We’ve all seen that video of the turtle with a straw stuck up his nose. And yes, we know that out in the ocean somewhere between Hawaii and California there’s a floating island made of trash supposedly twice the size of Texas.

So paying a few cents for a paper bag and forgoing a plastic straw in our iced coffee is a small price to pay when it comes to saving the earth and its wildlife.

But when our groceries are wrapped in reams of cellophane, our drinks served in non-recyclable Styrofoam cups, and even the trash bags we use to consciously gather our recycling aren’t technically biodegradable, it’s time we take a closer look at our global consumption habits.

We as Americans can, and should, be doing so much more.

Banning single-use plastics is very noble, particularly when there are more than 150 million tons of plastic in the world’s oceans, a figure expected to triple by 2025, according to estimates by the British government. Bans may even encourage individual action and make us feel more positive about the future of the environment. But in the United States our ad hoc, city-by-city approach is too narrow.

Protecting the planet means introducing wide-ranging legislation with ambitious goals. The European Union is (as usual) setting the example, passing new progressive legislation that bans single-use plastics like cutlery, straws and stirrers by 2021. The legislation also requires member nations to work toward reducing the use of certain types of plastic food containers that do not biodegrade but fragment.

The first state to ban plastic bags was California, back in 2016. Two years later, then-California Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill prohibiting restaurants from serving straws unless a customer requested one. Seattle followed suit last year, banning plastic straws and utensils, while legislators in New York have agreed to ban single-use plastics from retail locations as of March 2020.

Boston’s own ban rolled out in Dec. 2018, when city officials ruled stores could no longer stock single-use plastic bags and imposed a five-cents charge on recyclable, compostable or reusable ones. This came two years after the city of Cambridge issued a similar directive that all stores must charge at least 10 cents for a reusable bag. A few corporate chains — like Starbucks, McDonald’s and Hyatt Hotels — have also announced that they will phase out plastic straws in their establishments over the next few years.

Banning plastic waste can work. In California, for example, the city of San Jose reported that a year after implementing their plastic-bag ban they saw 89 percent less bag litter in their storm drain system, and the number of plastic bags swirling around the city’s streets fell by 59 percent.

But many of the bans governments and corporations are pursuing, whether to gain kudos with voters and customers or from genuine environmental concern, are inadequate and barely begin to address the 8 million tons of plastic that enter the world’s oceans each year.

Besides restricting what plastics we have access to, the government should be providing its citizens with the necessary knowledge about the science behind recycling. The Boston City Council has made a good effort this year producing picture guides for what we can and can’t throw in our curbside bins. But what if our potentially-recyclable trash doesn’t look like any of the items on these posters? Understanding the difference between biodegradable, compostable and oxo-degradable plastics empowers consumers to identify environmentally damaging products no matter what form they come in and save other non-toxic items from the landfill.

As with most problems, a little bit of cash also wouldn’t hurt. Legislators should be looking at investing more in recycling infrastructure. With China refusing to take our plastic waste, we need sustainable and self-sufficient recycling systems here in the U.S. Governments should also be exploring alternatives, such as bioplastics and curbside collection for industrial composting. San Francisco International Airport and Safeco Field in Seattle are two of only a handful of locations across the country where composting on any meaningful scale is currently implemented.

In the absence of government intervention, it will be up to each of us as individuals. Here are a few things we can do, right now, to help reduce our dependence on plastics. In addition to forgoing plastic bags and straws, we can: Buy package-free items, like loose fruit and vegetables, when possible; stock up on dried goods from bulk bins and take reusable containers to the store to carry them home in; choose bar soaps that don’t require bottles or other containers; use sustainable alternatives to cleansing wipes, which contain polyesters, like cotton cloths; and purchase other plastic items second-hand.

And, of course, we can vote for green policies in both local and national elections.

So before we congratulate ourselves for remembering to bring a bag next time we’re at the checkout, consider that saving turtles and reducing garbage patches in our oceans requires more. It requires consistently reducing, reusing, recycling and refusing all plastics whenever possible, as well as finding alternatives that truly are environmentally friendly.

After all, a real solution is a holistic one that relies on government intervention — one that the planet is still waiting for.

Catherine McGloin is a Poynter fellow and editor of the Scope.