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To Turn Off the Plastics Tap, We Must Grow the Grassroots Movement

Guest Author | 3 July 2023

We Must Grow the Grassroots Movement  

Each year 11 million tons of plastics enter the ocean primarily from land-based sources. If we don’t work to curb plastics production, that amount will triple by 2060. At that point there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish. There will be so many dreadful statistics in our future if we allow the plastics industry to conduct business as usual, and this is what drove me to start a new organization with the central mission to end plastic pollution everywhere. 

The great news is that we already have the tools we need to reduce plastic pollution and turn off the plastic tap. These tools are policies like single-use plastic bans (single-use bags, straws, polystyrene, etc.), Skip the Stuff laws, extended producer responsibility (EPR) laws to reduce packaging, and deposit return systems for beverage containers. We know that when done properly — and the devil is definitely in the details — these policies can move us toward eliminating the single-use plastics which make up 40% of all plastic waste. 

Cultivating grassroots

You may be thinking, “That’s great, but how do we get those policies passed?” That’s where the magic of the grassroots comes in and why at Beyond Plastics, we focus much of our time on cultivating grassroots groups and organizing actions at the local and state level. We know from social scientists that the tipping point — the point at which a new idea or way of doing things takes off — is when 25% of a population supports that idea. We can get to that 25%. With public will to take action on plastics reduction at an all-time high, the time to get involved is now. 

The majority of American voters (86%) are concerned about single-use plastics and support plastic reduction policies at the federal, state, and local levels. We can tap into that momentum by organizing people to educate policymakers and to demonstrate both the feasibility and efficacy of these policy solutions. A bottom-up approach is needed because we’ve seen time and again that a patchwork of local legislation prompts the need for state policy change and that state policies build the demand for changes at the federal level. 

New Jersey is one great example of this. This northeastern U.S. state had over 150 different local plastics reduction laws on the books that led to the adoption of a statewide law — the Plastic Trifecta. Some of the businesses we would’ve expected to oppose the legislation did not because they couldn’t deal with a patchwork quilt of different rules in different towns, cities, and counties — they wanted a single consistent state-level policy.

There are over 19,000 municipal governments in the U.S., which means that we need a lot of feet on the ground to support strong plastics reduction policies and block weak proposals that will waste vital time in solving the plastic pollution crisis. Each stage of plastic’s life cycle harms our environment, threatens our health, worsens environmental injustices, and speeds up the climate crisis. Plastic production has immensely negative impacts on people living near petrochemical facilities. (Here in the U.S., those facilities are located primarily in Texas, Louisiana, and Appalachia.) Recycling does not address the harms of extraction or production; and with less than 6% of plastics being recycled (along with the circulation of toxic chemicals and microplastics inherent in the process), we know that recycling is not an effective solution for plastics. We have to reduce.

Tsunami of Plastic/Eileen Ryan event, Tader Joes, Death by Plastic Performance 2022-07-20, Boston MA/South Station. 

Joining forces

This Plastic Free July, Beyond Plastics is supporting our local and affiliated groups across the United States in a campaign arc that culminates with a plastic take-back action under the theme “Plastic is Hazardous.” This phrase covers all of the negative impacts plastics have on people, wildlife, and the environment, and echoes the conclusions from “The Minderoo-Monaco Commission on Plastics and Human Health.” It also encompasses all the local and state policy solutions that our grassroots groups are advocating for. 

Groups across the country will gather signatures for a petition or sign-on letter supporting the local policy they’re advocating for; and on Thursday, July 20, they will deliver the petition or letter, along with loads of useless single-use plastic that they’ve accumulated to the appropriate public office, inviting media, the public and supportive legislators to take part in the event. Although we can only support non-profit organizations in the United States, Beyond Plastics is sharing our Plastic-Free July Action Guide so that others can use it to lead a similar event in their location. 

Working in community with other individuals and grassroots groups is vital to grow the movement to end plastic pollution. Plastics are ubiquitous in our daily lives. Although we can each make changes in our own homes to reduce our use of plastics, we must also look to larger-scale solutions to shift away from our single-use culture. Find the community groups near you to do what you can, where you are, with what you have. If there’s no group, consider starting your own! For those of you located in the United States, we’ve got loads of resources to help you do just that, including a free virtual grassroots organizing training that we offer every three months, plus tools, resources, and regular meetings to help nourish and guide our growing network of grassroots groups and affiliated organizations. You can learn more about this on our website

Effecting Change

By pulling the levers of government to establish regulations and incentives to move away from plastics, we will see an expansion of reusable systems and a reduction of single-use plastic. There are a growing number of companies using a mail-back refill model, and selling products packaged in paper or (gasp!) entirely unpackaged. New laws will send a clear signal to businesses and investors that there is a growing demand for refillable/reusable products and a need to invest in the infrastructure required to scale up reuse and refill systems. 

The issue of plastics reduction can feel overwhelming, but when you connect with others in your community, you will be surprised by what you can tackle. It just takes a few motivated people working together to make big changes. 

Judith Enck founded Beyond Plastics in 2019 after being appointed by President Obama and serving as the regional administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for New York, New Jersey, eight Indian nations, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. She is a faculty member at Bennington College in Vermont.

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