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Climate Change

Published on August 7th, 2019 | by Carolyn Fortuna

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How Concerned Is Your US Region With Plastic Pollution?

August 7th, 2019 by  


As I walked the Florida beach on this August morning, I surveyed the wrack line. Interspersed with shells, empty turtle eggs, drying seaweed, skate egg cases, coconut fronts, dead coral pieces, and sea glass, I could see small and large bits of plastic. A lost flip flop. Water bottle cap. Snack packaging. Toys. Plastic pollution is a serious problem, and many regions in the US are now restricting or eliminating many kinds of plastics in their communities due to its effects on the world’s oceans.

Photograph by Carolyn Fortuna, CleanTechnica (available for reuse if properly attributed)


Plastic is a synthetic material that can take anywhere from 20 to 1,000 years to break down and wreaks havoc on the environment. Some marine animals, such as turtles that eat jellyfish, mistake plastic bags for food. Once plastic gets lodged in the bodies of animals, it can cause them to suffocate or starve to death.

Plastic is versatile, lightweight, aerodynamic, inexpensive, and waterproof. It has also been labeled as one of the world’s biggest enemies in the fight against pollution. The plastic industry is the 2nd largest and fastest-growing source of industrial greenhouse gas emissions, and 99% of what goes into plastic is derived from fossil fuels — crude oil, gas, coal — petrochemicals — rather than from non-renewable resources.

Plastic pollution is the accumulation of plastic objects and particles in the Earth’s environment that adversely affects wildlife, wildlife habitat, and humans. More single-use plastics are sent to landfills than are ever recycled, with millions also ending up polluting the land and water.

As plastic bags fragment into smaller pieces, they become microplastics, which are ingested by a wide range of marine animals from oysters to whales. By displacing lower food sources, microplastics can enter the food chain, including our own. There is no systematic way to recover plastics once they enter lakes or oceans.

By 2050, the oceans will contain more plastic than fish by weight. A May, 2019 report from the Center of International Environmental Law outlines that by 2050 plastic will be responsible for 10 to 13% of the total “carbon budget” — which is the amount of CO2 we can emit globally and still remain below a 1.5 degree Celsius temperature rise.

A Picture about Plastic Pollution Tells a Thousand Words

The first graphic is an animated visualization showing how much single-use plastic is produced, as well as other plastic facts, that occurs within just 10 seconds of each day.

The top states with professed concerns about plastic pollution are as follows:

1. Massachusetts
2. Rhode Island
3. Wisconsin
4. Vermont
5. Oregon
6. New Hampshire
7. South Dakota
8. Virginia
9. Maine
10. Connecticut

The award winner is Massachusetts, which, according to the Sierra Club, has more than 120 communities representing more than half the state’s population with a ban plastic bags. Supermarket chain Big Y recently announced it is discontinuing use of plastic bags effective August 1. 2019.

The second graphic is a map based on geotagged twitter data in the past month (over 10,000 tweets) tracking mentions of limiting or banning single use plastics. As you can see, the northeast New England area is the most concerned.

Graphic with permission of the folks at thunderbombsurf

Other Regions Where Plastic Pollution Is Gaining Public Attention

San Diego is one of the many cities that has banned Styrofoam — otherwise called extruded polystyrene. You know it as common for food and drink containers, egg cartons, ice chest coolers, aquatic toys for swimming pools, and mooring buoys and navigation markers. The city council approved the ban over objections from owners of small restaurants who complained that the costs of using environmentally degradable containers, such as cardboard or compostable paper, could be double.

The ban on the Dow Chemical trademark product is due to its composition, which breaks into minute, frequently airborne particles that are hard to clean up. Most recycling centers reject Styrofoam as a result.

Washington, D.C. businesses will now be fined if they offer plastic straws. Instead, many local businesses have turned to reusable, washable straws or disposable ones made from paper or hay. The municipality joins thousands of others across the US who reject the plastic accouterments that cannot be recycled, as they’re too lightweight to make it through mechanical recycling sorters. Instead, they end up in landfills and waterways and, eventually, our oceans. Non-biodegradable, a plastic straw slowly fragments into smaller and smaller pieces known as microplastics, which are frequently mistaken for food by marine animals.

New York became the 3rd state to ban plastic bags in 2019 with passage of Senate Bill 1508. Going into effect in March, 2020, the ban will apply to most single-use plastic bags provided by grocery stores and other retailers. The law allows individual counties the option of placing a 5-cent fee on paper bags, with 2 cents going to local governments and 3 cents to the state’s Environmental Protection Fund.

But not all plastic bags are exempt. Bags still allowed to circulate are:

  • meat/deli counter and bulk food bags
  • newspaper bags
  • trash bags
  • garment bags
  • pharmacy prescription drug bags
  • restaurant takeout bags

How does New York compare with other US states in their plastic bag bans? Check out this graphic and see how your region is doing.

Graphic attribution: National Conference of State Legislatures

Final Thoughts

An emergent radicalism to move the world away from fossil fuel consumption and toward equitable careers in green energy is taking many people by surprise. For example, the Valley Advocate in western Massachusetts reports that University of Massachusetts graduate student Alula Shields is fighting on the local level against single-use plastic with a ban on plastic straws. She began the process of garnering support for an ordinance banning plastic straws 2 years ago.

“I started with the idea of the straw ban because straws aren’t something imperative for people to have and there are a lot of alternative solutions that are more sustainable,” said Shields, who is studying environmental conservation.

If Shields’ ordinance is passed, Northampton wouldn’t be the first city to enact a plastic straw ban. Eight cities in California have banned plastic straws, with some lawmakers looking to ban plastic straws state wide. Cities in Washington, New Jersey, and Florida have also banned plastic straws. A handful of municipalities in eastern Massachusetts have straw bans, as well.

Graphics attribution: The staff over at thunderbombsurf.com were the ones who created the 2 graphics, using trends software with direct access to geotagged twitter data (they have a history of creating graphics related to climate change, ocean issues, and plastic pollution, as it directly affects their industry), and they are big on ocean and marine conservation as well as environmentalism. 
 
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About the Author

Carolyn Fortuna, Ph.D. is a writer, researcher, and educator with a lifelong dedication to ecojustice. She's won awards from the Anti-Defamation League, The International Literacy Association, and The Leavy Foundation. As part of her portfolio divestment, she purchased 5 shares of Tesla stock. Please follow her on Twitter and Facebook.



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