As a child of frugal parents who grew up during the Great Depression, I was always taught as long as I did not waste food or material things that I would never be without. “Waste not, want not” was an oft-heard slogan around our house. I carried my lunch to school in a brown paper bag that was recycled from our grocery store purchases, and my peanut butter and jelly sandwich was wrapped in wax paper. After lunch I would fold up the wax paper inside the bag and carry it home in my back pocket for use the next day. I could generally go an entire week without the need for another bag or more wax paper.
Needless to say, I feel a high level of discomfort with our current throw-away society. Not only do we consume ever-increasing levels of natural resources, but we create mountains of waste and the resulting degradation of our environment. Nowhere is the problem more evident than with plastic products. My paper bag and wax paper have been replaced with plastic bags for chips, a plastic container for fruit or dessert, a plastic sandwich wrapper and a drink in a plastic bottle. The manufacturer’s ability to find new uses and the public’s willingness to accept them seem unlimited.
A two-year research project by the Pew Charitable Trusts and SYSTEMIQ, Ltd., a London-based environmental think tank, estimates that by 2040 the amount of plastic trash that flows into the oceans every year will triple to 29 million metric tons. Its report “Breaking the Plastic Wave” lists challenging actions that need to be taken to reverse this dangerous threat to our environment. (https://www.pewtrusts.org/en/, July 2020). The Report was peer reviewed and presented in the journal Science (https://science.sciencemag.org/, July 2020).
The report calls for a wholesale remaking of the global plastics industry by shifting to a circular economy that reuses and recycles plastics. It discusses ten critical findings “showing that a path forward to a low plastic pollution future already exists—now we have to make the choice to walk this path.” The Virginia General Assembly took two steps on the pathway to reduce plastic pollution.
A bill on which I was a co-patron passed and which the Governor has now signed into law prohibits the use of expanded polystyrene food containers, the white foam containers that break into an endless number of pieces and litter our beaches and roadsides. The legislature also passed a bill designating advanced recycling as a manufacturing process that must follow all federal and state environmental regulations and laws and a budget amendment I introduced to require the Department of Environmental Quality to monitor the newly-emerging industry.
Clearly the General Assembly must take more aggressive actions in the future to reduce the use of plastics, provide for their reuse or recycling, and recognize that multiple strategies must be taken if the challenges that the Pew study identified are to be addressed. Citizens can join in taking voluntary actions to make choices in the marketplace of alternatives to plastics. Returning to a paper lunch bag or reusable container is a good idea, but the reuse of wax paper is not recommended!