Bipartisan agreement on plastic proves plastic pollution is an important issue

Published 10:10 am Wednesday, February 12, 2020

To the Editor:

With all the partisanship in Washington, it’s nice to hear about truly bipartisan legislation. Last month, the U.S. Senate unanimously passed the Save Our Seas 2.0 Act — all Senators from both sides of the aisle signed the same bill! This bill directs the government to take an international leadership role in reducing ocean plastic pollution and to examine nation-wide opportunities to reduce plastic use, improve recycling, and improve our understanding of the effects of plastics in our food and drinking water. The bill still needs to pass in the House (H.R. 3969) before it becomes law, but unanimous passage in the Senate shows there is broad understanding that plastic pollution is an important issue.

Our use of plastic has been rapidly increasing since the 1950s, and almost half of the plastic ever made was made in just the last 20 years. The amount of plastic produced each year is still increasing. Combine this with the fact that most plastic takes hundreds of years to degrade, and you begin to see the reason for concern. Plastic pollution is found throughout the ocean, from the shores of Antarctica, to the bottom of the deep-sea trenches. Most ocean plastic is in small broken pieces called microplastics. Around 80% of plastics in the oceans are from inland sources, carried through streams and rivers.

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Plastics affect fish and wildlife feeding and movement, reduce reproduction, and can cause ulcers and death. Just as plastic in the ocean harms sea life, when plastic is put in a landfill, microplastics gradually leach into drinking water. A recent study examined drinking water from 83 sources in the U.S. and found that more than 90% of these water sources were contaminated with microplastics. Human health concerns from microplastics are from the toxic and cancer-causing chemicals used in plastic and other harmful chemicals that may attach to plastic over time like lint on Velcro. We don’t know how much plastic we need to drink or eat to cause us harm, but we do know the amount of plastic in our food and water is continuing to increase.

We aren’t supposed to burn plastic because it releases toxins into the air that cause cancer and reproductive problems. In the U.S., only about 9% of plastic is recycled (compared to 30% in Europe and 25% in China). Recycling reduces the need for new plastic, but with repeated recycling, the quality of plastic decreases to a level that is no longer useful, so while recycling helps, it’s only part of the solution. 

In Europe, most single-use plastics (such as plastic bags) that aren’t biodegradable were banned in 2019, and just last month, China announced large restrictions on single-use plastics. In the U.S., there are statewide restrictions on single use plastics in three states and city-wide restrictions in more than 20 other states. At the national level, the Save Our Seas 2.0 bill is a good beginning for the many steps needed to address the growing problems from our increasing use of plastic.

D. McCoy