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The current excess of plastic pollution our world is experiencing as a result of human consumption is heartbreaking and needs immediate action. The problem is that us humans across the globe use plastic every day of our lives as a mean of convenience, not fully understanding the long term consequences plastic is leaving on environments. Plastic pollution is disposable, non biodegradable plastic ending up in places where it should not be, and we have outdone ourselves. Single plastic use such as packaging, plastic bags, plastic water bottles, straws, and plastic cups all contribute to the increasingly concerning amounts of plastic ending up in oceans, on beaches, and even inside marine life.
So how bad has the problem become? According to a charity organization called Surfers Against Sewage, “In 1950, the world’s population of 2.5 billion produced 1.5 million tons of plastic; in 2016, a global population of more than 7 billion people produced over 320 million tons of plastic. This is set to double by 2034. (Surfers Against Sewage 2018)” It is easy to subconsciously use plastic for convenience, but conscious decisions can tremendously help our planet if executed by the masses.
Plastic bag consumption is at an all time high, with majority of disposable plastic shopping bags only being used once, and only 1% of them being recycled. According to Waste Management, the number of shopping bags used each year, in the United States alone, is 14 trillion (Waste Management 2018). Single use plastic makes up roughly half of all plastic production. Almost everything you buy at the grocery store is packaged in plastic, which will be thrown away as fast as the food you buy is consumed.
Plastic can take anywhere from 20-1000 years to completely degrade, and the plastic bags you used today will most likely still be around in 400 years. Current ways of plastic waste treatment are not effective, and burning plastic results in toxic gasses harming environments. There are negative externalities that come with plastic bags in a free market, as consumers are more likely to ignore the effects and overall cost to society while maximizing their private benefit in the form of convenience.
So who does plastic pollution effect? Plastic pollution effects every living creature on Earth, and it is an unfortunate chain reaction stemming from human incompetence. Lets start with humans. We spend so much money and allocate precious resources to produce paper and plastic, and are polluting our Earth at alarming rates essentially for free, while US retailers bear the burden of the cost for plastic bags. Individuals are not even held responsible for excessive plastic consumption, and are destroying environments at no cost at all. When we are satisfied and done with our single use plastic, we throw it away. Although plastic is “recyclable”, there are many challenges that come with. 91% of plastic is not recycled, and if you take initiative to recycle, chances are that plastic will end up in a landfill instead of actually being recycled. Why? Recycling plastic bags and certain plastic is extremely difficult, and most cities do not have the ability to successfully recycle them. Therefor, most plastic ends up in landfills, polluting streets, beaches, washing down rivers, and making its way into our oceans; harming marine life and life on land. “Every day, approximately 8 million pieces of plastic pollution find their way into our oceans. Annually, plastic pollution kills 100,000 marine mammals and turtles and 1 million sea birds.” (Surfers against Sewage 2018) At the current rate of plastic pollution, there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish within a decade. With the help of plastic pollution, life as we know it is threatened by climate change, and we do not have much time to fix it. Other negative externalities include sea birds mistaking plastic for food, the current usage of petroleum to create plastic bags when petroleum could be allocated somewhere else, the fact that our single-use plastic is non-biodegradable and will be here longer than our lifespan, and the ineffective current recycling programs. Some states, like Hawaii, encourage people to throw plastic away, and refuse to recycle certain plastic, glass, and paper. In previous years, many western states have exported excess plastic to China for recycling, and have relied heavily on them. China is reducing their foreign garbage imports, leaving some states with no where to turn. Plastic is essentially free, so we as humans do not take into consideration the effect that plastic bag usage has and won’t see the effects first hand that the coming generations will experience.
Unfortunately, the plastic problem on Earth is impossible to completely clean up. But there are ways to better decrease plastic pollution than what is currently happening. For starters, we pour concrete to create millions of miles of roads, when plastic roads could be a great alternative while solving more than one problem. Not only could plastic roads eliminate heavy usage of fossil fuels, it could tremendously decrease excess plastic while improving road quality. India has already taken initiative to test out plastic roads, and has created more than 21,000 miles of road constructed with waste. It is proven that modified asphalts with plastic is more durable than concrete, and the cost can potentially be cheaper than paving normal roads. In this case, the benefits outweigh the costs. Our government allocates so much money in efforts to aid individuals’ standard of life, through education, welfare, housing, etc. But if human and marine life existence is on the line, our government should allocate recourses to save life on Earth while we still have the ability to. Plastic tar roads cost roughly 8% less than conventional asphalt, and use the equivalent of one million plastic bags per kilometer (Subramanian). With plastic bags being nearly impossible to recycle, this is a great solution for eliminating single use plastic waste. Plastic bags are the ideal material used for plastic roads, because both tar and plastic are polymers that melt and “glue” together. Although India has implemented a multibillion dollar plan requiring road construction using plastic waste, this policy idea is not possible without extreme government intervention.
Advantages of constructing plastic roads include stronger, more durable roads, no potholes, very little road maintenance, and the ability to bury plastic waste without using current, harmful, non-effective ways of disposing of plastic. There are also multiple benefits to the national economy, farming community, and municipal solid waste management. Plastic road construction can generate employment for unskilled workers. Conventional roads won’t hold up forever, but plastic roads will hold up longer. Also, as technology continues to advance, constructing plastic roads will give the human race enough time to create technology to solve issues plastic roads might cause in the future. The road life can be doubled due to increased durability from plastic, lowering costs allocated for repairs. Plastic roads will eliminate the issue of potholes, which kill on average 3,000 people per year in India (Subramanian).
There is controversy on whether photodegredation (the alteration of raw materials from light exposure) could leach plastic into the ground, ultimately making way back into waterways. The solution is to melt tar and plastic together, and sandwich it in between tar so that the plastic will be buried in a way that will not leach, nor be seen or cause harm again. The counter argument is that UV will not degrade plastic roads like it already does to conventional roads. Other disadvantages for plastic roads include the actual construction of them. Toxins could start leaching if not contained properly, and the construction process could release toxic gas from the usage of chlorine. Plastic roads present better resistance towards rainfall, but the first rainfall on freshly laid plastic roads could cause leaching. There could be increased usage of salting the roads due to using different material that might not sustain well enough as conventional roads in adverse weather. It also can be argued that this new method of constructing roads could actually cost more than conventional roads, but the long-term cost could decrease because plastic roads are more durable.
So how is this policy feasible? It is not without extreme government intervention. To start, the government should tax plastic bags like Ireland and Denmark, where the cost of damaging the environment is heavily placed on the consumer rather than the retailer. Not only would a 30 cent tax on plastic dramatically reduce the amount of single-use plastic used daily by people, it would generate annual revenue that could be used to fund construction of plastic roads. The ‘bag tax’ was initiated in Ireland in 2002, initially taxing people 15 cents per plastic bag. Consumption decreased, but usage of plastic bags started to rise again within a few years, which led to an increase in the bag tax to 37 cents. As a result, Ireland has reduced plastic bag consumption by 90% from 2001 to 2011 and should be a model tax policy for other countries to follow (Lober 2018). Many cities in the United States have proposed or are pending plastic bans and taxes, but some cities have also rejected these proposals. The tradeoff is entirely fair, taxing consumers for their usage of plastic bags. We pay for everything inside the plastic we use, it is only reasonable to pay for the plastic we use as a result of our excessive consumption. Since the amount of plastic on Earth is expected to double by 2034, this tax is a great way to make consumers aware and more cautious about how much plastic they use on a daily basis.
There are possible unintended consequences that could come with a bag tax. Some major retailers use plastic bags as a form of advertisement, therefor have incentive to keep consumers using their bags. There is no way for consumers to pay the entire tax. Yes, consumers would bear the burden of the tax, but part of the tax will also land on retailers. While this could be controversial, it is my belief that if large companies promote the decreased usage of plastic bags, consumers would follow. A plastic bag tax could also shift consumers to use online services, where groceries can be delivered using reusable bags. Negative externalities of a bag tax could include a decrease in convenience when it comes to remembering to use reusable bags and a possible decrease in demand for purchasing groceries in store.
In conclusion, while this is just a small step towards reversing our plastic pollution issue, it is impossible to completely reverse it. Only a small percentage of plastic floats, meaning a lot of plastic and micro plastic have fallen to the bottom of the ocean. Our plastic disposal problem is becoming more and more problematic every day, and burying plastic beneath our roads presents itself as a win win. The bag tax will further educate people on the extreme long-term negative externalities associated with willingly using plastic so much, and the tax itself will help fund the construction of plastic roads, which will decrease the amount of money already allocated towards road construction/reconstruction. The social and environmental benefits outweigh the (possibly higher) costs, but the revenue produced by the bag tax could ultimately reduce long-term costs of road construction. Regardless of if this policy is effective or not, government intervention is extremely necessary because there are so many more possible strategies on reducing the use of plastic and carbon footprints. Another idea for better usage of disposable plastic is using it as insulation. Using the negative externalities associated with plastic as a way of better educating the public could be helpful, but will not eliminate the plastic problem as fast or as effective as we need it to.
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