Will Congress Come for Plastic?

Will Congress Come for Plastic?
(AP Photo/John Locher)
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Democrats have regained control of the steering wheel in Washington, D.C. and they’re going to turn left with all their might — especially when it comes to environmental policy. 

While the Green New Deal is sure to be the star of the show, Democrats have many other environmental proposals on deck. Common plastic products will likely find themselves in the crosshairs of the Biden administration and the Democratic-controlled Congress. 

Jon Ossoff, the Georgia politician who secured the Democratic control of the Senate, was a prominent opponent of plastic products on the campaign trail. He promised voters that he would pen legislation to implement a “rapidly phased-in ban on single-use plastics.” 

Last year, Congressional Democrats introduced the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act to do just that. The bill would ban some single-use products, require plastic producers to “design, manage, and finance waste and recycling programs,” and temporarily forbid new plastic companies from opening their doors in the United States. 

Like many campaigns from radical environmentalists, this bill is based on an inaccurate, blame-America-first understanding of waste and plastic. 

The moral centerpiece of environmental campaigns against plastic is imagery of plastic trash in oceans. But what the environmental lobby doesn’t tell you is that it’s largely a problem not of our making — and they try to mislead us otherwise.

Oceana, one environmental group pushing the false narrative about the United States’ role in global plastic pollution, recently released a report claiming that plastic in U.S. water harms marine mammals. But my organization discovered Oceana used stock imagery taken from areas halfway across the world, such as Malaysia, where plastic pollution is a much bigger problem. The New York Times (of all places!) even called out the fact that the cover image for Oceana’s report was a composite (doctored) stock photo. 

How different is the U.S. from Third World countries? Significantly. A 2015 study found that the U.S. is only responsible for about 1 percent of global plastic that enters the ocean. We may generate a lot of waste, but we have the modern infrastructure to manage it properly. 

Other countries do not. The study found that Asian countries were largely responsible for plastic entering the ocean. Leading the pack for polluting our oceans were China and Indonesia. Other research has found that almost all plastic that is swept out into the ocean via rivers comes from ten rivers, eight in Asia and two in Africa. 

Asia’s trash quickly becomes our trash. Researchers have chronicled how ocean gyres (currents) can transport trash thousands of miles. A study from Hawaiian Pacific University found trash that floated as far as 3,000 miles from Asia to Hawaii.

The bill pushed by Congressional liberals to ban plastics would hardly do a thing to combat plastic marine pollution because the U.S. is a drop in the ocean, so to speak. 

To combat this effort, Republicans must make the case that many “single-use plastics” are essential. And this isn’t a difficult argument to make during a pandemic. 

Plastic gloves and masks helped reduce the spread of the virus. Plastic swabs and tubes were used to test patients with the virus. Plastic food wrap helps prevent bacterial contamination (and spoilage). Plastic water bottles hydrate families during national disasters. And plastic syringes filled with the COVID-19 vaccine will be our ticket out of this horrific pandemic (hopefully). 

All of these are “single-use” plastics.

Environmentalists would concede that a “single-use” plastic ban would not make plastic syringes a top priority in their “rapidly phased-in ban,” but some of the products that are often placed on the chopping block are as important as syringes. (And we don’t just mean latex condoms, which some environmental activists want to phase out.)

Take bottled water, for example. Plastic bottles have long been the scourge of environmentalists, and bans on bottled water have sprung up in New England towns and at San Francisco’s airport. But bottled water provides a social service. 

Every year, there are hundreds of boil-water advisories issued in municipalities throughout the United States because the tap water system has been deemed unsafe for consumption. Residents are urged to boil water before consuming it. Or, they can drink purified bottled water.

Bottled water is also essential when natural disasters strike. Whether it is a hurricane hitting Georgia, flooding in Iowa, or wildfires in California, bottled water is essential for keeping a displaced population hydrated.

If 2020 taught us anything, it is that we cannot predict the future. No one could have imagined a pandemic would render drinking fountains and reusable shopping bags a threat, but that happened and those items were temporarily unusable. 

The single-use plastic ban backed by prominent Democrats and environmental activists is bad policy. The only place it belongs is the bottom of the ocean. 

Will Coggin is the managing director of the Center for Accountability in Science.

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