The scene is all too familiar: a crinkly bag handed to us at our doorstep or a restaurant, the bag’s THANK YOUs stretched pink as it struggles to contain the tower of squeaky Styrofoam containers stashing steaming takeout. Nestled somewhere in the bag are thick, plastic utensils each sealed in their own clear baggies, sitting alongside an accouterment of condiment packets.
The need for sanitary measures during the COVID-19 pandemic has expanded the role of single-use plastics in our daily lives. And it’s not just takeout. The offenders—plastic straws, sandwich bags, wet wipes—are so ubiquitous that they seem virtually harmless. But this is hardly the case.
The United States already produces more plastic waste than any other country, much of which ends up choking marine animals or releasing noxious, cancer-causing fumes to underserved communities because of disposal processes. The production itself releases millions of tons of greenhouse gases released into the air. How much more environmental damage needs to occur before we’re willing to sacrifice some of our convenience?
The West Hollywood City Council took a stand on October 4th, beginning the process of drafting an amendment to the city’s municipal code that will “prohibit food and beverage providers to serve their meals in or with plastic products”, Brynn Mechem of the Beverly Press reports.
The logic behind plastic bans is simple: the less people are able to use single-use plastics, the less companies will be incentivized to produce them, ultimately lowering the amount of plastic use and waste. However, misinformation around the effect of these bans continues to draw opponents, who worry that bans of plastic bags or containers cause a spike in alternative plastic vessels, such as pet waste bags and garbage bags. Though a study found that trash bag sales ticked up following California’s statewide plastic bag ban in 2016, total plastic usage was still a net negative; consumers used approximately 70 percent less plastic overall. Californians Against Waste, a nonprofit environmental organization, reported a 72% decrease in the state’s plastic bag litter in rivers, beaches, and landscapes a year following the ban—a huge success for California.
Another concern of those who oppose sweeping single-use plastic bans, such as the one recently entered into the draft by the West Hollywood City Council, is the difficulty small businesses may have to adapt to these new plastic use laws. For this, West Hollywood Mayor Pro Tempore Sepi Shyne proposes that the ordinance can “include a tiered implementation to allow businesses time to work through their inventory and find new suppliers.”
“The ban can start with plastic forks and straws, for example”, she says. “Within 12 months, [the ban] can include plastic cups and lids”. Additionally, a study by the University of California Los Angeles Luskin Center found that transitioning to plastic alternatives holds relatively small threats to businesses and the economy, and that food vendors may benefit from adopting reusable items by appealing to younger audiences who largely support “greener” lifestyles. To that end, communication between West Hollywood business and government is key to facilitating the much-needed transition from plastics to reusables.
Still, it’s important to remember that, despite the effectiveness of plastic bans, they are far from the end goal. The plastic crisis is perpetuated by major corporations (i.e. Coca-Cola, who, in 2018, produced a terrifying three million tons of plastic packaging). But consumer attitudes dictate business practices, and the stir over plastic packaging in the past decade has pushed companies to take initiative. Starbucks abandoned its signature green straws for sippy cup lids in 2020, and Disney has resolved to reduce more than 175 million straws and 13 million plastic stirrers annually. Though the direct impact of abandoning plastic straws or bags may seem marginal, the adaptation of big corporations to fit consumer interests is reflective of the power individual action can have to influence larger, systemic change.
Individual action against climate change, whether brought on by personal choice or governmental legislation, is far from being useless. The cultural change in how we approach our plastic consumption patterns and attitudes towards the environment is critically important. That values shift accompanies a social learning process that forms the basis of more meaningful, collective action. In other words, people need to care about why abandoning plastics is crucial in tandem with single-use plastic bans.
Canada is set, this year, to ban single-use stirring sticks, cutlery, food ware, and six-pack rings in addition to bags and straws, and Kenya is furthering its transition to reusables with a country-wide plastic bottle and bag bans. With these international moves towards sustainability, the possibility of a plastic-less future seems to be more attainable than ever.
There is no one solution to climate change, and plastic use is only part of the problem. But tossing blame between the various causes—fossil fuels, fast fashion, plastic straws—is only a tennis match of climate denialism. Indeed, the passage of the West Hollywood City Council’s single-use plastic foodware ban would be a much-needed step towards true, meaningful action that will guide individuals and businesses to re-evaluate their environmental behaviors for the benefit of our planet.
The Angeles Chapter of the Sierra Club welcomes your participation in its century of involvement in the enjoyment and protection of our planet's environment. The Angeles Chapter spans Los Angeles and Orange Counties in Southern California, with an extensive program of hikes/hiking, national and international travel, local conservation campaigns, political action, and programs for people of all ages.