It’s 2022 and by now we all know that single-use plastics are bad for the environment. Not only are the use of these materials incredibly wasteful, but it also takes decades for them to decompose. Worse still, once they do begin to break down, the microplastics end up in our water, soil, and even food.
Which is why it is good news that the US Department of the Interior announced a full ban on single-use plastics in America’s national parks this past week—on World Ocean Day no less. The goal is to completely remove these harmful materials from the outdoor destinations that we all know and love. The bad news is, that band isn’t scheduled to be fully in effect until 2032, which means we have another decade to go before anything really changes.
An Executive Order From the President
The announcement of the ban came via a press release from Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland. She ordered the ban under a directive designed to reduce plastic waste across the entire Department of the Interior, which includes not only the National Park Service but also the Bureau of Land Management, Fish and Wildlife Services, and numerous other agencies.
Haaland’s directive stems from an executive order issued by President Biden that seeks to address environmental issues, invest in clean energy, and create jobs through sustainability. The broad goal is to “reduce the procurement, sale and distribution of single-use plastic products and packaging with a goal of phasing out single-use plastic.”
“The Interior Department has an obligation to play a leading role in reducing the impact of plastic waste on our ecosystems and our climate. As the steward of the nation’s public lands, including national parks and national wildlife refuges, and as the agency responsible for the conservation and management of fish, wildlife, plants and their habitats, we are uniquely positioned to do better for our Earth,” said Secretary Haaland in the press release. “Today’s Order will ensure that the Department’s sustainability plans include bold action on phasing out single-use plastic products as we seek to protect our natural environment and the communities around them.”
Another Decade of Plastic Waste
Secretary Haaland’s directive is obviously an important one and is a necessary step for protecting the environment in the national parks. But enthusiasm for this announcement is tempered by the fact that the ban on single-use plastics won’t be in effect until 2032. In the meantime, these harmful materials will continue to make their way into the lakes and rivers found on public lands, before ultimately being deposited into the ocean.
To be fair, banning single-use plastics is not something that can happen overnight. It will take awhile for the Department of the Interior and its vendors and partners to figure out alternative options for replacing plastics. Most likely, progress will be made sooner rather than later, but by delaying the full ban by ten years, there doesn’t seem to be a sense of urgency in regards to addressing the problem. A problem that has already been decades in the making and is a major threat to the health of the environment and us humans.
The press release announcing the ban points out that less than 10% of the plastic ever produced has actually been recycled. That indicates that there is a fundamental understanding of this issue and why urgency is required. But the details of the ban don’t reflect how important it is that we act sooner rather than later.
Microplastics in the Antarctic
If anyone is wondering why this is such a major issue, consider this; On the same day that Secretary Haaland announced the ban on single-use plastics, another news article offered sobering news on the same subject. According to researchers, microplastics were found in 19 samples of snow collected from the Ross Ice Shelf in Antarctica. In other words, one of the remote places on Earth is already struggling with this issue.
According to the report, the microscopic pieces of plastic most likely arrived from local sources and were carried on the wind and snow to the ice shelf. Once there, the plastics can enter the food chain and have an impact on wildlife. Darker plastics can also trap and hold heat, causing snow and ice to melt more rapidly, potentially speeding up the effects of climate change.
The samples were taken back in 2019 when the research team made the journey to the Antarctic. At the time, they said they didn’t expect to find any microplastics in the snow, but three years later they are not surprised by the findings. Sadly, there are probably few places left on the planet that are still untouched by this blight.
Hopefully some significant strides can be made over the next ten years, both in terms of recycling and banning single-use plastics. While on the one hand, I’m happy to see some progress being made in that direction, but I also can’t help but feel we’re running out of time to address so many important challenges facing our planet.
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