a rainbow of plastics lined up on a beach

You interact with plastics every day, often without giving them a second thought. But one CEES affiliate, Wake Forest law professor Sarah Morath, thinks about them a lot.

Morath studies the use of legislation and litigation to address plastic pollution. She initially became interested in plastic waste through her research into the laws around food waste and sustainable agriculture. The average American household, research shows, trashes nearly a third of the food it buys. Much of that is wrapped in plastic. “I realized that there is a lot of plastic waste associated with our food system,” she says. “When I was thinking about throwing away food, I was thinking about all the plastic that was getting disposed of as well.” A lot of this plastic waste is mismanaged. One place that mismanaged plastic ends up is in the ocean — in fact, an estimated 14 million tons of our plastic waste ends up in the ocean each year.

Sarah Morath

Litigation, taking a case to court, is one way to address the growing mound of plastic littering our land and water. Morath, with the help of two Wake Forest law students, Amanda Thompson and Samantha Hamilton, has recently published an article in the journal Natural Resources & Environment examining how five recent court cases related to plastic pollution might inform litigators going forward. Hamilton is also a student in the Wake Forest Master’s program in Sustainability. The trio published their article in a journal for environmental law practitioners to  help guide lawyers arguing similar cases in the future.

Legislation is another potential legal avenue to address plastic pollution and one that Morath has also spent a lot of time researching. Her forthcoming book, “Our Plastic Problem and How to Solve It,” includes various legislative solutions to plastic pollution. The book will be available in March 2022.

She is currently examining state recycling laws and extended producer responsibility (EPR) laws as solutions to plastic pollution. Under EPR of laws, “the responsibility for the clean up and management of plastic waste rests on the producers,” she explains. For example, an EPR law could require soft drink companies to either come up with a system to collect used bottles themselves or make it easier for consumers to dispose of their bottles in an appropriate place. “Or,” she says, “They could not change anything, and pay [for clean up] or invest in finding a more sustainable material.” EPR laws could actually move companies away from using plastic in favor of something biodegradable. That “something” might not yet exist, but making companies financially responsible for their trash could spur a flurry of research into new plastic substitutes.

There are a few other ways to reduce global plastic pollution through legislation — for example, outright bans on certain products have proven effective. Microbeads, tiny plastic particles in face and body wash, were once a common ingredient in beauty products. At the end of 2015 Congress passed the Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015, and now they are nowhere to be found in products. Morath also highlights the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act, first introduced in 2019 and re-introduced this year, as a potential game changer. “It is very comprehensive, it has environmental justice written into it, and it uses a lot of different [regulatory] approaches,” to mitigate plastic pollution.

“Individuals can make demands of companies, that’s the entry point for collective action”

Figuring out how to address our plastic problem through laws and policies is a pressing issue. And — critically for our planet — there are, Morath notes, important links between addressing plastics and climate change. “A lot of the companies are the same players,” she says. Oil and gas companies, now turning to plastic production, have evaded responsibility through greenwashing (providing misleading information about how environmentally friendly their practices are) and by pushing individual action to solve systemic problems. “I think that’s really sneaky marketing on the part of plastic companies, and you’ve [seen the same approach] with greenhouse gases.”

So what role, you may be wondering, can an individual play in addressing plastic pollution, and reducing the amount of waste we produce in general? “For things that we have high recycling rates for, like #1 plastic, newspaper, and aluminum, keep recycling,” urges Morath. Look up proper recycling techniques for your city or town — different places have access to different types of recycling facilities. In Winston Salem, you should not place your recyclables in plastic bags before putting them in the bin, and you should remove the caps from your plastic bottles.

But beyond that, and more importantly: Use your voice. “Individuals can make demands of companies, that’s the entry point for collective action,” Morath says. “We can ask for what we want.”