Single-Use Plastic and Its Effects on Our Oceans

Plastic in our oceans causes harm to all marine ecosystems from coral reefs to animal species. Annually, about 8.8 million tons of this plastic waste enters and pollutes our oceans.[1] In addition, plastic debris constitutes 60-80% of all marine pollution, and in some areas, can account for as much as 90-95% of all pollution.[2]  At least 700 species worldwide have been affected by plastic ocean pollution, including 84% of sea turtle species, 44% of all seabird species, and 43% of all marine mammal species.[3] It is also estimated that one in three marine mammals have been found tangled in some type of marine litter, such as lost fishing gear or plastic bags.[4]

 

Every minute, an estimated 2 million single-use plastic bags are handed out at checkout counters around the world, heavily contributing to the 300 million tons of plastic waste that is generated globally each year.[5] As of 2015, the United States was the largest generator of plastic packaging waste on a per-capita basis, yet there are currently no federal laws that restrict single-use plastics, such as plastic bags.[6] However, there are many existing and effective state and local policies that tackle plastic pollution. By implementing sweeping U.S. federal policies that limit and tax plastic bags, the United States could reduce its plastic pollution, resulting in both environmental and economic benefits.

 

The cost of both the environmental damages and social impacts of plastic use in the U.S. is $75 billion.[7] $13 billion of these costs are attributed to the negative impacts that plastics, specifically single-use plastic bags, have on marine ecosystems.[8] Across the United States, local governments spend between $3.2 and $7.9 billion annually on plastic litter clean up and management.[9] Since the majority of single-use plastic bags are difficult to recycle, they create additional monetary and environmental costs as bags must be landfilled. California, for example, spends $25 million every year just to landfill discarded plastic bags and spends almost half a billion dollars to prevent the entry of plastic litter into waterways.[10] Therefore, limiting single-use plastic bags would reduce government spending on plastic litter control and management.

 

Local legislation that taxes plastic bags has been successful in curbing plastic bag use and should be used as a framework for crafting federal legislation. There are currently 331 local plastic bag ban ordinances across 24 states in the United States.[11] Successful legislation can be found in major cities such as Washington D.C., Manhattan Beach, San Francisco, Seattle, Boston, and Boulder.[12] In 2009, Washington, D.C. implemented a 5 cent tax on plastic bags and saw a 72% reduction in the number of bags found in waterways and an overall reduction in plastic bag consumption of 85%.[13] In 2018, Suffolk County, Long Island, New York, adopted a 5 cent plastic bag fee and saw drops in plastic bag use of up to 80% in just a few weeks.[14]

 

Currently, a few states are taking meaningful steps to ban single-use plastic state wide. In February of 2019, California introduced AB 1080 and SB 54 that would phase out all single-use plastics by 2030.[15] In March of 2019, New Hampshire introduced HB 560 that would ban single-use plastic bags.[16] In Hawaii, Bill 59 FD1, CD3 is in place to phase out all plastic bags by the year 2020 and requires businesses to charge a 15 cent fee for each reusable, compostable plastic or recyclable paper bag.

 

In 2015, Congress passed the Microbead Free Waters Act to regulate plastic microbeads after several states banned the sale and manufacture of beauty products containing these small plastic particles. These local and state laws helped to set the groundwork for the federal act that followed. Similar to the ban on plastic microbeads that originated at the state and local level, the push for the ban on plastic bags has stemmed from local and state governments as well. If the microbead legislative process is used as a precedent, then federal action regarding the ban on plastic bags is feasible given its current state and local success and support.

 

It is time for Congress to draft legislation that effectively regulates single-use plastic bag consumption and attacks the plastic pollution problem at its source. A federal hybrid ban/fee structure that bans all thin plastic bags and places fees on all other kinds of bags that are made from paper, thick plastic and compostable materials would mirror legislation that has been most effective on the local level.[17] The revenue generated from the fees would then be used to improve waste management, and support litter prevention and educational programs. Fees have been shown to incentivize changes in consumer behavior and controlling the number of available plastic bags would reduce negative environmental and economic costs of plastic pollution.[18] Unless we enact federal legislation against plastic pollution now, we risk a future where, by 2050, there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish.[19]

 

 

[1] Laura Parker, “Fast facts about plastic pollution,” https://news.nationalgeographic.com/2018/05/plastics-facts-infographics-ocean-pollution/, (December 20, 2018).

[2] UCLA School of Law Frank G. Wells Environmental Law Clinic, “Federal Actions to Address Marine Plastic Pollution” https://law.ucla.edu/~/media/Files/UCLA/Law/Pages/Publications/CEN_EMM_PUB-Federal%20Actions%20to%20Address%20Marine%20Plastic%20Pollution.ashx, (January 14, 2019).

[3] Kerry Taylor-Smith, “How Plastic Pollution is Affecting the Ocean Wildlife,” https://www.azocleantech.com/article.aspx?ArticleID=729, (May 16, 2018).

[4] Kerry Taylor-Smith, “How Plastic Pollution is Affecting the Ocean Wildlife,” https://www.azocleantech.com/article.aspx?ArticleID=729, (May 16, 2018).

[5] Erica Cirino, “What Laws Work Best to Cut Plastic Pollution?,” https://therevelator.org/plastic-pollution-laws/, (March 4, 2019).

[6] UCLA School of Law Frank G. Wells Environmental Law Clinic, “Federal Actions to Address Marine Plastic Pollution,” https://law.ucla.edu/~/media/Files/UCLA/Law/Pages/Publications/CEN_EMM_PUB-Federal%20Actions%20to%20Address%20Marine%20Plastic%20Pollution.ashx, (January 14, 2019).

[7] UCLA School of Law Frank G. Wells Environmental Law Clinic, “Federal Actions to Address Marine Plastic Pollution,” https://law.ucla.edu/~/media/Files/UCLA/Law/Pages/Publications/CEN_EMM_PUB-Federal%20Actions%20to%20Address%20Marine%20Plastic%20Pollution.ashx, (January 14, 2019).

[8] UCLA School of Law Frank G. Wells Environmental Law Clinic, “Federal Actions to Address Marine Plastic Pollution,” https://law.ucla.edu/~/media/Files/UCLA/Law/Pages/Publications/CEN_EMM_PUB-Federal%20Actions%20to%20Address%20Marine%20Plastic%20Pollution.ashx, (January 14, 2019).

[9] UCLA School of Law Frank G. Wells Environmental Law Clinic, “Federal Actions to Address Marine Plastic Pollution,” https://law.ucla.edu/~/media/Files/UCLA/Law/Pages/Publications/CEN_EMM_PUB-Federal%20Actions%20to%20Address%20Marine%20Plastic%20Pollution.ashx, (January 14, 2019).

[10] Jennie Reilly Romer, “The Evolution of San Francisco ‘s Plastic-Bag Ban,” https://digitalcommons.law.ggu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?referer=&httpsredir=1&article=1018&context=gguelj, (August, 2010).

[11] UCLA School of Law Frank G. Wells Environmental Law Clinic, “Federal Actions to Address Marine Plastic Pollution,” https://law.ucla.edu/~/media/Files/UCLA/Law/Pages/Publications/CEN_EMM_PUB-Federal%20Actions%20to%20Address%20Marine%20Plastic%20Pollution.ashx, (January 14, 2019).

[12] UCLA School of Law Frank G. Wells Environmental Law Clinic, “Federal Actions to Address Marine Plastic Pollution,” https://law.ucla.edu/~/media/Files/UCLA/Law/Pages/Publications/CEN_EMM_PUB-Federal%20Actions%20to%20Address%20Marine%20Plastic%20Pollution.ashx, (January 14, 2019).

[13] Erica Cirino, “What Laws Work Best to Cut Plastic Pollution?,” https://therevelator.org/plastic-pollution-laws/, (March 4, 2019).

[14] Erica Cirino, “What Laws Work Best to Cut Plastic Pollution?,” https://therevelator.org/plastic-pollution-laws/, (March 4, 2019).

[15] Bryan Gold, “California state legislators want to phase out non-recyclable plastic products by 2030,” https://www.wastedive.com/news/california-state-legislators-want-to-phase-out-non-recyclable-plastic-products/549406/, (February 28, 2019).

[16] Bob Sanders, “NH House votes to ban plastic bags, limit plastic straws,” https://www.nhbr.com/nh-house-votes-to-ban-plastic-bags-limit-plastic-straws/, (March 19, 2019).

[17] UCLA School of Law Frank G. Wells Environmental Law Clinic, “Federal Actions to Address Marine Plastic Pollution,” https://law.ucla.edu/~/media/Files/UCLA/Law/Pages/Publications/CEN_EMM_PUB-Federal%20Actions%20to%20Address%20Marine%20Plastic%20Pollution.ashx, (January 14, 2019).

[18] UCLA School of Law Frank G. Wells Environmental Law Clinic, “Federal Actions to Address Marine Plastic Pollution,” https://law.ucla.edu/~/media/Files/UCLA/Law/Pages/Publications/CEN_EMM_PUB-Federal%20Actions%20to%20Address%20Marine%20Plastic%20Pollution.ashx, (January 14, 2019).

[19] Ocean Unite, “Marine Plastic Pollution,” https://www.oceanunite.org/issues/marine-plastic-pollution/.

5 thoughts on “Single-Use Plastic and Its Effects on Our Oceans

  1. As a DC resident, I was able to directly see how the 5 cent bag tax actually made a huge difference in incentivizing shoppers to bring a reusable bag with them, like you mentioned in your blog. The campaign really focused on how the bags were polluting the river that runs through DC, making it clear that the plastic bags were directly impacting the city’s environment, and the profits from the tax also went to cleaning the river. But I think your structure of a hybrid solution will be even more effective, because wealthier people who are willing to pay every time they go to the store for the connivence of a plastic bag won’t reduce the amount of plastic they use, even with a tax. So phasing into a complete ban on single-use plastics will help reduce the use of all single-use plastic, not just reduce the use by people who can’t afford to pay the tax.

  2. This is a really interesting article, Caroline! While plastic bag bans have been successful in reducing the amount plastic bags in waterways, there are other unintended consequences. This is a really interesting article about some of the other affects that occurred due to a similar ban in European countries. https://www.europeanscientist.com/en/features/plastic-bag-taxes-are-good-intentions-but-bad-economics/
    One study found that the ban increased demand for plastic trash bags by 400%. While these bags have not garnered the same outcry from the public, they have similar negative impacts. It will be interesting to see how policymakers and environmental activists deal with these new issues.

  3. Caroline, I love your passion and forward-thinking post!
    I’ve been having some conflicting feelings regarding plastic bag bans in the last few days. I just saw an article that discussed a recent study that showed that you’d have to use a reusable canvas bag thousands of times in order to equal the energy use for producing single-use plastic bags. Being that I don’t think that people use canvas bags that much, it seems that it might be better for green house gas emissions and other environmental measures to actually use single-use plastic bags and reuse them a few times before discarding or finding a place that accepts them for recycle. This study didn’t account for ocean pollution, which is an important factor but is definitely not the whole picture.
    My ideal solution to this big issue would be something like what Costco does, where you can choose to not use any bags, bring your own (which, as I read, may have problems), or use the boxes that held the products on the shelf. Though not all stores have these types of boxes, they do definitely discard some packaging material that could effectively be used to carry. Of course, this process ignores those who walk/bike to and from stores, but I think it could be a step in the right directions.
    I am interested to see where the research continues to go on these bags, as I know there have already been a few LCAs on it, and where the legislation continues on all levels!

  4. Hey Caroline! I always wonder about the equity of plastic bans and taxes. I know there are all sorts of conditional taxes on the products we buy, but the idea of a tax on the thing we put the things we buy in seems so much more visible. Are people who live paycheck to paycheck able in invest in reusable bags? Does it impact them significantly to pay 5 cents a bag otherwise? For many, spending $20 upfront on reusable bags is easy, but a portion of the population may be subject to a plastic tax without being able to afford the alternative.

    I really like the idea of plastic ban/tax legislature, and its clearly worked well in major cities across the US. I just wonder if anyone has studied their economic effects on low-income Americans.

  5. Plastic pollution is such a pervasive problem that it’s hard to wrap your head around. I think you’re absolutely right that the way we treat plastic as a perfect material that doesn’t have any consequences needs to change. I’m curious, though, if tackling plastic bag use is the best way to address the problem. Plastic bags have such a low individual climate impact compared to something like a cotton tote bag that it’s hard to justify going with the reusable. Also, if states see banning plastic bags as the only step needed to address plastic use, it may deter future legislation that limits other uses. Or it might pave the way for wider-reaching legislation that makes more meaningful changes to plastic-use. The problem definitely requires a shift in the public view about the use of plastic bags, and maybe these kinds of laws are needed to make it happen.

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