Digging Into Plastics Offers a Way to Localize the Climate Story

Governments are seeking to clamp down on plastics — meanwhile, production is increasing

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Every Monday, in “Climate on the Ballot,” we pass along a topic to help you integrate climate into your newsroom’s campaign reporting. Consider sharing this newsletter with your colleagues on the politics beat. Vea la versión en español de “El clima en la boleta.”

This Week: Plastics

Last week, global leaders met in Ottawa, Canada, to work out the details of the “first-ever global treaty” to curtail plastic pollution — a critical measure in the effort to stop climate change. Plastics, largely made from fossil fuels, generate about 5% of total global greenhouse gas emissions. A new report warns that “those numbers are expected to increase dramatically,” because production is predicted to double or triple by 2050. This continued growth comes on the backdrop of decades-long disinformation efforts by the plastics industry, which has promoted recycling as the solution to the enormous problem of plastic waste, while knowing that recycling was “not an economically or technically feasible” solution.

Reporting Ideas

  • Ask members of Congress about the treaty and bipartisan plastic legislation. The US generates the most plastic waste per capita in the world and has the lowest recycling rate of any developed country. In March, two bills “which will help build recycling and composting infrastructure projects, increase data collection and explore a national composting strategy” unanimously passed the Senate. Find out where your local elected officials stand on both pieces of legislation.
  • Since San Francisco became the first US city to ban single-use plastic bags in 2007, many other cities and 13 states have followed suit, but some states, such as Texas and Oklahoma have banned plastic bag bans. What’s the law in your city or state? Are bans working?
  • Does your state have laws or bills requiring producers to pay for recycling? The brainchild of a Swiss academic, “extended producer responsibility laws” hold producers responsible for the treatment or disposal of consumer products. Twenty-three states have enacted EPR laws for electronics, but only four states (California, Colorado, Maine, and Oregon) have enacted EPR laws for commonly used packaging materials. Here’s a rundown of recycling bills under consideration in state legislatures in 2024.
  • As always, follow the money. A new report finds that 60 multinational companies are responsible for half the world’s plastic waste, and just six companies — Altria, Philip Morris International, Danone, Nestlé, PepsiCo and The Coca-Cola Company — are responsible for a quarter of that. Which politicians are receiving donations?

Take Inspiration

  • Vox explains how Big Oil is counting on plastics to be “the biggest source of new demand for oil over coming decades — in some projections, the only real source.”
  • Negotiators from 175 countries have been getting nowhere on a global treaty to regulate the plastic industry for more than a year. One of the countries standing in the way? The US. Oregon Public Broadcasting explains.
  • Only 20% of Pennsylvania households recycle. This piece from The Philadelphia Citizen’s excellent “Ideas We Should Steal” series takes a comprehensive look at EPR laws and how they might benefit Philly residents.
  • Is that campaign sign recyclable? Probably not. Every election year, thousands of campaign signs spring up on lawns across the country and most of them are made out of corrugated plastic, which is not recyclable. CBS News Sacramento reported on a community group finding ways to reuse them.

Spotlight Piece

In the wake of the UN World Meteorological Organization’s most recent report, “State of Global Climate 2023,” which was released last month, CBS News’ John Dickerson interviewed Leah Stokes, associate professor of environmental politics at the University of California, Santa Barbara, to discuss how the new report raises the climate stakes of the 2024 presidential election and the questions voters — and reporters — should be asking candidates.