By MAIA KALLEN
Last April, a dead sperm whale washed ashore in Sardinia, Italy, containing more than 48 pounds of plastic in its stomach. A month before that, a young whale washed ashore in the Philippines with 88 pounds of plastic in its stomach.
There have been countless other cases like this confirming the lethal impacts of plastic on wildlife. We are now beginning to see ocean plastic pollution as one of the most significant environmental and health issues of our time. In fact, it has been estimated that by 2050, there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish.
However, it is not just large plastic debris — or macro-plastic — that we should be concerned about. More and more research is showing that micro-plastics (plastic particles less than 5 mm in length) are just as harmful to marine life. Micro-plastics are the most common form of plastic pollution found in the ocean. In fact, they are so widespread and small that they have begun to impact humans as well.
Micro-plastics come from a variety of sources. Most often, they are the product of larger plastic debris that has undergone photo-degradation. They are toxic in composition and tend to absorb other toxins present in the environment. When consumed by marine life, they bio-accumulate upward in the trophic system, eventually making their way into human food sources.
Micro-plastics have been found in many drinking water sources. The dangers of micro-plastics are many. In addition to harming marine life, micro-plastics may lead to a variety of negative health impacts on humans, including respiratory illnesses, digestive problems, reproductive effects, and even cancer.
So where is all of this micro-plastic coming from? The simple answer is: everywhere. However, research has shown that the United States has the second-highest rates of waste generation in the world per capita. Within the United States, cities are especially culpable because of their high population densities, high rates of consumption and waste generation, and proximity to water bodies.
All of these factors combine to contribute to plastic pollution.
But what about recycling? Don’t cities have great recycling programs that handle most of this plastic waste? Until recently, yes. However, since China stopped accepting plastic recycling from the United States last year, many cities have been facing challenges with regard to waste management.
In response to skyrocketing recycling costs, some cities have turned to dangerous alternatives. One such city is Philadelphia. Unable to afford the costs of recycling, Philadelphia has begun incinerating half of its recyclables, leading to air quality concerns. Micro-plastic pollution is not limited to water — it can pollute the air as well, allowing for airborne ingestion.
With excessive consumption and a lack of effective waste management, all U.S. cities should be doing more to eliminate plastic pollution, especially at its source. Some cities have taken various measures to this effect, including plastic bag recycling, plastic bag fees, or complete plastic bag bans. Some have focused primarily on eliminating plastic straws.
While these efforts are laudable, they merely scratch the surface of such a massive problem.
Moreover, these cities represent a minority in the United States. The majority of U.S. states and cities are either indifferent, or opposed to, the notion of banning single-use plastics.
Not surprisingly, Europe, Asia and Africa are way ahead of the United States with regard to plastic bag policy. On these continents, plastic bag policy is either widespread or increasing. However, policy intervention remains limited in North America.
While policies have focused primarily on plastic bags and straws, these are far from being the only items responsible for micro-plastic pollution. Therefore, future city policy should focus on eliminating as many single-use plastics as possible.
It is time for the United States to step up toward eliminating plastic pollution. Given the dangerous implications of micro-plastic pollution, we can no longer continue with the status quo.
The solution to the plastic problem lies primarily in local policy, and we need to act quickly. Our health — and the health of future generations — depends on it.