Environmental Update: Reducing Our Use of Plastics

As many of us know, our everyday use of plastics is damaging our environment at an alarming rate. Plastic waste contributes significantly to pollution in Massachusetts. The more plastic we use, the more we continue to pollute our land and oceans. Scientific research has estimated that in the ocean, plastic bags can take 20 years to decompose, while plastic bottles can take up to approximately 450 years. Here in New England, the effect is visible as tons of plastic is washed up on our shorelines every year. Not only does it pollute our water and land, but the air we breathe as well. Our wildlife has also suffered drastically; an estimated 100,000 marine animals die from plastic entanglement per year. We must begin the process of adopting new practices now. And yet, there is some evidence that fossil fuel companies — realizing that there will be a slow but steady shift away from oil and gas in coming years — view the manufacturing of plastics derived from oil as a central part of their future business plans.    

With this in mind, I have made the issue of finding ways to reduce the use of plastic (and Styrofoam) one of my critical areas of focus this legislative session. Working with the Conservation Law Foundation, and other advocacy groups, I have introduced several pieces of legislation that are designed to minimize or eliminate these harmful products from use. Set forth below is a discussion of just some of those bills.  

Modeled on a California law, I filed An Act Restricting Distribution of Single-Use Plastic Straws. This bill would prevent restaurants and other food establishments from providing straws to customers, unless requested. Workers in California reported that although it takes some time to adjust, serving non-plastic straws or forgoing them all together has now become second nature. However, the bill still does allow for straws to be provided by request, for small children and those with disabilities.  From my own experience, I am continually surprised at how many establishments automatically provide a plastic straw when customers order a drink.  And then I am equally surprised at how often the customer merely takes the plastic straw out of the drink and drops it on the table.  It is incredibly wasteful, costs these restaurants and other businesses an unnecessary expense and is terrible for our environment.  

In addition to the bill pertaining to plastic straws, I also filed a bill relating to how we recycle plastic bottles. Plastic pollution must be addressed on many different fronts, and our ban on plastic straws would only put a dent in the broader issue of how we combat plastic waste. Our use of plastic bottles has caused significant harm to our environment. More than 80% of bottle caps found along shorelines come from consumer drinks, and the rest comes from things like detergent and pill bottles. In fact, among the most frequently found items discovered during beach cleanings, bottle caps are high on the list. There are two things that must happen if we would like to see an improvement in this area. First, we must ensure that caps stay connected to the bottle, so they cannot be disposed of separately or accidentally littered. Second, we must ensure that the caps and the bottle are made from the same type of plastic, so they can be recycled together. Today, even if someone were to recycle a bottle with the cap attached, because bottle and caps are often made from different materials, it can prevent the whole bottle from being recycled. The bill I filed, An Act to Improve Plastic Bottles and Their Recycling, does address both issues. It mandates that a bottle be designed in a way that the cap stays attached, and is made from the same type of plastic as the rest of the bottle. It has the potential to make a significant improvement in how we recycle plastic and cut down on plastic waste. 

Outside of the environmental impact, our use of harmful materials in our everyday lives has also created a public health issue. Specifically, one of the most widely used plastics is polystyrene, also known as Styrofoam. While many of us know this petroleum-based product causes significant harm to the environment, less well known is that the toxic chemicals released from the Styrofoam can also leach into our food. Recently, I testified on behalf of my bill, An Act to Prohibit the Use of Polystyrene Foam Food Containers, which was referred to the Committee on Public Health. This bill will ban stores and food distributors from selling or packing food in polystyrene foam (Styrofoam) in Massachusetts. There are now good, affordable alternatives; we simply do not need to keep using Styrofoam.  I am pushing this bill hard and hope Massachusetts will join only a couple other states (Maine & Maryland most recently) who have banned this harmful and unnecessary product.

Enough plastic gets thrown away each year to circle the Earth four times. This is a significant concern and has fueled the zero waste initiatives aimed at reducing, reusing, and recycling effectively. In Massachusetts, 9.2 million tons of waste comes from residential and commercial properties, only 32% of that is recycled. We must enforce current regulations that ban certain types of waste from landfills and incinerators. This would help us reduce our disposal rate by nearly 35%!  That is why I also filed An Act to Incentivize the Reduction of Residential Waste Disposal (Pay as you throw). This bill requires municipalities to report their waste disposal numbers per capita for all residential service every year and, if they are disposing of more than 500 pounds per capita, they are required to adopt a Zero Waste International Alliance (ZWIA) compliant program to reduce or divert waste from disposal.

In Massachusetts, it is encouraging to see that some companies are beginning to transition to other materials. Starbucks, Hyatt, Hilton, and Bon Appetite are among the few that have not only banned plastic straws but have come up with several alternatives. Many companies now sell reusable metal straws, which come in a multitude of forms such as aluminum, titanium, or stainless steel and are considered the eco-friendliest due to their longevity. Other companies have implemented recyclable lids, and some have used biodegradable paper straws. The cafeteria for State House (and other state) employees has started putting out paper straws. In addition to my legislative initiatives, I am hoping that market forces and consumer pressure will help keep up the slowly growing momentum for alternatives to plastic. 

I was proud to partner with the Conservation Law Foundation on these bills that are a part of their Zero Waste Agenda. All of these bills will go a long way to reduce the amount of waste in our world. By 2050, it is estimated that there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish by weight. Obviously, plastics are made from fossil fuels. Then by definition, their manufacture contributes to climate change.  When plastics break down, it forms microplastics, which have long-lasting negative effects on living things, including plants, animals, and humans. In our body, and the bodies of the food we eat, the chemicals in microplastics can damage organs. Microplastics in the soil also have effects on the plants that grow there and can make their way up the food chain. While these are the effects we know, scientific understanding in this area is still growing. It is clear where Massachusetts should stand on this issue. It is essential we meet these expectations by taking the lead on these critical environmental issues and reduce our use of plastics. 

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Contact Dave

Please never hesitate to contact me for any reason.

Phone: 617-722-2637
Email: dave.rogers@mahouse.gov
Mail: State House Room 544, Boston, MA 02133