"Plastics"—the one word of advice a parental friend offers to young, adrift Dustin Hoffman in the 1967 film The Graduate.
It so happens the world took that advice to heart—so much so, we're choking on it. Today, plastics accumulate insidiously: bread bags, meat wrappers, product overwrap, dry cleaning bags, shipping air pillows—plastic bottles for liquids, shampoo, beauty products, cheese, sliced lunch meat, hummus, ketchup, applesauce, yogurt ... the list is endless and exhausting.
If you consider plastic bags alone, the Center for Biological Diversity reports that Americans consume 100 billion plastic bags a year, 1,500 per family. It takes 12 million barrels of oil to manufacture this annual mountain of plastic, almost all of which ends up as toxic waste.
A year ago, in those halcyon pre-pandemic days, I decided to do my best to reduce my own consumption of plastic, starting with plastic bags. Like most of you, I have a bazillion reusable shopping bags, thanks to San Luis Obispo's ban on thinner carryout bags in 2012. To eliminate single-use produce bags, I use string bags, and I invested in handy, washable garbage can liners. I held on to freezer and sandwich bags to wash and reuse, along with all the other plastic bags that come with most retailer-consumer exchanges, and which you cannot recycle.
My personal store of plastic bags held fairly steady ... until COVID-19. Because our age puts me and my husband in the higher risk category for the disease, and because we can afford the extra cost of delivery services, we have not stepped foot in a grocery store for two months. (Thank you, Instacart drivers, Amazon workers, retail clerks! You are essential.)
But those doorstep deliveries have resulted in an avalanche of plastic in my home. I also recently noticed that as the pandemic persists, stores have been permitted to revert to thin, single-use carryout bags, instead of the heavier, 2.5-mil-thick "reuseable" bags made allowable (after intense industry pressure) in 2014 under SB 270, California's carryout bag ban.
The pandemic, in fact, has given cover to efforts to ease regulations—it has accelerated Trump's drive to decimate climate and environmental policies, an agenda already well underway before the coronavirus lockdown.
In written testimony to the San Luis Obispo County Integrated Waste Management Authority (IWMA), local expert Janine Rands explained, "Plastic bags never totally break down, but instead photo-degrade into micro-plastics that absorb toxins and continue to pollute the environment."
An in-depth scientific study of the costs of plastic, "Plastic & Climate," explains that greenhouse gases are emitted at each stage of the plastic lifecycle. The study points out that, unless checked, current levels of greenhouse emissions from plastic will speed Earth's temperature rise by a killing, unsustainable 1.5 degrees Celcius. In other words, "Plastic proliferation threatens the climate on a global scale."
Under the current administration, the perfidiously named Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has been working overtime to throw out at least 100 environmental protection rules. This, despite scientific evidence that loosening environmental safeguards exacerbates our climate crisis and leads to increased pollution-related illnesses—which puts us at greater risk for COVID-19, especially lower income communities and communities of color.
The EPA has made it possible to dump coal-mining waste into streams, and they've weakened protections for more than half the nation's wetlands. Ask yourself: Is the Morro Bay Estuary safe? And last month, Trump's EPA withdrew the legal justification for lowered mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants because, it said, the cost of compliance far outweighed public health benefits. In other words, corporations supersede humanity.
Should you think I'm overstating the facts, consider this: In a grotesque act of intergenerational violence, the EPA even reduced limitations on pesticides linked to developmental disabilities in children.
There's a connection between such brute insensitivity, the disregard of science, and our present situation. As the COVID-19 death toll mounts and as we steel ourselves for another unprecedented California wildfire season, we need credible, unbiased science to combat the causes of both—and much more. A new study published by the National Academy of Sciences warns that by 2070 as many as 3.5 billion people could live in areas that are too hot to sustain life.
That's why now—this moment—we must turn from denial and confront reality.
And yet. As I write, the EPA is rushing through a "censored science" proposal to prevent public health research from consideration in setting pollution standards. Take a second to consider that: Our government wants to prevent the facts from getting to you. Like our existential climate crisis, coronavirus is real, it's not going to disappear "like magic," and we need to marshal all our best minds to find solutions.
At his recent press briefings, we've seen Trump dismiss or mangle scientific advice in real time.
So, San Luis Obispo IWMA, now is precisely the time to extend, not loosen, the plastic bag ordinance. When you next meet, please ban single-use plastic bags from our farmers' market, restaurants, dry cleaners, and the produce aisles. Develop and enforce policies to reuse the carryout bags that are piling up in my garage.
I just remembered that the The Graduate's theme song was Simon & Garfunkel's "The Sound of Silence." Let's not silence the sound of science. Δ
Amy Hewes is a grassroots activist. Send comments through the editor at email@example.com.