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microplastics

Microplastics. Photo by Erica Cirino

By Nancy Marr

How many plastics do you use each day  — cups, straws, food containers, water bottles, toys, shoes? How many of them could you live without? How have we become so dependent on plastics – most of which we use once and then discard? 

Beginning after World War II, the invention of items like plexiglass, impressive because of its durability, started the growth of the plastics industry. More recently, with the fossil fuel industry facing cutbacks, and with fracking reducing the price of natural gas, fossil fuel companies in the United States found they could make products from their waste, making it into things people could use. Since the 1960s, plastic production has increased by approximately 8.7% annually, evolving into a $600 billion global industry. Fossil fuel companies supported building more pipelines to make more plastic products.

Recycling was regarded as the way to dispose of the plastics, turning them into new products. In 1975, producers lobbied the United States government for more recycling programs. But recycling has not been a solution. Now, 400 million tons have accumulated over the world, most of it created within the last 15 years in the United States. Plastics degrade when they are recycled; the World Economic Forum estimates that only 2% has been effectively recycled to create new products. Burning the plastic waste to melt it releases toxic compounds and carbon. 

The public has become aware of the problems created by plastic waste. Efforts to clean the oceans where the waste has accumulated have revealed micro and nanoplastic pellets and beads, which we are also finding in cosmetics. Other countries are responding to the problem of the waste piled on their shorefronts and waterways. 

Current estimates find that oceans have 60% fish but 40% plastics. China, which received and recycled much of the plastic waste we shipped to them until 2013, passed a law refusing all shipments of waste from the United States. 

Additionally, when plastics are exposed to natural forces like sunlight and wave action, plastics will degrade into microplastics. Over time, plastic particles contaminate the marine ecosystem and the food chain, including foodstuffs intended for human consumption. In vivo studies have demonstrated that nanoplastics can translocate to all organs, affecting human health.

Plastic producers say the plastics are OK, people need them; it is what the consumer does after their use that is the problem, leaving the problem to us. Local efforts to reduce the use of plastics have had some success – cutting back on the use of plastic water bottles, for instance. But the public believes they need them, encouraged by advertising and publicity from water bottle manufacturers like the Ohio manufacturer Fiji who convincingly tells consumers that their water is safer than the public water supply. 

Environmentalists have realized that change needs to start with the manufacturers, not the consumer. Freeing the oceans from the deposits of plastics and creating plastics that are compostable or biodegradable will take strong citizen action. According to The Daily Planet, “we are seeing that public demands are clear, and they want plastic waste to be addressed.”

We need to ask the Federal Government to stop giving rebates to fossil fuel companies. The Center for Biological Diversity has petitioned the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency to regulate plastics as a pollutant under the Clean Water Act and will keep pushing for plastic pollution to be treated as the hazardous waste that it is. On a federal level, the Break Free from Plastics Act that was re-introduced recently includes a strengthened EPR policy that holds plastic producing companies accountable for their waste. It also would implement a three-year pause on issuing permits for new plastic production facilities. 

In New York State the Extended Producer Responsibility bill (S1185), co-sponsored by Assemblyman Steve Englebright and Senator Todd Kaminsky, will be addressed in the Senate most likely in June. It would require producers and manufacturers to finance the disposal of their packaging materials and plastics, with incentives for finding ways of making recycling easier. The American Chemistry Council, which represents plastic producers, would put the onus on consumers to pay taxes on plastic to pay for recycling. 

Although recycling will not make the plastics go away, we should all do  what we can to reduce our personal use of plastics. Contact the legislators who have written the EPR bills, Senator Kaminsky ([email protected]) and Assemblyman Englebright ([email protected]) and your own state legislators, to tell them you support the EPR bill and reusable packaging to reduce the use of plastics.    

Nancy Marr is first vice-president of the League of Women Voters of Suffolk County, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that encourages the informed and active participation of citizens in government and influences public policy through education and advocacy. For more information, visit https://my.lwv.org/new-york/suffolk-county or call 631-862-6860.

Suffolk County Legislator Kara Hahn holds up straws during Legislature's meeting. Photo from the Suffolk County Legislature Facebook

Several businesses have already converted to renewable products

Come January next year, Suffolk residents will likely be slurping down their iced coffees using paper straws, instead of the usual plastic.

As Suffolk lawmakers passed bills aimed at reducing plastic and polystyrene waste in the county April 9, food business owners will need to begin the process of adjusting to the new restrictions on plastic straws and polystyrene, more commonly known as Styrofoam, food service products. 

As per the new bill, food establishments would be required to provide straws and stirrers by request only, and they would have to be biodegradable — not plastic. For customers with a disability or medical condition, plastic straws will be made available by request.  

“The plastics crisis is more urgent than people realize.”

— Kara Hahn

“The scale of the worldwide single-use plastics problem has become an ever-increasing threat to our environment and everything that relies on it, including human health,” said Legislator Kara Hahn (D-Setauket). “The plastics crisis is more urgent than people realize.”

Some businesses in Suffolk County have already made the switch over to biodegradable options. Local’s Cafe in Port Jeff doesn’t use plastic straws and stirrers, and only uses paper goods, while Soul Brew in St. James said they switched over to paper goods at the end of last summer.  

Constantinos Drepaniotis, co-owner of the Setauket Village Diner, said he and others have advocated for the environment and said the bans are quite a big step in right direction. 

Drepaniotis’ diner hasn’t used Styrofoam food service products for close to two years and has begun reaching out to vendors for plastic straw alternatives. He has considered distributing reusable straws to his customers as well. 

While the price of these alternatives has concerned business owners, the restaurant owner said it is business’ responsibility to be proactive and help in this environmental cause. The owner said he will not let the cost affect the business and it will adapt. 

The Styrofoam bill would bar businesses from using items such as cups, trays and containers that are made from polystyrene, as well as ban retail stores from selling those products. It will require businesses in the county to use biodegradable products, though the bill would exempt items used to store uncooked eggs, raw meat, seafood and poultry. Changes would take effect Jan. 1, 2020.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services classified styrene as a potential human carcinogen and, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, polystyrene manufacturing process is the fifth largest creator of hazardous waste in the United States. 

“[Styrene has] recently been upgraded from a possible carcinogen to a probable carcinogen — a cancer causing chemical,” Legislator Sarah Anker (D-Mount Sinai) said at a Feb. 13 press conference advocating for the bills. “Long Island has some of the highest cancer rates in the country.”

Plastic presents a difficult but necessary to address challenge for the world’s oceans. Photo courtesy of United States Coast Guard

An employee from Tiger Lily Café in Port Jefferson said she dislikes plastic straws and hopes the new ban will potentially get people to bring their own reusable straws, mentioning that it is very expensive right now to purchase biodegradable alternatives, like paper straws. 

While acknowledging the ban would be good for the environment, she said the cost is something a lot of entrepreneurs will have to deal with. The employee also hopes as the demands for these paper goods increase eventually the prices will go down and manufacturers will make it more cost effective. 

Other businesses have been using alternatives to polystyrene containers. Setauket Pita House said it doesn’t use Styrofoam food containers and currently uses aluminum foil containers.   

Officials also passed a third bill that would prohibit the sale of single-use plastic cups, utensils and beverage straws from county beaches and parks. 

Last month, the Legislature approved a companion bill that would replace existing water fountains with new ones designed to allow bottle filling at county facilities and county-owned parks that have water dispensers. 

The bills will now go to the county executive’s office to be signed into law.

Microplastic scooped from the surf off Kamilo Beach, Hawaii, where there seems to be more plastic than sand. Photo by Erica Cirino

By Daniel Dunaief

Erica Cirino sails the South Pacific to cover the story of microplastic pollution in the oceans with Danish sailors and scientists. Photo by Rasmus Hytting

A specialist in investigating plastics pollution, Erica Cirino recently shared an email exchange about her concerns over a growing environmental threat. Cirino, who earned a bachelor of arts in environmental studies and a master’s of science in journalism from Stony Brook University, is a Kaplana Chawla Launchpad fellow at the Safina Center. A guest researcher at Roskilde University in Denmark and a freelance science writer and artist, Cirino is also a licensed wildlife rehabilitator.

How significant are plastics as a source of pollution in the oceans? Is the problem becoming more pronounced each year? 

Plastics are a significant source of marine debris, entering the oceans at an estimated rate of 8 million metric tons per year. However, experts don’t have a great idea of exactly how much plastic is entering the oceans because it’s so hard to quantify once it gets in the environment. 

What can people on Long Island and elsewhere do to help prevent plastic pollution?

When it comes to preventing plastic from getting into nature, including in the oceans, reducing one’s use of plastic is most certainly the answer. There are many recyclable products on the market, but these only encourage the use of more plastic — and then there’s the actual act of recycling that’s necessary for the plastic to be reused. 

To reduce your plastic use, you should make use of reusable containers such as bags, bottles and food boxes, ideally made from natural materials like wood, metal or glass. Hard plastics can be reused, but they do release small particles of plastic into the environment, particularly when washed. 

You should also pay attention to your clothing labels, because much of our clothing today is made from plastics. Opt for organic cotton, bamboo, wool and other natural fibers over plastic-based polyester, nylon and acrylic. Every time you wash synthetic plastic-based clothing, thousands of tiny plastic pieces wash off and into the wastewater system. That’s not good because water treatment can’t remove plastic (yet) and it goes directly back into the environment. 

Has recycling helped reduce the problem in the oceans or landfills?

Based off of production, waste management and pollution data, experts estimate 8,300 million metric tons of virgin plastic have been produced to date, and only 9 percent of that plastic has been recycled. The vast majority has been tossed in landfills or littered into the natural environment. 

Above, a deceased herring gull surrounded by plastic litter on Venice Beach, California. Photo by Erica Cirino

How has plastic affected individual organisms and ecosystems? 

In the oceans, plastic breaks down from intact items into microscopic pieces over time, from weeks to months to years. Because there are so many different sizes of plastic in the oceans, wildlife is affected in different ways. Large pieces of plastic may injure or entangle larger animals like whales and sea turtles, while the tiniest pieces of plastic may block the digestive tracts of microscopic marine crustaceans. What’s more, the tiniest pieces of plastic (microplastic), while they sometimes pass through the guts of the animals that eat them, often contain toxic chemicals they’ve absorbed from seawater. Animals that eat microplastic tend to accumulate high levels of toxins in their bodies that can cause disease, behavioral abnormalities and even death. 

Where do plastics that wash ashore on Long Island originate?

Based on my years of walking Long Island’s beaches, I can tell you the plastics that wash ashore along the Sound tend to come mostly from New York City and Connecticut. For example, I once found a message in a plastic water bottle that someone had sent from Connecticut, according to the note inside. The note also contained a phone number and I lightly scolded the person who sent it off for tossing a plastic bottle into the Sound. But on the South Shore and the East End, there’s a lot of plastic that comes in from far off places via the Atlantic Ocean as far as Europe and Africa, even. 

What are some of the positive steps you’ve seen individuals and/or companies take to address the plastics problem? 

There are individuals doing things large and small to address the plastic pollution crisis. Some examples include the formation of beach cleanup groups, political mobilization and pushes for legislation to reduce or prohibit use of plastic items like plastic bags, expanded polystyrene food containers and plastic bottles. Others have created companies that reuse cleaned-up plastic marine debris to make clothing and other items. But the issue with that is that microplastic will shed off these items. I think the most effective efforts revolve around community projects and political action to address the core issue: which is using plastic. 

Are there any popular misconceptions about plastics?

The biggest misconception is that recycling is a solution to the issue of plastic pollution. 

Is there a plastics message for consumers, companies and policy makers that you’d like to share on Earth Day this year?

Let’s rethink our fast and hurried plastic lifestyles this Earth Day and think about all the problems we’re causing by using fast, easy and cheap plastic. If we love nature, we need to do more to preserve it, and that involves a less consumeristic lifestyle. Let’s value the things that really matter, like friends, family and community.