Plastic Pollution is a Global Crisis
Plastic pollution has become a global threat affecting not only the environment, but also wildlife, human health, and the economy. From littering in urban areas to the accumulation of microplastics in the oceans, the impacts of plastic waste are far-reaching and undeniable. With increasing amounts of plastic being produced and consumed every day, it is imperative that we take action to address this growing problem. In this blog article, we will examine the role North American cities can play in tackling this crisis and discuss the urgent need for solutions to this pressing issue.
But isn’t plastic pollution a problem of developing countries?
Definitely not! While countries in Africa, Asia, and South America have the highest share of mismanaged plastic waste, and China is the leading producer of plastic globally, North America (specifically the US) is responsible for generating the largest amount of plastic waste in the world. In 2016, the US produced approximately 46 million U.S. tons (42 million metric tons) of plastic waste. In terms of coastal nations, the US ranks third for its contribution to litter, illegally dumped trash, and other mismanaged waste along its shorelines.
Only a small fraction of plastic waste in the US is recycled, and for over 30 years, the US has been exporting half of its recyclable plastic, mainly to China and other countries without adequate waste management systems. This practice was dramatically reduced in 2018 when China ceased importing plastic scrap as part of its green campaign to improve its environment, but the problem of managing the ongoing flood of plastic waste remains.
The statistics don’t leave a doubt that North America needs to step up in the fight against the plastic crisis.
So which role do cities play in this fight?
It is estimated that 80% of marine plastic debris comes from land and urban centers are responsible for astonishing 60% of plastic marine debris. This places big cities at the center of fighting plastic pollution globally. North American cities are not exception, as they are facing a growing problem of plastic pollution that is affecting the health of their residents and the environment. Plastic waste is found in the streets, parks, and waterways of cities across the continent, and its impact on wildlife and human health is alarming.
The Causes of Plastic Pollution in North American Cities
1. Littering: One of the biggest sources of plastic pollution in North American cities is littering plastic waste, such as cigarette butts, food wrappers, dog poo bags, and beverage containers that are often discarded carelessly, ending up on streets, sidewalks, and other public spaces. This leaves the litter at risk of ending up in the environment where it can take hundreds of years to break down. In addition, plastic litter in the streets can be carried by stormwater runoff into nearby waterways, where it can harm aquatic life and contaminate the water supply.
2. Improper Waste Management: Another issue is the lack of proper waste management systems in many North American cities. Many cities still rely on landfills to dispose of their waste, which can leach toxic chemicals into the environment and harm wildlife. Furthermore, many cities deal with contaminated recycling waste or lack the infrastructure to recycle plastic waste properly. This leads to much of it ending up in landfills or the natural environment. For the US this means that up to six times more plastic waste is burned than is recycled.
3. Single-use plastics: North American consumers love single-use plastics. It is estimated that Americans use 50 billion disposable coffee cups every year and half a billion straws every single day. The sheer amount of single use plastic that is consumed adds to the challenges above, as these plastic items often end up in the environment due to littering and poor waste management practices.
4. Industrial Waste: Industries, such as construction, petrochemical, pharmaceutical, and cosmetic industries, can contribute to plastic pollution by releasing plastic waste and microplastics into the environment through processes such as industrial discharge, runoff, or simple human negligence.
Efforts to Reduce Plastic Pollution in North American Cities
As the causes of plastic pollution are well known, governments can take concrete steps to reduce their plastic footprint and combat plastic pollution.
1. Littering: To tackle littering, cities can implement anti-littering laws with strict penalties for those caught littering. Additionally, cities can invest in public awareness campaigns to educate citizens about the impacts of littering and encourage them to dispose of waste properly. Finally, governments can also invest in more trash and recycling bins in public spaces and implement regular street cleaning programs to keep plastic litter off the streets.
2. Improper Waste Management: To improve waste management, cities can invest in modern waste management infrastructure, including sorting facilities, composting facilities, and recycling centers. They can also implement educational programs to educate citizens about proper waste disposal and encourage them to recycle. As another action, local governments should work with waste management companies to hold them accountable and ensure that waste is collected and disposed of properly, reducing the risk of plastic waste ending up in the environment.
3, Single-use plastics: To reduce the use of single-use plastics, implementing single-use plastic fees or banning single-use plastic altogether are effective measures. Cities should encourage the use of reusable alternatives, such as reusable coffee cups and water bottles. Consumer education also plays a crucial role in reducing the upstream consumption of plastic, which is essential to improve downstream impacts on waste management and littering. Additionally, regulators should partner with businesses to reduce single-use plastic packaging and encourage the use of alternative materials. Only if the sustainable alternatives become economically more attractive, corporations are prompted to replace their single-use plastic packaging. Last but not least, investments in research and development can accelerate the discovery and development of sustainable materials and reduce the production costs of these materials. That can be accompanied by partnerships between academia, business, and the local governments.
4. Industrial Waste: To reduce industrial waste, cities can work with industry leaders to implement waste reduction programs, including recycling and composting programs. Furthermore, regulators have the power to enforce strict regulations on the disposal of industrial waste, including fines for companies that violate these regulations. Additionally, industries need to be encouraged to develop new, more sustainable methods of production that generate less waste in the first place.
Plastic Pollution Needs A Collective Solution
In conclusion, plastic pollution in North American cities is a growing concern that requires a multilayered approach to solve. While global collaboration is imperative (see our latest articles about global regulations on pollution and environmental protection), governments also have a great lever to tackle the problem on a local level. By reducing the use of single-use plastic products, investing in better waste management systems, supporting plastic reduction policies, and educating consumers about the issue, city governments can make a real impact in the fight against plastic pollution and protect the health of our communities and the environment.
Finally, as consumers every single one of us has the power to make a difference by choosing sustainable alternatives to single-use plastic and thus contributing to replacing the polluting materials.
After all, plastic pollution is a problem that can only be solved in a collective effort.
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