Wednesday, January 17, 2018

The Growing Plastic Pollution Problem in our Waters

August 1, 2014 by · Leave a Comment 

BWGBAUGUST14It may surprise you to know that there is now more plastic than plankton swirling in our oceans. Plastic pollution from throwaway plastic bags, bottles, and bottle caps have become all too common on beaches, rivers, harbors, bays, and open waters. When you consider that the global annual plastic production has grown from 1.9 million tons in the 1950s to 217 million tons in 2012, the rise in production is consistent with the rise in plastic pollution.

Now our waters face a new plastic threat from microbeads — tiny plastic beads produced for use in cosmetics and personal care products such as face washes, body scrubs, and toothpaste.  It is estimated that 19 million tons of microbeads are washed down bathroom sinks, showers, and tubs in New York every year (1.3 million tons going down the drain in Nassau County alone). Our sewage treatment plants and septic systems were never designed to filter out such small particles, so they end up polluting our rivers, streams, bays, and harbors.

“Each year, tens of thousands of pounds of plastic from ill-designed beauty products wash down our drains and into BWGBAUGUST14ANew York’s waters, threatening fish, wildlife, and public health,” said New York State Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman. “New York has long been a leader on the environment, and we should lead the way in eliminating this unnecessary source of water pollution.  That’s why I have put forward the Microbead-Free Waters Act. This common-sense legislation will stem the flow of plastic microbeads, protecting the waters upon which so many New Yorkers depend.”

Plastic pollution is deadly to marine and bird life.  It is estimated that over one million seabirds and over 100,000 mammals die in the North Pacific region alone each year because of plastic pollution. Sea turtles mistake plastic bags for jellyfish and consume them, causing these already endangered creatures to starve when the bag prevents them from eating other foods.  Studies show that harmful chemicals such as PCBs, DDT, and PAHs tend to adhere to tiny plastic pieces, thus contaminating fish that mistakenly eat plastic.  These chemicals bio-accumulate, which means when larger fish eat smaller fish, all the plastic accumulates in the larger fish which may ultimately end up on dinner plates.

The surrounding waterways of New York and Connecticut generate economic activity, so it makes good sense to invest in the protection and restoration of the Long Island Sound. In the last few summers, we have been delighted to see pods of dolphins return to the Sound, a positive indicator that restoration efforts are working. Yet plastic marine debris remains an unsolved problem here and elsewhere.

BWGBAUGUST14BAll plastic debris can be traced to one source — people. When we wash our faces with plastic and use throwaway plastic bags to transport our groceries, plastic ends up polluting our highways, parks, beaches, and waterways.  Flimsy, lightweight, disposable plastic bags and other plastic debris, such as discarded fishing line and ropes, can damage boats by wrapping around propellers and clogging engine intakes, creating direct economic hardship.

Besides being the source of this overwhelming problem, we are also the solution.  Here are three ways you may immediately tackle the problem of plastic pollution:

  1. Check your products; clean teeth and a clean face don’t have to result in dirty water.  If polyethylene or polypropylene is listed as an ingredient in a product, toss it or leave it on the store shelf.  Use a face wash that uses natural scrubbing ingredients such as salt, sugar, or walnut shells.  Take a look at your preferred toothpaste. Is polyethylene added? You don’t need  it  — it affects a product’s color, but doesn’t aid in cleaning teeth or dispersing anti-plaque or anti-cavity ingredients.
  2. BYOB (Bring Your Own Bag) to the grocery stores.  Cease using harmful disposable bags and switch to sturdy, reusable, and fashionable bags. Reusable bags are readily available, hold twice as many items as conventional shopping bags, and are quite sturdy.  On average, a plastic bag has a lifetime of only 12 minutes, but a reusable bag prevents the use of hundreds of plastic bags each year. Bringing your own bag is a simple way to protect our oceans and estuaries as well as marine and avian life. If you haven’t done so already, it’s time to make the switch and BYOB!  The next time you are asked to choose between paper or plastic, you can say, “No thanks, I brought my own.”
  3. Support legislation by telling your representatives that you support bills including the New York State legislation seeking to ban the use of plastic microbeads in products.  Also support local legislation banning disposable plastic bags from use in your community.  Your voice and your actions make a difference, and could lead to cleaner waters for us all to enjoy.

By Maureen Dolan Murphy

Maureen Dolan Murphy is the Executive Programs Manager with Citizens Campaign for the Environment



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