PLASTIC IS everywhere. It is not merely that the material, rarely used in consumer products before 1950, has become ubiquitous in the homes, cars and offices Americans inhabit. Scientists using remotely operated submersibles announced last month that they had found plastic microparticles in the deep ocean off California’s idyllic Monterey Bay, with, surprisingly, the highest concentrations in the middle of the water column. Researchers have found the stuff on isolated Alpine peaks, in animals’ digestive tracts and in human stools. Some effects on the ecosystem, such as animals getting tangled in or choking on plastic waste, are obvious. It is alarmingly unclear what all the tiny microparticles ending up in the environment — and human bodies — is doing.
Findings such as these have driven recent movements to eliminate one-time-use plastic products, such as plastic straws, which the District banned, polystyrene food containers, which Maine banned, or plastic shopping bags, which California banned.
The petrochemical industry responds that alternatives often come with substantial hidden environmental harms: Producing paper and cotton shopping bags requires more carbon dioxide emissions than thin plastic ones; foam food containers need less water and energy to make than possible replacement materials. More and better plastic recycling is the answer, the industry suggests.
Meanwhile, the Trump administration argues that the United States is not the real culprit. Researchers concluded in 2017 that the 10 rivers with the most plastic pollution all were in either Asia or Africa. These 10 rivers, led by China’s Yangtze, result in a quarter of all the oceans’ annual plastic pollution.
In fact, this environmental problem is so massive, everyone needs to address it, not least the world’s largest economy. Fixing it is not as easy as handing out reusable shopping bags that many people do not use or developing alternatives to plastic products that have their own environmental impacts. In some cases, alternative products can help, but often only if coupled with policies that promote more sustainable practices — such as taxes on all one-time-use shopping bags, whatever the material. Faith in the promise of technological development cannot lead to neglect of hard systemic changes that promise to cut waste.
Recycling is not a complete answer, either, but plastics have become so important to the modern economy that it is an indispensable tool. The United States recycles only about 9 percent of its plastic waste. The federal government should set recycling standards, rather than watching as some localities do well and others poorly. Part of the shift must include better educating people about what is and is not recyclable and pushing for more products to be made of the latter stuff.
The Trump administration is right that other big countries have massive plastic pollution problems, too. But the United States has contributed by exporting plastic waste meant for recycling to places such as China. And spoiling international moves to reduce plastic pollution, as the administration has done this year, will not help pressure other nations to change.