Earth Law as One of the Solutions to Plastic Pollution

Figure 1 Photo by Brian Yurasits on Unsplash

Figure 1 Photo by Brian Yurasits on Unsplash

By: Grace McGrath

As awareness grows around the world that Nature needs our help, movements have sprung up to solve the environmental issues of today. I first started thinking about plastic pollution when I started working for the University at Albany Office of Sustainability.  In doing research for blogs I wrote I saw the damage being done.  That is what led me to act on plastic straw use at my college.  Now I am trying to ban single-use plastic in New York State.  Now onto the blog.

The Shift Towards Ecocentrism

Ecocentrism refers to a nature-centered, as opposed to human-centered (i.e. anthropocentric), system of values.

According to the Assembly of First Nations, Indigenous peoples see themselves as caretakers of Mother Earth. By respecting her gifts, First Nations peoples relate to earth and all living things in it sourced from reverence, humility and reciprocity. Only what is needed is taken, with awareness so that future generations will not be put at risk. 

In essence, you are putting nature’s needs first compared to human desire. People naturally want convenience over anything else; being ecocentric opposes this. So, to become ecocentric, before you make a choice you have to ask yourself is this thing I am going to do hurting the environment or not? For instance, if you are going to buy a plastic bottle of water, ask yourself: do I need this or can I bring my own water bottle? These are choices you need to question if you want to be ecocentric.

Granted, becoming ecocentric takes time. This is a frame of mind, so you have to make small progressive changes. Maybe you focus on decreasing your meat consumption or decreasing your plastic use by reusing old containers. Eventually, these small shifts will lead to you becoming ecocentric. 

Figure 2 Photo by Mali Maeder from Pexels

Figure 2 Photo by Mali Maeder from Pexels

Facts about Plastic Waste

Single-use plastics are not only plastic bags or cutlery.  A good definition of single-use plastics (aka disposable plastics) is that they are used for plastic packaging and include items intended to be used only once before they are thrown away or recycled.  They can also include the following:

  • Polyethylene terephthalate (PET), i.e. water bottles and biscuit trays

  • High-density polyethylene (HDPE), i.e. shampoo bottles and milk bottles

  • Low-density polyethylene (LDPE), i.e. bags and food packaging film

  • Polypropylene (PP), i.e. potato chip bags and microwave dishes

  • Polystyrene (PS), i.e. cutlery and plates

  • Expanded polystyrene (EPS), i.e. protective packaging and hot drink cups 

Here are some other facts to put plastic waste into perspective.

  1. Americans use 100 billion plastic bags a year, which require 12 million barrels of oil to manufacture.

  2. It only takes about 14 plastic bags for the equivalent of the gas required to drive one mile.

  3. The average American family takes home almost 1,500 plastic shopping bags a year.

  4. According to Waste Management, only 1 percent of plastic bags are returned for recycling. That means that the average family only recycles 15 bags a year; the rest ends up in landfills as litter.

  5. Up to 80 percent of ocean plastic pollution enters the ocean from land. 

  6. Since the 1950s, around 8.3 billion tons of plastic have been produced worldwide.

  7. 73% of beach litter worldwide is plastic.

  8. A million plastic bottles are bought around the world every minute.

  9. 90% of plastic polluting our oceans is carried by just 10 rivers.

In the next hour, Americans will use and throw away approximately 2,500,000 million plastic bottles. Of those 2.5 million bottles, everyone will still exist a thousand years from now.” – Intent Blog 

When did this all start? Bakelite, the first plastic, appeared in 1907 but plastic production really took off in the 1950s when annual production of plastics increased nearly 200-fold to 381 million tonnes in 2015.

Figure 3 World plastic production 1940-2019. Colin Battis

Figure 3 World plastic production 1940-2019. Colin Battis

According to the UN, the most common single-use plastics in descending order of volume are: cigarette butts, plastic drinking bottles, plastic bottle caps, food wrappers, plastic grocery bags, plastic lids, straws and stirrers, other types of plastic bags, and foam take-away containers.

Plastic literally lasts forever. Sadly, a third of all plastic - water bottles, bags and straws - are used just once then discarded. Plastic cannot biodegrade; it breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces.

So plastic waste becomes an issue. About 55 percent of global plastic waste was discarded, 25 percent was incinerated, and 20 percent recycled. So, attention has turned to how to put less plastic into our ecosystem, and how to step up the use of recycled plastic to reduce the world’s plastic load.

Figure 4 Photo by freestocks.org from Pexels

Figure 4 Photo by freestocks.org from Pexels

The Rise of Plastic Bag Bans

As of last July, the United Nations counted 127 nations that have banned or taxed bags‒and bag regulations have proliferated so quickly, especially at the local level, that even an Al Qaeda-backed terrorist group joined in‒banning plastic shopping bags last summer as “a serious threat to the well-being of humans and animals alike.”

This spring, the European Union took steps to ban plastic bags as part of a sweeping effort on plastic items found most commonly on Europe’s beaches. In the United States, New York this month became the second state, after California, to ban plastic bags‒and at least 95 bills relating to bags were introduced in state legislative sessions this winter, more than any other year.  Hawaii has a defacto statewide bag ban because every county banned them.  Also, Kenya has taken action on the issue by now packing perishables in thicker bags made of synthetic fabric. 

Despite being relatively new hence lacking in long-term research on impact, researchers at the United Nations reviewed 60 “national bans and levies” and estimated that 30 percent of these measures have reduced consumption of plastics.

Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) puts more responsibility on producers for the treatment or disposal of post-consumer products. A total of 81 state EPR laws passed in the United States, most in the last decade. Since EPR appeared in Europe 20 years ago, most EU Member States have introduced EPR for packaging, ranging from mandatory regulations to voluntary agreements between government and industry to voluntary industry initiatives. 

Plastic Producers Also Need to Take Responsibility

In addition to government action and consumer demand, investors have also asked manufacturers to reduce their use of plastic. Bloomberg reported investors managing over $1 trillion in assets demanded that Nestlé, PepsiCo, Procter & Gamble and Unilever to reduce their use of plastic packaging.  With the non profit As You Sow, the investors further asked companies to disclose annual plastic packaging use, set reduction goals, facilitate recycling and transition to recyclable, reusable or compostable packaging as much as possible.

Corporations have started to take on this challenge. Just some examples include:

  • Cisco committed to decreasing use of virgin plastic by 20% by 2025, using FY18 as base year.

  • Volvo said at least 25 per cent of plastics used in its new car models from 2025 will be made from recycled materials.

  • Coca-Cola, which uses around 120 billion bottles a year, launched its World Without Waste campaign and pledged to increase the amount of recycled content in plastic bottles to 50 per cent by 2030.

  • Dell aims to make its packaging 100 per cent waste-free by 2020, using materials from sustainable sources. It already uses recycled ocean plastics as well as other sustainable materials such as bamboo.

  • IKEA has pledged to phase out single-use plastic products from its stores and restaurants by 2020 while phasing out oil-based plastics and ensuring that all its plastic products are made with recycled materials. 

Corporate Responsibility & “Environmental Theatre” 

You may notice when you go to the grocery store or any store for that matter that there is plastic everywhere.  There are many reasons for this; some are the oil industry, cost, durability, and little pushback.

Oil costs have gone down over the years, making it so recycling plastic is more expensive than producing more new plastic.  That is not to say some companies haven’t recycled some.  In the soda and bottled water industry there are good examples of plastic recycling.  However, that is not the majority of their production.

As much as I am not a plastic fan it is embedded in our lives our phones wouldn’t work without it; the main reason for this is because it is durable.

In terms of pushback, there is some, but it is not super widespread because plastic has become the norm and convenient.  Cost is the main reason though.

Companies will always try to cut costs unless consumers push back.  But change happens through the law, and if companies have potent lobbyists change will be hard.  There have been many cases of implementation talked about above that have been effective, but they were hard-fought.

Another point that has been made is that plastic bag bans are "environmental theatre" like TSA is "security theatre."  It makes everyone feel better but doesn't actually impact the issue in the way it looks.  That is not to say TSA doesn’t have a purpose and that the plastic bag bans aren’t significant, but more can be done.  While I think that this is an interesting point change happens with steps like this.  Just look at the example of sustainable fashion.  Many companies will say they are sustainable with making their fashion, but they aren’t they only use the label.  This is the same with plastic bans.  You get name recognition without adequately addressing the problem.  While that may happen, there are companies trying to make an effort which is great for the consumer and the environment.  A recent example that has been in the news is Zara that says by 2025 all their clothing will be sustainable.

That is why I believe, and many agree single-use plastic needs to be banned because many items are under that umbrella.  Keep in mind with plastic bag bans they are leading to more paper bags which kill trees.  What I mean by that statement is that no ban is perfect. 

Earth Law as Part of the Solution

Drawing from the long traditions of Indigenous Nations and ecological thinkers, Earth Law holds that ecosystems have the right to exist, thrive, and evolve—and that Nature should be able to defend its rights in court, just like people can.

Bolivia and Ecuador, rivers (the Whanganui in New Zealand, the Atrato and Amazon in Colombia along with the Coello, Combeima, Cocora and Cauca Rivers), mountains (Te Urewera in New Zealand) along with dozens of towns have enacted Rights of Nature ordinances around the world. Earth Law Center has passed an ordinance in Santa Monica, a resolution in Crestone plus helped partners pass Rights of Rivers legislation in Mexico City as well as in Colima Province.

Figure 5 Colombian Amazon. Mauricio Pineda

Figure 5 Colombian Amazon. Mauricio Pineda

According to the Harmony with Nature initiative at the United Nations, the law is evolving towards a recognition that humankind and Nature share a fundamental, non-anthropocentric relationship given our shared existence on this planet, and it creates guidance for actions that respect this relationship. Legal provisions recognizing the Rights of Nature, sometimes referred to as Earth Jurisprudence, include constitutions, national statutes, and local laws. A complete list of current Rights of Nature initiatives around the world can be found here.

Greenfield Rights of Nature aims to raise awareness and take actions to help protect the environment in our community by collecting signatures for an ordinance to reduce plastic in the waste cycle. 

You Can Help Reduce Plastic 

Each of us makes a difference, and here are some ideas for how to reduce our plastic footprint:

  1. Use reusable bags: Bring these to the grocery store or any place you shop to avoid plastic bags. Do this especially at restaurants because they are exempt from the plastic bag ban. Also, you can clean most reusable bags so they will last much longer than if you just continued using the same plastic bag.

  2. Have your own water bottle: This way you don’t have to buy water when you go out. Also, you avoid single-use plastic doing this. In addition, they can keep hot liquids very hot too depending on the one you purchase.

  3. Have your own metal/silicone/paper/bamboo straw: This way, you never have to use a plastic straw. And these straws are not hard to clean, so it is a great first step. This alone is not enough, but it is a start if you are just starting to decrease your plastic use. What I do is I bring my own cup and straw when I get coffee or a smoothie to avoid plastic altogether. 

  4. Bring your own containers: This is for when you go out to eat such as to a food truck. When you bring your own container, you avoid single-use plastic that is hard to reuse with the food residue on it.

  5. Talk to your friends: This is a huge one because many times if your friends know your reasoning, they might start making changes. Everyone has some power within their circle of friends. Remember you don’t have to be Beyoncé to makes changes.

  6. Start composting: This way less goes in the garbage, and you get better soil than you would from the store. Many times, garbage bags are plastic, so the less you use, the better.

  7. Reuse as much as possible: Many items you own can have a second life all you have to do is be a little creative. An example would be using old towels to clean your floors.

  8. Refuse single-use plastic items at meetings and conferences: Many times, these are items you don’t need and will likely throw away. So, don’t get them in the first place. This way, companies will make less of them and might produce more sustainable giveaways.

  9. Have your own bamboo or metal utensils: This way you avoid single-use plastic-eating ware. These are easy to clean too. Many times, you can get packages with bamboo utensils and metal straws.

  10. Buy in bulk: This way, you avoid a lot of plastic packaging you aren’t likely to reuse. It also means you are more prepared for unexpected things that might happen in your environment, such as a natural disaster.

Conclusion

What I hope you took away from this piece is the importance of helping the planet. Remember, our climate and oceans are being ruined every day because of our actions. So, the changes we make today do matter. It is hard to quit hurting the environment cold turkey so ease into it by making small changes these will lead to bigger ones in the future. 

And you can look in the past to find that there used to be a time when we did not rely on the environment so heavily for goods we wanted. Talk to anyone over the age of 60, and they can tell you they didn’t see plastic many places. Now it is everywhere along with other inventions that are killing the environment. If we did it in the past, we could do it again. This may require more effort, but in the long run, it will be worth it because our children’s children will live in a healthy environment where they can strive. Remember, we only have one earth.


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