Hope Armstrong
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Climate Crisis

Environmental Setbacks in the Midst of COVID-19

Headlines make the regression of environmental policy painfully clear

Ugh, that feeling when reading the news these days...

The Trump Administration Is Reversing 100 Environmental Rules

Plastics industry goes after bag bans during pandemic

California Lifts Ban on Plastic Bags Amid Virus Concerns

The Trump administration has rolled back 66 environmental protections for clean air and water thus far, with the remaining 34 in progress. The rollbacks will increase greenhouse gas emissions and cancer rates, leading to many more unnecessary deaths. The shortsighted plot to fuel free-market capitalism and fulfill the republican ideology of deregulation will exacerbate existing inequalities, benefiting the rich at the expense of the poor. Communities near petrochemical extraction sites and refineries are the most vulnerable. The exorbitant demand for plastic over the last few decades has turned poor communities, largely resided in by POC, into toxic dumping grounds (look up Cancer Alley, an area along the Mississippi River heavily polluted by industrial waste).

To bring it full circle, the Plastics Industry Association has been quick to prey on public fear of the virus, by marketing single-use plastic as the safest choice for transporting goods. Politico obtained a copy of a letter they sent to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, urging the government to make a public statement in support of single-use plastic as a safer alternative to reusable bags which “can carry viruses and bacteria.” Of course, the letter failed to mention the virus lives on plastic for a much longer period than cloth. In one study, the virus was shown to be infectious for up to 7 days on plastic and 2 days on cloth.

Choosing between using a plastic bag or getting the coronavirus is a false dichotomy. When offered a plastic bag, I don’t usually need it. The ten minutes of convenience it provides doesn’t merit the trail of havoc it has caused and will continue to cause, as it is disposed of. We must be intentional about consumption, particularly with frivolous plastic use. John Hocevar, Greenpeace USA’s oceans campaign director said it best: “It’s important to keep in mind that plastic has significant effects on human health at every stage of production all the way through the end of life. We’ve put so much plastic into the environment that at this point it’s in the food we eat, water we drink and air we breathe.”

Of course, these days, I don’t always have a choice. COVID-19 has definitely limited my access to package-free goods, and I’ve had to buy products in plastic packaging that I wouldn’t normally buy. As stores have begun operating on a pick-up only model, my order is often pre-packaged in plastic. And there’s nothing I can do about it. There’s definitely an imperfect balance of supporting local businesses and making ethical consumer choices. It doesn’t have to be this way, but that’s the reality. We’re taking the trash out way more often, we have a bounty of paper bags, and our growing bundle of plastic bags fills me with shame. But we’re doing the best we can and learning new alternatives along the way. We’ve been shopping at the farmer’s market more, which has been great for buying package-free produce. As for bulk shopping, stores have closed off the bins, but I’ve had success ordering dry pantry goods and bread from The Silo—Bay Area folks, check them out! Another option is The Wally Shop which ships nationwide. I haven’t tried it, but it looks like a good plastic-free food delivery service. A couple of times we’ve resorted to buying basic pantry items from Safeway since they have a pickup option. Unfortunately, the groceries are packed in plastic bags. The Bay Area had previously banned plastic bags, so it feels very odd to suddenly be surrounded by them. It’s like a time warp. When we bring home groceries we put everything in a designated containment area. When we reach for something in there, we know to wash our hands well after touching it. After ample days have passed by, we stop treating it like it’s a pathogen. 😆As regressive as this time feels, I’m taking the opportunity to appreciate what I do have access to and the choices I’m still able to make. The point is: do what you can as an individual, vote for politicians who advocate for environmental protection, and support legislation that enables sustainable system-level change.

State-level change

While I’m not familiar with current statewide environmental legislation across the US,  I’m sure there are some exciting developments out there if you start Googling. If you’re a Californian like me, check out a statewide ballot initiative that is advocating for plastic reduction. Folks are collecting signatures now, for a chance at getting it on the 2022 Election Ballot. The initiatives are below; read more at plasticsfreeca.org 

  • Fund environmental restoration and protection of streams, rivers, beaches, and oceans harmed by plastic trash pollution.
  • Reduce the amount of plastic pollution in California by ensuring that all single-use plastic packaging be reusable, recyclable, or compostable by 2030.
  • Reduce of the amount of single-use plastic sold in California by 25% by 2030.
  • Institute a statewide ban on non-recyclable plastic Styrofoam™ food containers.
  • Fund new recycling plants that will turn single-use trash into new products.
  • Protect drinking water, reduce runoff from pesticides, and fund new composting facilities.
  • Charge corporate plastic manufacturers a penny tax on its single-use plastic packages to fund plastic recycling and environmental clean-up of plastic pollution.

As for senators and members of Congress, check out the League of Conservation Voters website which provides climate scorecards for candidates; it’s handy for researching voter records of those running for re-election. Then of course, there are meaningful local elections that impact your immediate surroundings. These are so important; don’t sleep on them!

Federal-level change

If you live in the US, voting for Biden is our only chance at getting presidential support for environmental regulation. Biden intends to reinstate the federal protections for communities that have been rolled back by the Trump administration, aim for a net-zero emission target by 2050, and end new fossil fuel leasing on public land. While his environmental aspirations are not the most ambitious when compared to his previous running mates, they are eons better than four more destructive years with Trump at the helm.

I hope that by sharing these ideas you feel inspired to turn this ship around, to create forward momentum.

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