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Plastics pollution needs large-scale remedies

August 12, 2018

A widely circulated photograph of a sea turtle with a bloody plastic straw protruding from its nostril is alarming. Equally disturbing are photographs of sea creatures ensnared in discarded plastic fishing nets and single-use plastic bags. Many of these images disseminated through social media were published in June by National Geographic as part of comprehensive reporting about the proliferation of plastic waste worldwide.

These images of the horrors of plastic waste have no doubt helped fuel discussion about the need for bans on single-use plastics. Indeed, many corporations announced they would end the use of plastic straws and some major cities, including Seattle, are banning single-use plastics such as bags, straws and restaurant takeout containers. Locally, Stonington and Waterford have discussed bans on certain items.

The Day has supported these discussions in the past and we continue to advocate for finding ways to stem the startling amount of plastic washing into rivers, lakes and oceans, as well as clogging landfills. However, as with many feel-good campaigns that advocate simple answers for complex problems, choosing a paper straw or bag instead of plastic may be a start — a single small step — but simply is not enough.

The source of most plastic waste isn’t straws or even bags, it’s packaging. The National Geographic article notes that packaging material is the biggest market for plastics. Packaging material waste accounts for nearly half the total of all plastics waste. Most of this material is not recycled.

We can see this in our daily lives. We might use one straw in a morning coffee shop latte, but a quick trip to the supermarket reveals how much of what we buy is not just encased in plastic, but sometimes double- or even triple-wrapped in the stuff. Cookies and crackers are packed in plastic sleeves, sit on plastic trays and are tucked inside a plastic bag. Whole grocery store shelves are loaded with single-serving plastic-packed puddings, cookies, trail mixes and other food items.

And think about our children’s toys and games. Each tiny piece of every play set is individually wrapped in plastic, tied with plastic ties and inside a big, clear plastic sheet.

Then there are microbeads. These tiny plastic particles, used in shampoos and lotions, wash down drains and into waterways, accounting for a good deal of damage to the sea life that ingest them and the plastic-based ocean pollution.

We might feel good about giving up that plastic straw, or even lobbying a local government to ban single-use plastic bags, but it isn’t enough. Nor is choosing paper over plastic, as studies show that a paper bag must be reused at least four times for its carbon footprint to be less than a single-use plastic bag. And with 169 municipalities in Connecticut alone, single-town bans will not make the type of impact necessary to solve the problem.

Somewhat ironically, at the same time as the number of advocates for straw and bag bans has increased, proposals to reward recycling, such as pay-per-bag proposals in New London and Montville, have been delayed or scrapped. Studies show comprehensive recycling actually does decrease waste.

Reducing waste, especially plastic waste, is a problem that needs to be attacked on numerous levels. Recycling incentives and possibly even plastics bans should be addressed at least on the state level. But unless we are going to completely forego our use of plastics, which seems unlikely given the ubiquitous nature of plastics in our lives, we also need to find ways to reduce unnecessary packaging, and, through research, discover viable alternatives to produce, package and recycle products.

In June, the European Commission did just that when it took a comprehensive step to attack the problem. The EU program aims to make all plastic packaging there recyclable by 2030 and also to reduce the amount of single-use plastics and restrict the use of microplastics.

While small steps are better than no steps, only such larger, more comprehensive measures in the U.S. will truly make a difference in reducing plastic waste. This is where local, state and national officials and environmental activists should be putting their efforts. 

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