By Karine Vann
July 18, 2021
Early in June, a large container ship carrying huge quantities of toxic materials—25 metric tons of nitric acid and billions of tiny plastic pellets, called nurdles, which are feedstock for manufacturing of plastic products—caught fire and sank off the coast of Sri Lanka. The cleanup crew found the nurdles irreparably mixed in with sand on nearby beaches, reaching as far as 75 miles to the south. Dead fish, birds and sea turtles began to wash up on shore. And for what?
What shook me about this story was putting it into the context of the pandemic. "This is like the coronavirus, no end in sight," one sailor from the shipwreck told AFP. "We removed all the plastic yesterday, only to see more of it dumped by the waves overnight." Experts say that this region, which was a rich area for fishing, will be severely affected for the foreseeable future.
It’s hard to pare the hysteria over the public health consequences of Covid to the near total lack of concern we demonstrate societally over plastic, a fossil fuel-derived material whose proliferation ravages our environment and will ensure a planet that will not be habitable for human life moving forward. It is one of the most disturbing consequences of our love affair with corporations, who continue to be the world’s biggest plastic pollution offenders. Yet, most people I know—many of whom have been up in arms over Covid and were willing to change their behaviors drastically to adapt to a new public health reality—seem to be pretty unconcerned by it. Most still aren't willing to forgo how convenient plastic makes their lives in the short term.
It's not really the consumer that is guilty here, because at this point, you can't really escape it, even if you're like me and you want to—the ubiquity of plastic and the wastefulness of modern life binds us all to it, whether we like it or not. In reality, there shouldn't even be the option to use a cup, or a fork, or a diaper a single time and throw it away. The fact that it's even on the shelves at all is the problem.
This is a gloomy column. But I’m a solutions-oriented person. Currently, there are 43 bills in the Massachusetts State House and Senate that target the visible aftermath of corporatism: plastic waste. Many of these, while well-intentioned, will be largely ineffective at combating waste streams, because they promote things like recycling infrastructure, which is more of a bandaid than a solution to the problem. But 11 of them explicitly target reducing single-use plastic in Massachusetts (listed below). That is (slightly) encouraging. That is the type of legislation we need to be supporting, and we need to push our legislators (whose names are listed in parenthesis) to get more aggressive and creative in identifying this problem and normalizing the solution. You’ll notice that 3 of the bills are dedicated exclusively to plastic straws. Seriously? This item-by-item approach just isn’t going to cut it. We need sweeping legislation.
H869, An Act to reduce single-use plastics from the environment (Ciccolo)
H870, An Act to support restaurants and reduce single-use plastics in the environment (Ciccolo)
H871, An Act to reduce packaging waste (Connolly)
H879, An Act to strengthen reuse, repurpose, recycle (Campbell)
H902, An Act relative to plastic bag reduction (Ehrlich)
H907, An Act of leadership by the state of Massachusetts to reduce single use plastics (Fernandes)
H989, An Act to restrict, reduce, and minimize the use and distribution of single-use plastic straws in Massachusetts (Pignatelli)
H998, An Act restricting distribution of single-use plastic straws (Rogers)
S494, An Act to combat disposable plastic straw waste (Barrett)
S503, An Act to reduce plastic packaging waste (Creem)
S525, An Act relative to plastic bag reduction (Eldridge)
The disaster in Sri Lanka isn’t the first or the last. While massively profitable for corporate bottom lines, there are countless hidden costs. When it comes time to pay them, it is people and ecosystems—not corporations—who foot the bill.