NEWPORT, RHODE ISLAND June 19, 2017 – Monday morning, attendees of an American Chemistry Council-sponsored conference in Newport, Rhode Island, who may have expected coffee and bagels at the entrance of the Viking Hotel, were instead met by a 20-foot banner that read #BreakFreeFromPlastic. Inside, in his keynote address, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), an outspoken voice on the issue of plastic pollution in U.S. waterways, and co-sponsor of the bipartisan Save our Seas (SOS) Act, sounded the same alarms raised by groups outside. The demonstration outside of the American Chemistry Council conference was led by U.S. NGOs that are members of the global Break Free From Plastic movement.
Break Free From Plastic (known online as #breakfreefromplastic) is a rapidly-growing collaboration of over 800 nonprofit organizations united worldwide around the need for dramatic decreases in the production single-use plastic: packaging, containers, and bags produced and used globally. As Von Hernandez, the Manila-based Global Coordinator for Break Free From Plastic puts it,
Our growing and unprecedented global movement has come together around these crystal clear principles: First, there is simply too much plastic in the system. There is no tenable solution other than reducing and eventually stopping the production of low-value single-use plastics. Second, plastic pollution is also a social justice issue that unduly affects the health and livelihood of communities particularly in the Global South. The real solutions to this crisis can be seen through the work and leadership of zero waste communities and practitioners throughout the world.
The American Chemistry Council, a long-time proponent of both plastics and the ‘better living through chemistry’ story, purported to address plastic marine debris at today’s event. However, the event fundamentally failed to address the biggest issue of all: on plastics, there is simply too much being produced. We don’t need better cleanup, we need less plastic.
Monday morning’s demonstration sent a powerful signal that the American Chemistry Council (ACC) is on the wrong side of a global movement with a unified vision for zero waste. Senator Whitehouse, a longtime proponent of curbing plastic production, spoke to the crowd outside, then to the attendees inside, about the seriousness of this issue and the path forward. As part of the scheduled panel discussions, organizations such as As You Sow, UPSTREAM, Algalita, and 5 Gyres pushed the same points: that source reduction and packaging redesign were the only viable solutions. Inside and outside the conference, representatives from diverse organizations such as Surfrider Foundation, Clean Water Action, The Story of Stuff Project and Plastic Pollution Coalition, and many others, spoke with one unified voice to say: “We must head off plastic pollution at the source.”
Plastics have overwhelmed the global system causing serious negative impacts, beyond a simple management problem. National and international bans, restrictions, and regulations on the distribution of low-value single-use plastics (restrictions on bags, to-go boxes for food, wrappers, and single-serving sachets) are a meaningful way to reduce plastic pollution on land and in waterways. City and corporate-managed recycling systems alone can never scale up at the same pace as the production of plastic waste. There are tens of thousands of jurisdictions across the globe that handle their own waste management; updating and maintaining these systems to deal with exponentially increasing plastic waste is inefficient and extremely expensive.
The plastics industry, led by corporations like Dupont, Dow, ExxonMobil, and Shell, funds the American Chemistry Council, which in turn advocates for unviable, polluting practices, such as incineration of plastic waste. The incineration approach attempts to burn away the plastic pollution problem instead of heading off plastic production off at the source. Not only are methods like gasification and pyrolysis financially ruinous, these practices have been known to release toxic pollutants that harm children, seniors, and workers in adjacent neighborhoods and towns. Billions of dollars of investments have been wasted on unsuccessful ventures in the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, the United States and Germany, to name a few. In 2016, the failed UK project by U.S.-based Air Products lost $1 billion alone. To add to these complications, multiple now-closed gasification incinerators in Europe have had difficulties with dioxin emissions, one of the most toxic pollutants to human health. Finally, burning plastics (including burning gases from gasification) is a form burning fossil fuels—which contribute to global warming. The Break Free From Plastic movement rejects incineration, gasification, pyrolysis, and so-called “waste-to-fuel” (WTF) as false, failed, non-solutions.
The Break Free From Plastic movement will coordinate governments, nonprofits and NGOs need as a global community to prevent plastic pollution and costly waste management, by restricting its production and use at the national and international levels. Member organizations working in coordination will also elevate and scale the many local projects worldwide, like the zero waste cities in Europe, (cities like Robaix), and the transformative work of professional recyclers in Bogotá, Columbia. Member organizations and cities are also undertaking the monumental task of collecting, cleaning, and making use of the hundreds of millions of tons of plastic pollution we’ve already created. Only then will we see an end to our overwhelming plastic waste problem.
The Break Free From Plastic movement has demonstrated that source reduction does solve the monumental problem of plastic pollution. Only by simultaneously supporting local efforts to reclaim and recycle existing plastic pollution, while phasing out the use of single-use plastic worldwide at every level, will we see an end to our overwhelming waste problem.
Industry’s continued reliance on single-use plastic products–and ACC’s continued defense of them– have real human impacts. The international members of Break Free From Plastic are working for a world where communities, governments, and businesses can collaborate to achieve improved economic systems that prioritize sustainability over pollution, and that ensure the rights and protection of all peoples.
To learn more about Break Free From Plastic, visit breakfreefromplastic.org.