Monday, August 6, 2018

Communities near and far are eliminating single-use plastics

Marine debris litters a beach on Laysan Island in the Hawaiian Islands National Wildlife Refuge,
where it washed ashore. (source: Susan White/USFWS)

Scientists increasingly warn that ocean plastic pollution has become a global crisis. Plastic bags, which can’t be recycled effectively, are known to adversely affect more than 200 species of marine animals in the Salish Sea alone. And microplastics are being found in large concentrations in the middle of the Pacific Ocean in an area twice as large as the state of Texas known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch

Marine debris accumulation locations in
the North Pacific Ocean. (source: NOAA)
Public awareness of the dangers posed by single-use plastics increased exponentially thanks to a 2015 YouTube video showing a sea turtle with straw embedded in its nostril. The video, first published by Texas A&M University marine biologist Christine Figgener, went viral, garnering more than 31 million views.

In 2013, Peter Ross, director of the Vancouver Aquarium's Ocean Pollution Research Program, began sampling the coast of British Columbia for microplastics. In an interview with National Public Radio, Ross said that researchers found up to 9,200 particles of microplastic per cubic meter of seawater. Ross explained that the samples contained polystyrene beads (sold as bean bag filler and fake snow) “nurdles”—the hard resin pellets used as a raw material for other plastic products—and microbeads, common in toothpaste and face wash.

"It's overwhelmingly fibers," Ross said. "And they're being readily consumed at the bottom of the food chain, in zooplankton."

 Transport and integration of microplastics into biological communities. (source: Mantareina)

study published by Science Magazine in 2015 estimated the annual volume of plastics disposed in the world’s ocean at nearly 9.1 million metric tons and that, by 2025, the cumulative output will be around 155 million metric tons. That’s the volume of more than 150 football stadiums.

In early 2017, the Vancouver Aquarium announced that it was launching a comprehensive microfiber study with the hope of tracing microfibers found in the environment back to the specific brand and article of clothing from which it was shed.

Coastal Ocean Research Institute executive director Peter Ross is leading a 
study of how various fabrics hold up to the elements. (source: Ocean Wise)
The situation in the Salish Sea is not beyond hope. A recent study found British Columbia shellfish had fewer plastic bits inside them, though foreign fibers of many kinds are still present.

Awakened to the serious threat of plastic pollution, cities and communities are taking action, galvanizing support for reducing and even eliminating some single-use plastics.

On July 4, 2012, the Port Townsend City Council approved the North Olympic Peninsula’s first plastic bag ban. At that time, Port Townsend became the sixth Washington city to pass such an ordinance, after Bainbridge Island, Bellingham, Edmonds, Issaquah, Mukilteo and Seattle.
"Bag Monster" Jude Rubin, founder of
 the Northwest Watershed Institute
Spurred by the attention-grabbing appearance of the “Bag Monster” – environmental activist and Eleanor Stopps Environmental Leadership Award recipient Jude Rubin wearing a costume made from hundreds of discarded plastic bags – as well as a city-wide citizen petition, then-Mayor David King said the rule was meant to encourage people to bring their own reusable bags when shopping.

“I would like to see us develop a way to encourage people to use durable containers,” Mayor King said. “This should be our legacy.”

Among larger cities, Seattle has been at the forefront. In 2009 a styrofoam ban went into effect, followed one year later with a requirement that food service items (exception straws and utensils) be either recyclable or compostable. In 2010, the city also mandated that businesses have compost and recycle bins. Now, just this month, Seattle has banned plastic straws and utensils altogether.

Seattle-based corporations are also taking action. In May, Alaska Air said that it's replacing plastic straws on its flights with "sustainable, marine-friendly alternatives." Then in July, Starbucks announced it will eliminate up to one billion single-use plastic straws per year from its more than 28,000 company-operated-and-licensed stores by making a strawless lid or alternative-material straw options available by 2020. The statement said the move is part of a $10 million commitment to develop a fully recyclable and compostable global cup solution in the near future.

Closer to home, Port Angeles banned plastic carry-out bags in April 2018. It joins a list of 16 cities and two counties in Washington State with a plastic bag ban. And the Kitsap Sun reported that Kitsap could soon become the third Washington county to enact a ban.
Disposable plastic cups, lids and straws often
end up in oceans and waterways.

Not to be outdone by its Salish Sea neighbors, Vancouver BC will become the first major Canadian city to ban plastic straws. The ban, which takes effect in the fall of 2019, is one part of a larger effort to eliminate polystyrene foam cups and containers, as well as disposable cups and plastic shopping bags. And Victoria BC, having already passed a law banning plastic bags, has its eye on banning other items such as plastic straws and plastic-foam containers.

Globally, the issue of plastic pollution is at the forefront of environmental agendas. The European Commission has put forward a proposal to ban almost all single-use plastics. Britain plans to ban the sale of plastic straws and other single use products. And Mumbai has became the largest city in India city to ban single-use plastics.

Today, social media abounds with warnings about plastics, with trending hashtags such as #BeatPlasticPollution, #BreakFreeFromPlastic and #NoExcuseForSingleUse.

The push to ban plastic straws has generated some controversy among advocates for the disabled, but hopefully exemptions such as Seattle’s will address this need.

Despite the momentum generated by bans on plastic bags, straws, utensils and serving containers, plastic remains a pervasive presence in our daily lives. A look through one’s weekly trash reveals all sorts of plastic packaging for food and consumer products – likely tied up in a plastic bag and tossed into the garbage can.

It has often been said “It Only Takes One Person to Start a Movement” and —so empowered— communities across the globe are starting to eliminate or drastically reduce plastic consumption.

There is hope in the actions taken so far, but clearly far more need to be done. It’s up to each of us to change our behaviors. When thousands -- and eventually millions -- of individuals stop purchasing and disposing of unnecessary plastics, the positive impact on the health of our oceans and the Salish Sea will be enormous. 

Signage on the plastic trash display tank on the dock outside the PTMSC Aquarium. 

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