A few days after Russia invaded Ukraine, the UN Environment Programme’s International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a new dire report entitled “Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability.” Both the war in Ukraine and the IPCC report underscore the need to speed up the world’s transition away from dirty energy: Burning fossil fuels scorches the planet while Russian sales of oil and gas fund its razing of Ukraine.
In addition to heating homes and fueling cars and cooking meals, fossil fuels are also the primary component of plastic. So while we turn down the heat a degree or two and put on a sweater, drive less and perhaps give methane-free induction cooking a whirl in our efforts to reduce fossil fuel consumption and dependence, reducing plastic will also reduce fossil fuel demand.
The amount of fossil fuels that go into plastic is not trivial. According to a 2021 report from Beyond Plastics, in the US, emissions generated from plastic all along 10 stages of its polluting lifecycle—extraction of fossil fuels, transportation, refining, production, chemical recycling, waste incineration and so on—will exceed the emissions from coal-fired power plants by 2030.
In other words, as geographer Deidre MacKay has explained, “plastic is climate change, just in its solid state.”
Some good news on the plastic pollution crisis
Days after the IPCC report came out, the UN announced that 175 countries agreed to begin writing a global treaty to address the crisis. This legally binding agreement will not merely deal with plastic pollution after the fact; it will curb the problem at its source—production.
According to the New York Times,
Supporters have said that a global plastics treaty would be the most important environmental accord since the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change, in which nations agreed to cut greenhouse gas emissions.
Here in my state, the California Recycling and Plastic Pollution Reduction Act will appear on the November 2022 statewide ballot. If it passes, it would levy a fee on single-use plastic items, up to a maximum of 1 cent per item of packaging and foodware. The money would help fund waste reduction programs, recycling systems upgrades and environmental mitigation. (Read more about the landmark initiative here.) What happens in California—the fifth largest economy in the world—doesn’t stay in California. Out-of-state companies that want to do business here will have to comply if the initiative passes.
And today, Starbucks announced a new reusable cup program. Customers will either be able to bring a mug from home or use a reusable mug provided by Starbucks. Currently, Starbucks goes through 7 billion throw-away cups worldwide in a year, either paper cups lined with plastic or plastic cups. (Aside from the waste, food and plastic don’t mix well.) This shows that the reuse revolution has gained steam. Even Starbucks is doing something.
Starbucks is shifting away from single-use plastics and piloting reusable cup programs in six markets around the world. By the end of next year, customers will be able to use their own personal reusable cup for every Starbucks visit in the U.S. and Canada—including in café, drive-thru and mobile order and pay.Starbucks press release
While we individuals wait for and welcome these changes at the top, we can reduce plastic waste at the bottom
1. Cut the Top 4. If you’re just getting started, cut these four ubiquitous plastic items that happen to have simple replacements:
- Plastic shopping bags and produce bags
- Bottled water
- Throw-away coffee cups (they are lined with plastic)
- Plastic straws (a small step that leads to bigger ones)
Cut these and you’ll cut loads of plastic. Read more about the Top 4 here.
2. Choose more ways to cut plastic. If you have already cut the Top 4, move on to more items on this list of 50 ways to cut plastic.
3. Kick plastic in the garden. Fill your home and yard with healthy plants—not the landfill with single-use plastic trash. From plastic bags of soil, compost and mulch to the pots of almost every single seedling, flower and tree for sale, nurseries overflow with the stuff. Go here for alternatives.
4. Write a letter or email. Ask a company you patronize (or used to) to reduce their plastic trash. You could write something like:
“Hi, my name is [NAME] and I love your [NAME OF PRODUCT]. However, I will no longer buy it due to its unnecessary and excessive plastic packaging. As you know, plastic is made of fossil fuels, contributes to the climate crisis and pollutes our natural environment. Please change your packaging so I can once again spend my money with your company!”
To make sending feedback to a nearby business very easy, download the Remark app. Use it to find a company and choose several areas to rate (product packaging, bulk options, produce bags and so on). The app writes a constructively worded letter on your behalf that asks the store to make changes (but doesn’t use your name) and emails it to the store. Many stores have made changes after receiving these emails. You can also write to stores that have cut down on single-use plastic and let them know you appreciate their efforts.
Thank you to everyone who joined the cook-a-long last week. It raised $2,753 for humanitarian relief in Ukraine and clips of it aired on CBC’s The National! The next fundraiser—Solidarity Sauerkraut—takes place on March 30th. All proceeds go toward Ukrainian relief. Go here for more details.