we fail to recycle most of our plastic: only 9 percent of our plastics are recycled. The rest is burned, buried or thrown away.

The recycling figure is dismal because of the low cost of virgin plastics, low cost of landfilling compared to recycling and contamination of plastic waste. The recycling rate of single-use plastics is even lower because they have low market value, are often contaminated with food and are extremely expensive to remove and segregate from commingled recycling collected curbside, which is why Maine’s recycling facilities do not want these wastes.

The Collins Dictionary’s 2018 word of the year was “ single-use.” Single-use plastics symbolize society’s disconnect between behavior and environmental impact. We are fouling our own nest. Of the items collected during the international coastal clean-up event, plastics accounted for eight of the top 10. There is the continuous buildup of plastics in the five ocean garbage patches, and we are finding microplastics in Maine shellfish.

These cheap, plastic consumer products are designed to be used once then thrown away. The useful life of single-use plastic strawsshopping bags and foam containers are measured in minutes, but as waste and litter, their life expectancy is hundreds to thousands of years.

Not counting tourists, each year Mainers use some 425 million plastic shopping bags257 million foam food containers and 259 million plastic straws. This does not include single-use plastic food packaging and wrappers, produce bags, water bottles, coffee lids, stirrers, bottle caps and other single-use consumer products.

How did we become so reliant on single-use plastics? They became the default choice. Customers became accustomed to automatically receiving free and seemingly endless supplies of single-use plastics, especially shopping bags, without having to request them. Overriding this default is not easy, but doable.

Back in 1989, Maine sought to flip the default choice of plastic shopping bags to paper bags. Retailers were required to provide only paper shopping bags at checkout unless customers specifically requested plastic bags. The law was highly successful in reducing plastic bags. There was a decrease of 267 million plastic bags, but there was a corresponding increase of 254 million paper bags consumed, which presented different environmental impacts.

The law was subsequently repealed due in part to increased costs to retailers, but it demonstrated the power of altering the default choice. However, the ultimate goal in sustainable materials management is to reduce the amount of waste generated not simply switching the materials consumed.

Globally, and especially in Maine, governments, organizations and private businesses are adopting policies to reduce our reliance on single-use plastics, especially shopping bags, straws, foam food serviceware and foam food packaging.

Currently, 21 municipalities in Maine have levied a fee or banned single-use plastic shopping bags and 16 municipalities have banned the use of polystyrene food containers, packaging or both. Other states and municipalities in the U.S. have tackled plastic straws.

Collectively, these approaches have been highly successful in promoting a new norm in which single-use plastics are not “free” nor are they the automatic default choice. The benefits are lower costs to municipal solid waste management budgets and a cleaner environment.

You can support your local municipality’s efforts in reducing single-use plastics and support LD 289 (statewide ban on single-use polystyrene foam food containers) and LD 1431 (requiring producers of packaging to assist Maine municipalities in managing and financing packaging waste recycling).

Travis P. Wagner is a professor of environmental science and policy at the University of Southern Maine in Portland. This column reflects his views and expertise and does not speak on behalf of the university. He is a member of the Maine chapter of the national Scholars Strategy Network, which brings together scholars across the country to address public challenges and their policy implications. Members’ columns appear in the BDN every other week.

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