Imagine you’ve decided to take a trip to the shore after months of being cooped up inside your home. But once you get there, you find the beach is jam-packed — not with crowds of people defying social distancing guidelines, but with thousands of bags full of garbage, extending as far as the eye can see. Now imagine these piles of garbage — approximately five bags for every foot of beach — covering every coastline around the world. That’s 8 million tons of plastic, or roughly the amount of plastic waste that flows from coastal nations into our oceans in a single year.
This was our reality before COVID-19. Today, single-use masks, latex gloves and other personal protective equipment (PPE) have become a feature of our daily lives — for good reason. At the same time, the use of plastic in retail and other sectors that have been hit hard by this crisis has likely decreased. So, will the pandemic end up producing a larger or smaller plastic footprint? Some evidence suggests, yes, PPE is trickling into our oceans. We don’t have extensive data yet to fully answer that question with absolute certainty, but the result will likely be some net increase in waste, much of which will inevitably find its way into nature.
To be clear, we’re not about to ask medical professionals to take a break from saving lives to sort through their recycling. And, frankly, PPE’s critical role during this crisis is an important reminder of the numerous benefits that plastic offers to society, from the face masks and test kits that have turned out to be some of our most potent weapons against COVID-19, to the plastic wrapping that extends the shelf life of our food.
Getting rid of all plastic is not the answer. But if we’re not going to quit plastic, then we need to develop a healthier relationship with it. That means reducing our use of plastic wherever possible, while also reimagining how we source, design, re-use and dispose of the plastic materials upon which communities around the world most depend. To do that, we’ll need some big changes in consumer behavior and big changes in the private sector’s approach to production and waste management. But if individuals and companies are going to successfully chart a new course, they’ll also need the government to provide some clear guardrails.
Here’s how a smart approach on the federal level could help us achieve the ultimate goal of creating a circular economy and achieving no more plastic in nature by 2030. First, it could remove truly unnecessary material use from the economy and realign the incentives that currently favor the use of virgin materials over recycled materials. Second, it could create durable funding mechanisms, bringing private dollars and accountability to the table, to move recycling to the modern age. Third, it could ensure equitable and user-friendly access to this new circular system for all consumers.
World Wildlife Fund (WWF) supports a number of existing proposals that would provide many of these solutions. One is the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act of 2020, which would, among other things, provide market incentives for companies to design items that can be reused and recycled, reduce single-use plastics that can’t be recycled and spur more investment in much-needed infrastructure for U.S. domestic recycling and composting. Another promising piece of legislation is the bipartisan Save Our Seas 2.0 Act, which would spur innovative solutions for monitoring ocean pollution and elevate U.S. involvement in global waste management. Save Our Seas 2.0 passed the Senate unanimously in January, and now the House must vote on the bill.
Our nation remains embroiled in this devastating crisis, so we can only speculate as to the various ways in which life will be forever changed. Some changes in the wake of COVID-19 could be bad — the prospect of a world with less hugs comes to mind — while other changes, such as the closure of high-risk wildlife markets that contribute to the spread of diseases like COVID-19, could be good. To the list of beneficial changes let’s add a renewed commitment to stemming the tide of plastic waste — one that includes meaningful and measurable action at the federal level.
When we fix our broken relationship with plastic, we’ll be one big step closer to fixing our broken relationship with nature. Let’s get started.
Erin Simon is the head of Plastic Waste and Business at the World Wildlife Fund. Follow the organization on Twitter @World_Wildlife.