VIDEO: Udall Makes the Case for a Comprehensive National Strategy to Address Plastic Pollution and Climate Change at the Center for Strategic and International Studies
WASHINGTON – Today, U.S. Senator Tom Udall (D-N.M.) gave remarks on the global plastic pollution crisis, its impact on climate change and the intersections between climate change and global security during an event at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). Following his remarks, Udall joined Whitley Saumweber, director of the Stephenson Ocean Security Project at CSIS, to discuss the wide-ranging effects of the plastic pollution crisis and his legislation that would shift the burden of responsibility for plastic waste to manufactures, saving taxpayers billions of dollars and significantly reducing carbon emissions.
“[I]n 30 years, emissions from plastics are forecast to eat up so much of the carbon budget that we won’t be able to meet the global target of keeping temperature rise below 1.5 degree Celsius,” said Udall. “We cannot afford to get locked into so much plastic production that it threatens our planet. We must press pause and forge a more sustainable path forward. Reining in plastic production from fossil fuels must be as much a part of our strategy to halt climate change as reining in energy production from fossil fuels.”
“Plastic is not only contributing to the climate crisis. It’s also contributing to the unprecedented destruction of wildlife. As we face the prospect of the extinction of one million species in the coming decades – we must face down plastic. Plastic is choking marine life. Udall added. “It’s killing 1 million sea birds and 100,000 sea mammals, marine turtles, and fish every year. At the rate we’re going, by 2050, there will be more plastic bottles, bags, and cups in the oceans than fish.
“And let’s be clear: This isn’t just a problem for nature. It’s a problem for humanity. Communities around the world are threatened by this pollution,” Udall continued. “They rely on our oceans, coral reef systems, healthy fish and wildlife populations and ecosystems for survival. When these are threatened – livelihoods are jeopardized, and poverty and global insecurity and turmoil result.”
Udall introduced the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act of 2020 earlier this month with U.S. Representative Alan Lowenthal (D-Calif.). The Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act advances comprehensive solutions to our plastic pollution crisis by reducing damaging single-use products, shifting responsibility for recycling and collection of waste to producers of products, and driving investments in a reusable economy. The reforms will save local and municipal governments billions of dollars per year.
Udall's remarks as prepared for delivery are below. Video of Udall's remarks is available HERE.
I’m here to talk about the plastic pollution crisis facing our planet and – most importantly – what we can do about it.
Images of plastic engulfing the planet are everywhere:
Beached whales with hundreds of pounds of plastic in their bellies. Birds, turtles, and fish helplessly trapped in plastic waste. Rivers of plastic dumping into our oceans.
We see plastic waste strewn along our roads, floating in our city storm drains, littering our local parks.
Two miles above sea level in the Rocky Mountains, it’s raining microplastics. Seven miles below sea level, at the bottom of the Mariana Trench – the deepest place in the ocean – there’s plastic wrappers.
It’s in our own bodies. Research shows we swallow a credit card’s worth of plastic every week – through our air, water and food.
In 1950, the world produced 1.5 million tons of plastic. In 2016 – over 320 million tons. Half of which is single-use. And that number could double in less than 15 years.
Plastic manufacturers have fooled consumers into thinking they can recycle all this plastic waste – a material made from fossil fuels that takes 1,000 years to degrade.
So, many of us dutifully recycle. But here’s the staggering truth: less than 8 percent of U.S. plastic waste is actually recycled.
There are virtually no facilities in the U.S. to recycle anything besides plastics labeled #1 and #2. And yet producers put recycling labels on everything.
It’s an illusion. Well over 90 percent of our plastic waste goes into landfills, is incinerated into the air, is shipped to developing countries, or is just dumped.
Sadly, we can’t recycle our way out of this problem.
The only way out is to reduce the amount of plastic produced in the first place.
And we must put the responsibility for plastic waste where it belongs – on the manufacturers who profit from it, instead of on strapped local governments and, ultimately, the taxpayer – who now foot the bill.
The good news is that we can break free from plastic.
And I want to tell you about the roadmap – the path we can take to navigate this crisis and secure our planet for future generations.
This month I introduced the first bill in Congress that comprehensively tackles the plastic crisis – the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act. Along with Representative Alan Lowenthal of California – we engaged over 200 environmental advocates, industry leaders, local government officials, and others on how to build a sustainable future.
The framework is this:
First, we phase out the most harmful plastic items that aren’t recyclable — like bags, utensils, and foam food and drinkware.
Second, we require producers to take responsibility for the waste that results after their products are used. Producers must design, manage, and finance waste and recycling programs. Instead of outsourcing their waste to local communities and developing countries that can’t handle it.
By requiring producers to take responsibility, we will encourage manufacturers to create and design sustainable products. We will put our best engineering minds to work – to innovate, create jobs, and grow our economy in sustainable ways. There’s real economic opportunity here.
One way to make sure products get recycled is through a nationwide bottle deposit system — providing 10 cents per container returned. These programs work. In states that have them, like Oregon and Michigan, nearly 90 percent of single-use containers get recycled. Nationally, this would translate into millions of plastic containers returned and reprocessed into new products.
And when we get those bottles back, we require a greater percentage of recycled content in new bottles.
The bill also puts a pause on the major plastic production expansion that is going on right now – to allow the EPA to update critical protections for public health and the environment.
Here’s an example. Plastic pellets are the foundation for all plastic products. And without the right EPA rules, plastic producers will continue to dump tiny plastic pellets into waterways and the environment. This must change.
Plastic not only threatens human health – it’s associated with cancers, diabetes, organ malfunction, and birth defects – but it’s also at the intersection of the two existential crises facing our nation and the world: climate change and the nature crisis.
Cradle to grave – the life cycle of plastic is greenhouse gas intensive: Extracting fossil fuels to make plastic produces greenhouse gases. The manufacture is intensive and produces emissions.
Landfilling or incinerating the waste creates emissions. And scientists are finding that even plastic products produce emissions as they degrade.
Today, plastic production contributes nearly 5 percent of all global carbon emissions.
Oil and gas companies are anticipating decreased demand for fossil fuels. They are hedging their bets and investing in super-polluting petrochemical plants.
The plastics and oil and gas industries have announced $164 billion dollars in investments for 264 new facilities or expansion projects in the U.S. alone.
In as little as 5 years, these investments could increase global plastics production by one-third.
In 10 years, emissions from plastic production could reach the equivalent of more than 295 new 500-megawatt coal-fired power plants.
We lose the climate benefits of coal-fired power plants retiring if we just replace them with mega-petrochemical plants. There is a jobs aspect to these plants to be sure—but they are not the only hope for new jobs. The packaging industry is $900 billion per year and the U.S. recycling industry over $100 billion. Innovation in those industries away from wasteful plastic can create many more new jobs than these plants.
And we know where most of those super-polluting plants will find their homes – in poor communities and communities of color.
And in 30 years, emissions from plastics are forecast to eat up so much of the carbon budget that we won’t be able to meet the global target of keeping temperature rise below 1.5 degree Celsius.
We cannot afford to get locked into so much plastic production that it threatens our planet.
We must press pause and forge a more sustainable path forward.
Reining in plastic production from fossil fuels must be as much a part of our strategy to halt climate change as reining in energy production from fossil fuels.
But plastic is not only contributing to the climate crisis. It’s also contributing to the unprecedented destruction of wildlife. As we face the prospect of the extinction of one million species in the coming decades – we must face down plastic.
Plastic is choking marine life. It’s killing 1 million sea birds and 100,000 sea mammals, marine turtles, and fish every year. And at the rate we’re going, by 2050, there will be more plastic bottles, bags, and cups in the oceans than fish.
And let’s be clear: This isn’t just a problem for nature. It’s a problem for humanity.
Communities around the world are threatened by this pollution. They rely on our oceans, coral reef systems, healthy fish and wildlife populations and ecosystems for survival.
When these are threatened – livelihoods are jeopardized, and poverty and global insecurity and turmoil result.
The challenges we face are great. Indeed, they are existential. But we have it in our power to change course before it is too late.
I have a vision. I’m promoting it every opportunity I get – in the hope that it will become our shared vision. It’s three-fold.
First, we must save nature. Nature is reaching a tipping point. Many ecosystems and animal and plant species are nearing the point of no return, under siege from human forces like plastic pollution.
That’s why I’ve introduced the Thirty by Thirty to Save Nature Resolution – to protect 30 percent of our lands and oceans by 2030 – and more in the coming decades. This is the science-backed target around which we must organize.
Second, we must tackle climate change with everything we have and transition from fossil fuels to net zero carbon pollution. That’s why I am ringing the alarm bell – so people see the connection between plastic production and climate change.
And third, as we tackle the nature and climate crises, environmental justice must be our north star.
Communities of color bare the legacy of toxic pollution. No one should be left behind as we move to a sustainable future.
And this future is attainable. The only question is whether we’ll summon the will and courage to get it done.
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