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Plastic Pollution: Can We Do Anything?

Updated: Sep 10, 2021

The impact that Covid-19 has had on the use of billions of facemasks and gloves every month got me thinking about plastic pollution. What is the scale of that many masks and gloves? Well someone thought about that as well and posited that all of the masks manufactured and projected to be produced would cover the entire size of the country of Switzerland. Wow, that’s a visual to be sure.

Plastic pollution impacts the ocean and marine life and is getting worse every year. How much worse? According to National Geographic, the amount of plastic trash that flows into the ocean every year will triple to 29 million metric tons or 63,934,056,034 pounds by 2040 without massive intervention. Whales, fish, turtles, and other marine mammals eat plastic pollution and die. And, there is a direct connection between human health and the toxic chemical substances that are contained in plastic products found in fish that is consumed.

A few plastic facts:

· The modern economy has relied on plastics from transportation (cars, planes) to life saving devices (helmets);

· Most of the plastics manufactured have been made in the last 15 years;

· Plastics do not “break down”, especially those with additives that make them strong/durable/flexible (toys, buckets, garden hoses, plumbing devices, insulated cups); in fact, estimates say it can take as long as 400 years for these plastics to decompose;

· Each year, eight million tons of plastic waste goes to the ocean from coastal lands. That eight million tons is the same as putting five full garbage bags on every foot of coastline around the world.

Here is the most sobering fact of all: as plastic proliferates into the ocean, environmental campaigns are not enough to show any kind of progress. The Pew Charitable Trust found that if all industry and government pledges to reduce and cut back plastic waste is achieved by 2040, it would reduce plastic pollution by just a small fraction.

Why Is the Problem So Dire?

Asian and African countries have the most visible plastic pollution because their sanitation systems are inefficient or non-existent. The developed world has a better track record, but many countries do not have high plastic recycling rates. We also have a “throw-away” culture where many items with plastic are used once and then disposed of (i.e., think of plastic straws, soda bottles, coffee stirrers).

State Action

Some U.S. states have tried to take action and the National Conference of State Legislators (NCSL) has documented progress. State action has focused on two sides to the problem: encouraging more plastic recycling, or imposing bans or fees to eliminate the use of plastic bags. Eight states—California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Maine, New York, Oregon and Vermont—have banned single-use plastic bags. The cities which have banned plastic bags include Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Seattle; and the cities of Boulder, New York, Portland, and Washington DC as well as Montgomery County, Maryland have banned plastic bags and have fees.

Maine was the first state to require recycling at retail stores. The law prevents retailers from supplying plastic bags unless they provide a place where used bags are collected and recycled. Since then at least four other states—California, Delaware, New York and Rhode Island—and the District of Columbia have followed.

The Southeast

North Carolina is taking a step backwards instead of forward. In 2017, the ban on the use of single plastic bags by retail merchants on the Outer Banks was repealed despite support for the ban from environmental organizations to the local chambers of commerce.

In that light, progress seems unlikely on a state level, but individuals can take a stand in a few important ways by (1) reducing the use of single-use plastics; (2) recycling plastics; (3) supporting bans; (4) getting educated.

It is a problem that is not going away, unfortunately, anytime soon.

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