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A clamshell in the forest: Why we need public policy to address the plastics problem

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I have been isolating in Vermont since early May. I’m incredibly grateful to be here, as it is one of the safest states in the country in terms of COVID-19 rates, and I’m able to walk outside in the sun and under the trees without worrying about meeting other people. I have been trying to go walking most days, to feel a bit saner even as the world feels scarier and crazier all the time.

But right from the beginning, I noticed trash all along the back roads and in the woods. Budweiser cans, Pepsi bottles and paper coffee cups peek like mushrooms from behind plants, under rocks, and out of ditches. But even scarier are the polystyrene (which most people call Styrofoam) and the plastic, monuments to the enduring nature of our disposable economy.

Though many cities and even some states have passed bans or imposed taxes on single-use plasticsincluding polystyrene containers — the plastic industry is fighting back, successfully lobbying for preemptive laws preventing plastics bans, and making it much more difficult for Americans to move beyond the single-use system we have now.

Frustrated with the evidence of that single-use, disposable system I discovered on my walks in the woods, I decided to do something and pick up as much trash as I could. I realized my carrying capacity was limited, especially since I was trying my best to touch the trash with only one hand, and never to touch any other part of my body afterwards, so I limited myself to aluminum cans, which I crushed and stacked. I used two plastic clamshells I found as containers, but with arms full of trash, I had to leave behind the glass bottles and the polystyrene containers and the plastic cups, because I couldn’t carry them all. At the end of an hour and a half, I had more than thirty cans in my hands and very mixed emotions: pride at a job well done, and sadness that I’d had to do it in the first place.

My efforts to clean up the forest are all too reminiscent of our societal efforts to deal with the plastics problems. We rely on overburdened individuals to take action that wouldn’t even be necessary if corporations and government made the changes we know we need to our systems of production and consumption. The blame for plastic pollution does not reside solely with the person who tosses a bottle out of their car window: in large part, the responsibility lies with the system of one-and-done, single use, throwaway consumerism we have built in the name of convenience and economic growth.

Concerted individual efforts to pick up the plastics and other trash littered all over the country won’t stop the damage this waste inflicts on our environment. There’s just too much of it. And before long, the pollution that is visible in a river or on a forest floor transforms into forms we can’t see as easily. Plastics break down into microplastic fragments that have been found everywhere from remote mountain air to filtered bottled water. A massive gyre of microplastic-infused water too big to measure accurately has formed in the middle of the Pacific, and the chemicals in the microplastics we ingest have been linked to hormone interference, fertility reduction, immunosuppression, nervous system damage, hearing loss and cancer. Even beyond the direct effects of plastics in the environment, the energy costs throughout the life cycle of plastic products have a significant carbon footprint.

We need to remake the system, to change our entire relationship with plastics, and find other ways to package, serve, build, distribute and dispose of the things we consume. And we’re more than capable of doing this. Policies like mandatory and universal composting and recycling, bans on non-compostable or recyclable single-use items, producer responsibility for their products over the course of those products’ lifetimes, investment in the facilities that would repair, recycle and compost the materials stream, and pricing goods to reflect the impacts on the environment and public health would all help us move toward a circular economy with zero waste.

Transitioning to a zero waste society is a goal we can all get behind. An America with no waste is one with fewer landfills, a stronger manufacturing sector, cleaner air, water and food, and healthier people. I also want it for purely selfish reasons: so I can walk in the woods and admire the real mushrooms and flowers without seeing cans, bottles, and polystyrene clamshells.

Photo courtesy of Bryn Huxley-Reicher