From straws to bags to bottles, citizens and regulators are increasingly asking for local government action to reduce plastics in the waste stream — much of which ends up in local waterways as both an eyesore and environmental problem.
States and localities have responded to the problem in various ways, including bans, fees and public awareness campaigns. Such actions have also been paired with concerns for the people and businesses that will bear the financial brunt of producing and using replacement products.
The District of Columbia placed a fee on plastic bags in 2010 amid such debate, under pressure from regulators to reduce waterborne trash. A 5-cent fee is charged for the use of each plastic bag. And the results are showing up — or rather, not showing up — in the Potomac River shoreline, said Lillian Power of the District’s Department of Energy and Environment.
Each April, volunteers for the Alice Ferguson Foundation brave the early spring weather to count plastic bags, soda bottles and cigarette wrappers fished from the Potomac River. They set up at different sites, with a few groups outside of DC and others just over the Virginia line.
Volunteers on the Virginia side of the river fished out more plastic bags from the Potomac than those gathering trash just downstream of the District. And each year since the fee has been in place, volunteers have found fewer bags than the last.
Power attributes the decrease to the fee. “The Potomac River cleanup showed a 72 percent reduction in bags collected after the fee went into effect,” she said. “We are seeing a positive response. The regulated community has been taking it seriously.”
Power said that more businesses are complying with the plastic bag fee in 2018 than in beginning years. Her team inspects about 550 businesses each year, playing mystery shopper to see if the nickel is charged. Compliance levels have increased from 40 percent to about 75 percent since the program began, she said.
“Initially, we had a lot of concern this was going to be a difficult transition for merchants,” Power said. “Then two or three years down the line, we found it minimally affected their bottom line.”
In addition to reducing plastic pollution in the river, the fee generates roughly $2 million in annual revenue that is then spent on green infrastructure, trash traps on rivers, education and other projects.
The long life of plastics
While trash is a visual problem for local communities and tourism, it also has a big impact on the ecosystem. The challenge of “microplastics” has drawn greater attention lately —
not just in the ocean, but also in the Chesapeake Bay, where trawling surveys have found the widespread presence of tiny plastic particles.
That’s because plastic never really goes away. It just gets smaller, broken down by wave action and sunlight.
Depending on their size and composition, the plastic particles may release previously bound-up chemicals into the water. At the same time, the changing composition of the smaller plastic bits may make it easier for them to absorb other chemicals in the water. Some small plastic particles readily take up PCBs and DDT.
The remains of plastic grocery bags, straws and utensils are ubiquitous. Chinese researchers found microplastics in table salt, tap water and bottled water, according to a 2018 report by the United Nations Environment Programme. These microplastics are ingested by fish and tiny aquatic creatures and can work their way up the food chain.
Research also has shown that toxins are released from some plastics into our food. That effect is exaggerated when food is heated in the container. Foam plastic is porous and is especially prone to absorbing toxins present in the environment, fixing up a cocktail of many different substances as it breaks down into smaller pieces.
Recycling isn’t working the way it was expected either, according to the United Nations report. Of the more than 8 billion metric tons of plastic created since the 1950, scientists estimated that 79 percent is still present in the environment, either in landfills or litter. Only 9 percent of plastic makes it to a recycling facility, and 12 percent is incinerated.
As much as 56 percent of the world’s plastic waste was imported to China for recycling until 2017. The Chinese government announced that it was no longer taking certain classifications of low-value plastic, stating the need to protect their public and environment from hazardous waste that was mixed in with the recyclables. The recycling market and local governments in the United States are either scrambling for solutions or asking their recycling facilities to sort those plastics out and send them to the landfill.
“We absolutely cannot recycle our way out of this mess. Although this is a litter issue, it’s also a water issue, a health issue and a tourism issue,” said Ashley Van Stone, executive director of Trash Free Maryland. “And trash is also an industry issue if the aquatic life that watermen depend on have bellies filled with plastic.”
Reductions take root
The plastic industry has launched campaigns to avert bans and fees on plastics. There have been lawsuits and pre-emption laws, which in effect make it illegal for a local government to ban plastic. The legislatures in Minnesota, Idaho, Mississippi, Florida and Arizona have passed such laws. Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf vetoed a bill in 2017 brought by lawmakers who said they wanted to protect jobs in the industry.
Novolex, a leading manufacturer of plastic bags and recycling facilities with 10,000 employees, is the owner of the website BagtheBan.com.
There, the company makes claims that plastic bags are better for the environment than reusable bags, are completely recyclable and don’t harbor harmful bacteria, like E. coli.
But the interest in reducing plastics persists.
In 2016, Baltimore’s Office of Sustainability and environmental groups supported the creation of a youth-led group, Baltimore Beyond Plastic. The group works to reduce plastic pollution in the city and has sustained a multi-year effort to pass a statewide ban on polystyrene foam, a form of plastic commonly but inaccurately known by the trademarked name, Styrofoam. Group members have testified on bills, educated other school children and organized youth rallies. They also launched a successful campaign to ban foam food packaging in Baltimore, which the city council approved in March 2018.
“The youth voices really resonated with people, it made it personal,” said Abby Cocke of the Baltimore Office of Sustainability. “It was helpful to make the connections with other organizations that have the have the same desires and highlighted communities around us who did the same things, like Prince Georges’ County and Montgomery County.”
In Middleburg, VA, the town council has an interest in curbing the plastic habit, but the small town cannot legally take action. That’s because local governments in Virginia have limited authority to enact ordinances without the blessing of the General Assembly.
Peter Leonard, a Middleburg councilman, also serves on the Virginia Municipal League’s Environmental Committee, which made getting that blessing from the legislature one of its 2019 priorities.
In the meantime, Middleburg is trying the “gentle approach and try to educate people in a kind way,” Leonard said.
“Our little town of Middleburg is small but I see people changing their behavior,” he added. “It’s a long haul and the plastic lobby is wealthy, but we’ll get there, slowly but surely.”
Van Stone said that, when deciding between a ban or a fee, Trash Free Maryland recommends the fee. A fee is less likely to draw opposition from industry than outright bans, she said. And it’s hard for a judge in a lawsuit to prevent the charging of a fee, whereas a ban eliminates a public choice. A fee also forces people to make a conscious decision about their use of some plastic products and consider the reasons for the fee. That could lead to deeper thinking about plastic pollution and trigger behavior change.
If this is legislation that you want to pursue, Van Stone said, understand in advance the concerns of those who may disagree. Use data and imagery to document the scope of the problem. Presenting the costs of cleanups is a good way to start.
“We want to make cleanup days extinct,” Van Stone said. “Look at what we’ve accomplished as a species. We have sent people to the moon. We can figure out how not to have trash in places where it doesn’t belong.”