Column: Big companies need to follow Starbucks’ lead and take responsibility for their product’s environmental impact

The U.S. produces 34,500 tons of plastic annually — and recycles only 9 percent of it.

Maureen Dunne is a freshman journalism major at MU. She is an opinion columnist who writes about student life for The Maneater.

You’ve probably seen them on social media: the viral video of a sea turtle getting a plastic straw extracted from its nose or the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, the floating mass of plastic twice the size of Texas.

These two videos have much in common besides going viral recently: they illustrate the devastation caused by single-use plastic pollution in the ocean and have sparked not only a global conversation about single-use plastic waste, but also change. However, there is much more the U.S. needs to do to combat this issue.

With 18 billion pounds of plastic entering the Earth’s oceans each year, the U.S. needs to mitigate its own contribution to this crisis. The U.S., which produces 34,500 tons of plastic annually as of 2015, has an environmental impact that is worsened by a low nationwide recycling rate. Currently, the U.S. recycles just nine percent of all plastic used by consumers, compared to countries such as Germany and South Korea, which have recycling rates above 50 percent.

One reason for the U.S.’s low recycling rate is a lack of centralized recycling standards. There is currently no federal legislation regarding recycling to leave these decisions up to state and local governments to address each area’s unique geography and way of life. However, only seven states have imposed mandatory plastic bottle recycling or bans, while merely 12 cities and counties have mandated either a single-use plastic bag ban or fee.

Also, the lack of federal legislation or guidelines means the plastics industry is free to lobby state governments for leniency on their products. Missouri and five other states have been persuaded by plastic bag manufacturers to outlaw enacting a plastic bag ban in the state. By comparison, Germany, aided by strong national legislation and a bottle return system, recycles 97.3 percent of plastic bottles used in the country.

The answer to the U.S.’s plastic pollution crisis might lie in corporate responses to the anti-straw movement. Starbucks and American Airlines agreed to phase out single-use plastic straws as a result of public outcry stemming from the viral turtle video. Large, multinational companies taking responsibility for their product’s long-term environmental impact instead of delegating its fate to the consumer should be taken as an example for the producers of all single-use plastics.

For a society in which 65 percent of the population does not recycle because it’s “too much work,” a system which eases consumers’ role in recycling and simultaneously mitigates the devastating environmental impact of plastics is necessary.

Extended Producer Responsibility is sweeping legislation that shifts the responsibility for recycling plastics from local governments and individual consumers to the mass producers of these products. Producers would be held accountable for where the products they put into the ecosystem end up. Either incentivized by tax breaks or enforced by fines, large producers would be responsible for establishing product return systems like in Germany.

Establishing an EPR would not only lift most of the burden of recycling off of consumers, but also respect each states’ needs while at the same time creating an overarching and centralized plan to making recycling more accessible and common nationwide.

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