Plastic bags

Plastic bags continue to be a threat, but are now being joined by microplastics. 

The war against plastics in the environment is growing, and is increasingly important – and those discussions on plastic straws and disposable bags are only the tip of a growing iceberg of concern.

But back in June, two political things oddly happened in very quick succession on the plastics front. On June 20,  Philadelphia City Councilman Mark Squilla introduced a bill that proposed an outright ban on lightweight single-use plastic bags and non-recyclable paper bags, and put a 15-cent fee on recyclable paper bags and thicker plastic bags. It’s the fourth time in 12 years Philadelphia has attempted to address this issue. The councilman was confident that this time he had the votes to pass this landmark bill.

Only eight days later, however, the state Legislature passed its own bill – that Gov. Tom Wolf quickly and surprisingly signed – stopping municipalities from passing laws just like this, for at least a year anyway. This move ostensibly allows the state to study the economics of the issue – what will happen to small businesses when disposable plastic bags are outlawed or taxed?

When the year expires, I hope the good councilman will re-introduce his legislation, and I hope it enjoys the support of others on council, including our own Curtis Jones.

Meanwhile, the backlash against single-use plastics continues. Forbes magazine reports that 349 states and municipalities have banned or taxed these bags, including the borough of Narberth across the Schuylkill River, which placed a surcharge on single-use bags before the state could deny it that ability. California became the first state to impose such a ban back in 2016, with Hawaii and New York following suit (and New York’s doesn’t go into effect until next year).

The United Nations reports that some 127 countries have regulated plastic bags, including Ireland – that country’s single-use plastic bag tax led to 90% of consumers switching to permanent shopping bags within a year. (I don’t think it ended civilization as we know it.) The District of Columbia started requiring businesses that sell food or alcohol to charge a 5-cent fee for paper and plastic bags a full 10 years ago, which led to most businesses reducing their disposable bag count by 50%.

But the plastics battle is about much more than single-use disposable bags, which do contribute to litter and are a visual eyesore, and do clog storm drains, exacerbating flooding. The plastics battles is about more than disposable straws as well.

The real battle is microplastics, which are only just starting to gain the much-deserved attention of the world’s press.

It turns out our synthetic clothing sheds hundreds if not thousands of microfibers when we wash and dry our laundry, fibers so small they pass through treatment systems and into our water, ending up in streams, rivers, and the ocean. One study offered that each garment in a load of laundry can shed almost 2,000 fibers of microplastics, with fleeces releasing the highest percentage of fibers, over 170% more than other garments.

And the cosmetic industry loads skin care products like soap, exfoliants, toothpaste and facial cream with thousands of plastic microbeads, the plastics replacing once-natural products that used to decompose quickly. These plastics decompose far, far more slowly.

Another study found that microplastics even fall from the sky – small particles are drifting like snow or fallout in the atmosphere.

A recent review published in August collated 50 studies wherein scientists found microplastics in freshwater, drinking water, and wastewater. Some of these studies counted thousands of microplastic particles in every liter of drinking water. “Theoretically,” wrote the authors, “if a person consumes them, some microplastics are small enough to pass through the gut wall and enter the circulatory system. Whether or not this happens, and whether or not it impacts human health, remains unknown.”

European researchers, looking at a very small sample size, found microplastics in the stool of 100% of the people they tested. All of them. The good news, they offered, is that microplastics were being excreted. What is completely unclear at this point is how many microplastics we might be retaining, and what the health impacts might be. Right now the World Health Organization urges caution on jumping to a conclusion, and says more study is needed.

Meanwhile, microplastics are piling up in the ocean, both from runoff from cities and from the physical breakdown of larger pieces of plastic tossed into the ocean. Microplastics have been found in 100% of the guts of sea turtles, for example. And in 2016, the World Economic Forum warned that there may be more plastic than fish in the ocean by weight by 2050-- unless we take significant action.

Pause for a moment and read that last sentence again. More plastic in the ocean than fish.

So a possible ban on plastic straws and shopping bags is the tip of a much larger, much more important iceberg, a reordering of manufacturing to keep plastic contamination out of ecosystems like rivers and oceans-- and our bodies.

But let’s start with the easy stuff, and slow the amount of single-use plastics we dispose of into the environment. It’s the least we can do.

Mike Weilbacher directs Roxborough’s Schuylkill Center for Environment Education, tweets @SCEEMike, and can be reached at mike@schuylkillcenter.org.

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