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Peter Blair is a staff attorney at Conservation Law Foundation in Portland.
The long-awaited statewide ban on polystyrene foam containers and single-use plastic bags was set to take effect this month. Not only will the ban dramatically reduce the litter and pollution in our streets and waters, it will also cut the toxic emissions that result from burning plastic in incinerators.
Unfortunately, the Department of Environmental Protection will not be enforcing the statewide ban for another six months due to “several practical and logistical effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.”
While the delay is disappointing, it is not surprising. Many government agencies are currently struggling to operate and regulate safely while navigating the impacts created by the ongoing pandemic. However, while the department has laid out legitimate concerns for delaying enforcement of the bans, like issues in acquiring alternatives such as paper bags, we must not buy into the false narrative created by the plastic and fossil fuel industry. They are attempting to undermine the success and momentum of single-use plastic bans across the country.
Back in March 2020, when the public was first adjusting to an uncertain future built around the concept of social distancing, the plastic industry was seizing an opportunity to increase the production of single-use plastic. The Plastic Industry Association quickly drafted a letter to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services requesting that they formally issue a statement endorsing single-use plastics over reusable bags and containers. They also urged the agency to recommend lifting bans on single-use plastics across the nation.
The entire premise of the letter was flawed research that argued that reusables could spread the virus based on studies of other pathogens. Three months later, when the American Chemical Society published its own detailed study criticizing and correcting the science the Plastic Industry Association used to justify delaying bans, the damage was already done.
This was not the first time the plastic industry sought to undermine the critical environmental and public health goals of regulating single-use plastic, and it will not be the last. The industry’s business model hinges on a continued flow of disposable plastic like bags and containers. This model has flooded our planet in plastic and now, with the help of the fossil fuel industry, they want to increase the production even more.
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, growth in global oil and gas demand had slowed to 1 percent annually as increases in renewable energy and electric vehicles displaced traditional markets for fossil fuels. Lockdowns, distancing and decreases in travel only furthered this decline, and the large fossil fuel companies are looking for new ways to stay in business. Plastic, made from oil, gas and their byproducts, is their new lifeline. The fossil fuel industry is pouring billions of dollars into plastic to remain profitable. Since 2010, companies have invested more than $200 billion in 333 plastic and other chemical projects in the U.S.
Laws that reduce the demand and availability of plastic products like Maine’s ban on plastic bags and polystyrene foam containers are critical to halting this build out of plastic production facilities. These bans will drastically reduce the harm these products have on the environment, slash the skyrocketing waste management and recycling costs for cities and towns, and cut down on the overall demand for plastics. These bans work and are tools that change plastic consumption habits.
Over the next six months, the Department of Environmental Protection must work with restaurants and retailers to identify supply chains for alternatives to plastic products and help educate the public about the upcoming enforcement of the law. Together we can ensure we are all prepared and ready to take this small but critical first step towards tackling the plastic crisis.