In a typical year, Massachusetts’ state agencies buy roughly 100,000 plastic bottles — water, sodas, you name it. Like other plastic items, these bottles are made from fossil fuels and create climate-warming emissions both when they are manufactured and as they degrade.
Citing the climate damage they cause, Governor Maura Healey said she has ordered a government-wide ban, preventing state agencies from buying single-use plastic bottles. Massachusetts is the first state in the country to take that step.
The state government’s use of plastic bottles is just a drop in the bucket compared to the billions of plastic bottles sold annually in Massachusetts, nearly 3.4 billion in 2019, according to the Container Recycling Institute, a California group that monitors the industry and promotes recycling. But it’s a move the Healey administration says can have impact.
“In government, we have an obligation to stop contributing to this damage and chart a better path forward,” Healey said as she made the announcement during a speech at the Clinton Global Initiative during New York’s Climate Week. “So we are proud to become the first state to adopt a procurement ban on single-use plastic bottles.”
Plastics are sometimes an overlooked part of the climate crisis, and yet emissions from plastics manufacturing play a significant role in warming the planet. If global plastics production continues to grow as currently projected, emissions would reach just under 1.5 gigatons a year by 2030 — the equivalent of nearly 300 coal-fired power plants, said state Climate Chief Melissa Hoffer.
States “are able to influence markets by how we spend our money,” Hoffer said.
Hoffer said Monday’s move is a first step and the Healey administration is open to adopting other wider measures to address plastic pollution generally.
A bill being considered in the Legislature would impose a statewide ban on water sold in plastic bottles up to a liter. Hoffer did not address whether the administration would back that or any other plastic bottle bans. Another bill would increase Massachusetts’ bottle deposit from 5 to 10 cents and expand the law to include non-carbonated beverages.
Efforts to ban plastic bottles are part of a long-simmering battle against climate change and waste. Ten years ago, Concord became the first municipality in the United States to ban the sale of single-use plastic water bottles. It hoped to inspire others across the country, and while some other cities and towns in Massachusetts and beyond have since enacted such bans, no states have. Rather, more than a dozen states, including Florida, Wisconsin and Indiana, passed preemptive prohibitions on banning plastics.
“For much too long, we’ve prioritized convenience over the public health and the environmental consequences of our single use plastics addiction,” said Mara Shulman, a senior attorney with the Conservation Law Foundation’s Zero Waste Project. Shulman is part of recently formed coalition of advocacy groups called Plastic Free Mass that is hoping to see legislation passed to address plastic pollution.
Judith Enck, president of Beyond Plastics and a former EPA regional administrator, called the announcement by Healey “fantastic for the environment,” and said “it’s important for the state to lead by example.” But she, like other advocates, said she hoped the state would go much further, for instance by backing legislation to eliminate plastic waste.
The bottled water industry, however, was less impressed. Jill Culora, of the International Bottled Water Association, an industry trade group, said actions that discourage people from drinking bottled water are not in the public interest, because “the consumption of water — whether from the bottle, tap or filter — is a good thing.”
In addition to the announcement about plastic bottles on Monday, Healey also said she will direct state agencies to establish biodiversity conservation goals for 2030, 2040, and 2050, and to develop strategies to meet the targets. Both announcements will be formalized in executive orders that the Healey administration said would be released on Thursday.
Those targets would likely include requirements that certain amounts of land be protected, with specific requirements for critical ecosystems such as salt marshes or rivers and streams where biodiversity is threatened.
Climate change has been amplifying threats that species already face from such problems as deforestation and urban sprawl, pushing one million species worldwide to the brink of extinction. In Massachusetts, over 430 species are listed as endangered. Healey said the protections the state will adopt will exceed a global target that aims to preserve 30 percent of the world’s lands and oceans by 2030.
“Our seas and forests are the most fundamental climate resources we have; we are determined to protect them,” Healey said during her speech.
Adopting statewide targets will put the urgency of the biodiversity crisis on par with the climate crisis, said state Department of Fish and Game Commissioner Thomas O’Shea. “It’s important to make the connection that biodiversity is a climate solution, but it’s also going to help our public health, outdoor recreation, and our economy,” he said.
O’Shea came to the Healey administration in May from the conservation group The Trustees of Reservations, where he led the conservation and climate agenda. With the new order from Healey, he will be working with colleagues to determine which parts of the state must be conserved to protect biodiversity. That work is guided by a precautionary principle, he said. “If you start taking out different species, it’s like taking the rivets out of a plane,” O’Shea said. “You don’t know how many you can take out before nature begins to collapse.”
Andy Finton, a senior conservation ecologist at The Nature Conservancy, said that as someone who has worked in the field for 30 years, Healey’s announcement gave him chills. “There are these punctuated moments that you hope for and you’ll remember forever as transition points to make the world better,” he said. “This is one of them.”
He’s hopeful, he said, because marrying solutions to the climate crisis with solutions to the biodiversity crisis — and putting real resources behind them — offers hope for real change. “Our health and our well-being are intrinsically tied to the nature around us,” he said.