As the federal government and many state governments fail to address plastic waste, Indian tribes become policy innovators.
The world is waking up to the growing problem of plastic waste contaminating our ocean and terrestrial environments. Local governments—lauded as laboratories of innovation—have begun enacting bans and fees on single-use plastics, reducing the amount entering the waste stream in the first place. Businesses are stepping up; national and multinational governance bodies are adopting laws cutting down on the manufacture and distribution of single-use plastics. In the United States, California, the District of Columbia, Hawaii, and Maine have initiated statewide restrictions, while Oregon and Washington are considering similar measures.
Yet 12 states have moved in the opposite direction, prohibiting local governments from regulating singleuse plastics. Many of these states already struggle to meet waste diversion and recycling goals. China’s recent clampdown on the importation of recycled plastic means a double whammy for localities already straitjacketed in their ability to reduce plastics entering the waste stream.
But these preemptive measures do not extend to the 573 federally recognized Indian tribes, which are sovereign entities subject only to the U.S. Congress’s plenary authority. As original inhabitants, traditional users, and stewards of the land, Indigenous peoples in the U.S. have long led the way in natural resource management and environmental protection. Unsurprisingly, several tribes are moving forward to reduce single-use plastics on tribal land. In states where local regulation of single-use…