LifeCity at the 19th Annual Summit on Environmental Law & Policy


Global Plastic Product Grows at 5% per Year with Little to No Plan for Recovery

Every year the Tulane Law School hosts a free summit on environmental law and policy, which is open to the public. Several panels at the summit addressed the issues of our ever increasing production of plastics, and particularly the environmental impacts of single-use plastics.

The world is now generating 280 million tons per year of plastic, and production is increasing by 5% per year. The most obvious problems in the marine environment include ingestion and entanglement by and of marine species. When fish ingest small pieces of plastic, they enter the food chain, making plastics an issue for public health, not just environmental health.

Currently, international law focuses on addressing ocean based sources of plastic marine litter, however the majority of plastic litter is from land-based operations. In response, the Los Angeles area has implemented promising legislation. Full capture devices have been installed in drain systems to stem the flow of land-based pollution into the sewerage and consequently marine environment.

Panelists also discussed the need to look at lifecycle assessments of plastic products. Currently, manufacturers are not held accountable for the downstream impacts and economic costs to the taxpayer of the plastic products they produce. Through extended producer responsibility, environmental lawyers hope to incentivize scalable solutions at the plastic production level. Unfortunately, in the current policy environment, the trend is moving towards non-recyclable plastics because they are priced ever cheaper with the expansion of new petroleum extraction technologies such as hydraulic fracking.

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Dr. Eriksen’s Recyled Material Raft He Paddled Down the Mississippi River

The Keynote speaker Dr. Marcus Erikson spoke about his experience traveling the world documenting plastic marine litter. After several trips, including one floating down the Mississippi River on a raft made of recycled water bottles, he mounted a campaign against the production of micro bead plastics in products like Neutrogena Exfoliating Face Wash. With no plan for recovery, these plastic particles were going down the sink, into the marine environment, and ingested by the fish we eat.

Dr. Erickson’s message was that the environment is inseparable from human rights. If you can’t recover your product, or don’t have a pan to recover it from the environment, you shouldn’t be allowed to make it. He succeed in convincing face wash companies to phase out the micro beads by 2015, but in reality, it will be hard to fight the issue of plastic marine litter one product at a time. Rather, summit-goers seemed to be convinced that policy at the highest levels should extend to producer responsibility so that these products never enter the market in the first plan if they cannot be recovered.

So what can we do here in New Orleans?

  • When you can avoid it, don’t use single-use plastics
  • Make sure the single-use products you purchase for events are recyclable: PET 1s and 2s are the easiest to recycle
  • Pick up plastic litter around your workplace and home before it gets washed to a storm drain and into Lake Pontchartrain.
  • Plastics in our environment are becoming ever more problematic. Spread the word about the work to Green Mardi Gras by using less toxic plastic beads and more locally produced sustainable throws. If you missed it, check out the post about our Green Mardi Gras ball, and join us next year!