Plastic Bans and Zero Waste Won't Solve Everything | Policy-Driven Ways to Combat Climate Change

This post was written by Stephanie Villano and was originally published on Here & There Collective. Used with permission.


Global warming is the defining issue of our time. You may have even heard the word “anthropocene” used in this context, which is the term coined referring to the current geological age, the period in which human activity has been the dominant influence on climate and the environment.

In fact, a recent report by scientists in the U.S., Canada, and Scotland published in the journal Nature Climate Change stated that evidence for human-caused climate change has reached a “gold standard” level of certainty.

There are countless opinions and stances on how best to address climate change and keep temperatures from warming, but there is no question that we need to dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions - most notably carbon dioxide.

The 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference led to a new international climate agreement, the Paris Agreement, applicable to all countries, aiming to keep global warming below 2°C, in accordance with the recommendations of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Many countries have ratified the agreement; however, there are still several who are holding out.

If we know that CO2 and other greenhouse gases are the root of the problem, one might imagine that there are clear steps in place that will keep global warming below 2°C and that the powers that be do everything in their power to act accordingly.

But, when our current economic system is fundamentally dependent on large-scale consumption and the commodification of natural resources, it becomes clear that the issue is not so simple.

In my experience, the mainstream conversations about global warming have been mostly framed around what individuals should be doing to reduce their own carbon footprints in order to mitigate problems essentially created and exacerbated by larger capitalistic systems and structures, which are based off a “take, make, dispose” model.

The onus is placed upon citizens to be good environmentalists and recycle, refuse plastic straws and single-use plastic bags, drive more fuel efficient cars, etc.

Failure to “do one’s part” is seen as some sort of personal moral failing; the idea that it is our individual action that is responsible for the collapse of our planet and our responsibility to fix it has been the prevailing notion for years.

And the powers that be wouldn’t have it any other way because the concept of personal responsibility directs accountability and scrutiny away from them.

Sure, everyone should do their best to make choices that are least harmful to the environment if they can, but it’s time to address the root of the problem.

Unfortunately, global economic dependence on fossil fuels is making this difficult, particularly when it comes to implementing policy and legislation around fossil fuel use and greenhouse gas emissions.

Polarized Global Warming Politics are a Roadblock to Implementing Change

For years, particularly in the last couple of decades, major polluters, like fossil fuel and transportation corporations, have spent billions of dollars lobbying hard against climate change policy. In fact, between the years 2000 and 2016, over $2 billion was spent on lobbying related to climate change alone.

The major spenders included sectors who would lose out the most with the passage of meaningful climate legislation (like a carbon tax, for example) and were as follows: electrical utilities sector spent over $500 million, followed by fossil fuel at $370 million, and transportation at $250 million.

A study published by Dr. Robert J Brulle in the journal Nature Climate Change analyzed data from public lobbying reports and found that lobbying expenditures had a direct link to the likelihood of passage of meaningful climate legislation. So when corporate lobbying dwarfs the spending of environmental organizations by a ratio of 10 to 1, it’s no surprise that no meaningful legislation was passed during that time frame. The study also found that spending on lobbying against climate change legislation tends to peak when Democrats are in control of the house, and decreases when Republicans are in power.

The fact of the matter is, corporate interests have the money and clout, which gives them a leg-up in determining the direction (or lack of) climate policy.

The Trump administration is a case-study in proving this point.

Despite the fact that we need to be enacting more regulations to help curb global warming, this administration has taken every opportunity to roll back environmental policy and Obama-era pollution standards in order to protect corporate interests - here’s a running list of how they’re changing environmental policy.

It also appears that Trump’s EPA is embracing many disputed and discredited scientific claims, including the notion that some pollution is good for you. (I would imagine that the 4.2 million people who die annually from outdoor air pollution would disagree.)

These industries are willing to spend billions of dollars to ensure that they can carry on, business as usual, to the detriment of the planet and health of all creatures who live here, even if it means downplaying the severity of the problem, or even promoting junk science .

The point is, addressing climate change in any meaningful way will require a massive paradigm shift.

From the opinion piece “Climate Change and Capitalism” in Consilience,

Since pollution is a direct consequence of consumption, we must also limit the amount of resources we use. Any viable solution to climate change will therefore require a global agreement to drastically inhibit the extraction, production, and consumption of natural resources. Yet, the capitalist system as it currently stands is neither designed for nor capable of consciously inhibiting its own propensity for unsustainable growth. The basic assumptions under which neoliberal capitalism operates renders it incapable of correcting climate change.

Implementing real solutions to climate change requires upsetting the entire system. We must gradually shift to renewable energy, move away from the extraction of finite resources, and minimize waste, embracing the concepts of a circular economy, which is inherently regenerative and fosters economic, social, and ecological health.

This won’t happen overnight, of course, and will take many small victories to get there, but it can only begin with steps we make today on both the mirco and macro levels.

Actionable Ways to Help Change the System

Firstly, it’s crucial that we implement policy and legislation surrounding the use of fossil fuels and the emission of greenhouse gases.

This could look like mandating reductions or issuing corporate caps in greenhouse gas emissions, especially carbon, creating easier access to clean-energy alternatives so that it’s affordable to everyone, and implementing a carbon tax (bills to implement carbon taxes have been introduced before, but have unsurprisingly been killed).

Check to see if your state has set state-wide standards for renewable energy (aka Renewable Portfolio Standards).

These standards require that a specified percentage of the electricity that utilities sell comes from renewable sources including wind, solar, biomass, and geothermal. Standards vary state-to-state. If you live in one of the states without set standards, start calling your senators and representative to tell them why your state should have them. And if your state already has these standards in place, you can lobby your politicians to increase the percentage of renewable energy that utilities sell and demand the removal of any laws and regulations that make it difficult to connect solar and wind to the grid.

Which brings me to the next way to upset the system - start getting more involved with what is happening at your state and local levels and get to know your local politicians.

Call the district office of your congressional representatives to discuss the importance of meaningful climate change legislation and get your friends and family to do the same. Show up in person at town halls and other events where your representatives will be so that you can continue to drive this message home. You can also attend public hearings and submit opinions during public comment periods. Staying apprised of what is happening is the most important step to making your voice heard.

If you don’t have time to spare to join lobbying efforts you can donate to environmental organizations and groups who are doing this work.

Fighting against enormously wealthy giants is a challenge and it will take a lot of money to fight back. I like the National Resource Defense Council, which was founded in 1970 by a group of law students and attorneys passionate about the environment. Donations to NRDC are tax-deductible, and you can even schedule monthly donations. Also on their website, the NRDC has several actions that you can easily take to get involved, even with limited time.

Actionable Ways to Reduce Your Individual Carbon Footprint

While the focus has been too heavily placed on consumers in the past, individual efforts to reduce carbon emissions can be a part of a multi-faceted solution to fighting climate change. Naysayers will have you believe that individual change is ineffective or really just a way to pacify our own egos, but I think this is cynical. The collective impact of our individual efforts can be significant if it’s also coupled with structural change.

From small tweaks to your daily routines, to bigger, costlier changes in your home - like upgrading to energy efficient appliances and windows- there are myriad ways to reduce your carbon footprint. And as a bonus, some of these changes will save you money long-term on bills like water, heating, and electric.

Changes that will cost you little to no money are simple and might include: switching over your light bulbs to more energy efficient LED’s, turning the water off while brushing your teeth, switching to low-flow toilets and water-conserving shower heads, buying as much of your produce as possible locally , eating less meat, putting a stop to your junk mail, avoiding single-use plastics, walking or biking when you can, and using air conditioning only when you absolutely need it.

If you’re in the market for new appliances, be sure to check for the Energy Star rating.

And, above all, do your best to consume less!

Repair your belongings if you can, and try to buy secondhand before buying new.

You might be able to find sewing classes offered in your community if you want to try your hand at mending your clothes yourself, but it’s more than likely that you have a competent tailor close by. You might even have someone who specializes in shoe repair , so resole that old pair of boots and breathe them new life before you replace them with new ones!

Many of these adjustments don’t take much effort and will reduce your individual carbon footprint, which you can roughly calculate using one of the many carbon-footprint calculators found online. I just moved across country into a new home, so I don’t have a handle on my energy usage yet, but I look forward to estimating my footprint once I have some data to plug in.

Carbon Offsetting

Unfortunately, even if you make every effort, it’s impossible to reduce your carbon footprint completely, so you might consider offsetting the emissions you can’t reduce by purchasing carbon offsets.

You can do this by calculating what you can’t reduce by using the carbon-footprint calculator, or by offsetting your emissions whenever you engage in activity that is inherently polluting - like air travel.

If you’re someone who likes to see the world, has family and friends who do not live within driving distance, or must travel far for work, then you might find yourself taking flights a few times a year. Even one flight per year will have a significant impact on your individual carbon footprint.

Respect to those individuals who, for environmental reasons, have made the conscious choice to forgo air travel, but I’m just not one of those people. I do my best to be conscious of my means of transportation in my every day life, opting to walk when I can and carpool when possible, but traveling and seeing parts of the world that I can only access via air travel is not something I’m willing to give up.

But, I can offset my emissions from flying by purchasing carbon offsets.

By purchasing carbon offsets you are helping to fund projects that actively reduce carbon emissions.

For example, when you choose to offset your carbon emissions via Gold Standard, which was established in 2003 by the WWF and various other NGO’s to reduce carbon emissions and work toward achieving UN’s sustainable development goals, you can elect to direct your money to support specific projects that appeal to you. Some of these projects include: providing cleaner, fuel-efficient stoves to communities in Rawanda, reforestation projects in Timor-Leste, and funding wind energy projects in Turkey and Costa Rica, among many others.

Not All Carbon Offsets are Created Equal

When looking for carbon offsetting programs, be sure to look for organizations offering high-quality offsets.

Ensure that they are transparent, rigorous in their measurement of project impacts and outcomes, and have clear standards in place that projects they fund must meet in order to participate. Gold Standard programs, for example, are certified through SustainCert, which quantifies and measures the social and environmental impacts of each of their projects.

But doesn’t carbon offsetting discourage companies from working to reduce their emissions - isn’t it an easy fix to a much bigger problem?

Unfortunately, this is the negative side of carbon offsetting.

Larger companies will simply purchase credits as they continue to pollute, business as usual, without making any changes.

But, as with any major issue, currently available solutions are imperfect and temporary. While it is true that there will be those who buy carbon offsets so that they do not have to reduce to their emissions, one must also consider the many beneficial projects that rely on funding from carbon offsets that have real-world positive impacts on individuals, communities, and the environment, at large.


Even though the writing is on the wall and addressing climate change has never been more urgent, our current political landscape and economic structures prove that navigating through this problem is complex, confusing, and fraught with conflicting opinions and imperfect solutions. We can only make the necessary changes if we fight to change the system, while simultaneously examining what we can do as individuals.