I heard the doorbell ring: “Delivery!” I exclaimed, alerting my dogs. We ran, full of joy, to the porch to pick up our newest box. Inside and underneath a plastic bag, which was underneath a plastic cover, which was also underneath a bunch of bubble wrap, was a rolled up canvas and paint. My paint-by-numbers had arrived!
Struggling through the plastic landscape, I couldn’t help but wonder: Why this much packaging? A canvas is not fragile, the paint was completely sealed and the brushes certainly did not need their own bag. And yet, I was left with a mountain of garbage.
Rocks in a bay near Moraira, Hubertine Heijermans via Flickr, U.S. Public Domain
Not only did I end up with lots of trash, but plastic trash. Plastic is an environmentally harmful material in every stage of its life cycle. It is produced from oil through a chemical process and after generally a single use, it pollutes the environment for centuries. If it’s not recovered and recycled, it releases toxic chemicals into the ground and water. And because it’s not biodegradable, it will continue to do so indefinitely. Even worse, it harms wildlife when it ends up in their stomachs or when it contaminates their surrounding food source. It’s clear that plastic pollution is dangerous, so why do we use so much of it?
To answer this, you have to understand that plastic masquerades as an efficient packaging material. A large portion of plastic pollution comes from single-use packaging produced by corporations. For example, in 2018, 14.5 million tons of plastic containers and packaging was generated in the United States. That’s 5% of the total U.S. Municipal Solid Waste output – equivalent to the weight of about 70,000 blue whales or 1 billion gold bars. Moreover, only about 2 million tons landed at the recycling plant; only 13.6% of all the plastic packaging generated in 2018 was recycled. The rest clogs our landfills, endangers our wildlife and pollutes our ecosystems – and will continue to do so for centuries to come.
Marine litter. Most often found: Plastic pieces, bottles, rope, floats and buoys. Bo Eide via Flickr, U.S. Public Domain
Much like my over-packaged paint-by-numbers, many of these plastic containers and other packaging materials are redundant and unnecessary. I am not alone in receiving over-packaged boxes – it’s evident that the over-use of single-use plastics is not the exception, but the rule. Products shipped to stores around the country are packaged with an excessive amount of plastic. It’s clear corporations are responsible for producing this plastic waste. Something has to be done to stop this: plastic is not sustainable, and a great deal of plastic packaging could be replaced by environmentally-friendly equivalents. In the end, there is only one truly viable solution: produce less plastic packaging in the first place.
For many years, the duty of recycling has fallen on consumers, such as myself, but this is not the answer we need. The responsibility of reducing plastic pollution should fall on the producers who generate plastic and the big corporations that demand it. If they were to reduce their redundant packaging and simultaneously switch to more sustainable and recycled materials, the amount of plastic trash would drastically decrease – giving our wildlife a fighting chance.
This call for accountability is what sparked Colorado’s Producer Responsibility Bill. This bill, recently signed by Gov. Jared Polis, discourages the use of single-use plastics by imposing a fee on each layer of packaging used by large companies. Further, corporations wishing to sell in Colorado will have to pay into a Producer Responsibility Fund. This new system will make recycling easier by standardizing it across the state while also making it more accessible to producers and consumers alike.
Recycle! Steven Sos via Flickr, U.S. Public Domain
The new producer responsibility program should encourage large corporations to use less packaging – especially plastic – and switch to more sustainable alternatives. The fee distribution is still being drafted by state lawmakers, but it should be designed to charge less for green materials and more for plastic. Policymakers must listen to both industry and environmentalists to find a solution favorable for both producers and the planet. In other words, the fee distribution rate and application should decrease plastic creation while enhancing recycling.
With this program implemented, I hope that the next time I order a paint-by-numbers, I won’t be left with a ton of plastic trash. Decreasing packaging in each individual order and wholesale shipment makes a difference, and any decline in plastic use is a step in the right direction. Now, it’s up to our policymakers to properly incentivize producer sustainability to ensure the long-term safety of our health and environment.
Director, Public Lands Campaign, Environment America
Ellen runs campaigns to protect America's beautiful places, from local beachfronts to remote mountain peaks. Prior to her current role, Ellen worked as the organizing director for Environment America’s Climate Defenders campaign. Ellen lives in Denver, where she likes to hike in Colorado's mountains.
Environment Colorado Intern