david kerr H&S

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Why did the District of Columbia ban plastic straws?  Why did a local Virginia school district decide to do away with plastic straws in its cafeterias and why was a bill introduced in the Virginia General Assembly to place a tax on one-time use plastics?  And why are a number of local retailers encouraging their customers to recycle their plastic bags? The answer is simple. We’re awash in one-time use plastics. It’s a local problem that’s become part of a global problem.

That said, just what does that global problem look like?  Imagine you’ve been out at sea for days, and then, there it is, a swirling mass of millions if not billions of pieces of plastic, miles and miles across, all going around and around, slowly choking off all the marine life below it.  It may well take your ship a day or more to clear it. That is, if all that plastic doesn’t foul your propellers. It’s not some sort of dystopian science fiction film. It's real. There are huge swirling masses of plastic in every one of the world’s oceans.  Some have several. They’re so large they can be seen from space and are often marked on nautical charts.

How did it all get there?  That’s the amazing part. In a sort of plastic garbage archeology scientists have tried to identify the oldest pieces of plastic in these garbage swirls.  Not surprisingly, the 1970s seem to be the starting point. That’s the era when we started shifting from glass bottles to plastic ones, from paper bags to plastic, and when we decided paper straws were no longer adequate.  Plastic straws and cups would rule from now on.

But, back to that question of how they got there.  Most of this mass of plastic garbage began its long journey rather innocuously.  Often in our own backyards. Plastic cups, straws and toys all left here and there — in parks, parking lots and in improperly secured trash cans. The waste made its way to local creeks and streams and then almost miraculously, through an amazing and agonizingly slow journey, washed out to sea.  Who knows, maybe that fast food cup you don’t remember leaving behind at a rest stop on Interstate 95 back in 2010 is now thousands of miles out at sea taking its place in the North Atlantic garbage patch. Not a particularly encouraging thought is it?

Also, improperly secured loads on that vast caravan of disposal trucks and train cars that takes our trash to landfills helped start a lot of this plastic garbage on its way to the world’s great oceans. The list of ways plastic ends up in the oceans is a long one.  For instance, there have been hundreds of freighters bound to the U.S. from Asia that have lost uncountable numbers of cargo containers at sea. Most contained plastics. They often break open and the garbage patches grow even bigger.  

So, what about recycling?  Sadly, the economics of plastic recycling are terrible.  New plastic is cheap, it can be made into any form or shape for very little, while recycling is expensive.  What’s more, because of the limitations on recycling technology the recycled plastic that can be recycled has only limited uses.  A scant 7% of America’s waste plastic is recycled.

That sounds like a big intractable problem.  But, is it really? There are some alternatives.  One, in the short term, is to ban some one-time plastic products or, through taxes, make them too expensive to use in large quantities.  Take plastic straws for example. It’s been calculated that over a lifetime the average adult will use 30,000 plastic straws. That’s a lot of plastic.  Whatever happened to paper straws? But there are some people taking action. The District of Columbia for example has outlawed plastic straws in favor of paper.  Even one of our area school systems did the same.

A bill introduced this year in the General Assembly, H.R. 1519 would have taxed one-time use plastic. It didn’t make it — there are a lot of vested interests that don’t want to deal with this problem, but if a bill like this were to pass it might make one-time use plastic products expensive enough to force vendors to look for alternatives. 

There are some other remedies out there.  The Japanese are looking into an enzyme they discovered that eats plastic.  That could be promising. While several companies and governments are looking at technologies to physically clean up the garbage patches.  This might be doable, but where exactly do you put a billion pieces of plastic refuse?

My solution, small and pitiful as it is, is to favor paper straws at home, carry reusable shopping bags to the grocery store, and to keep encouraging our local and state governments to do their bit in limiting the amount of one-time use plastic we consume.   

David Kerr is an adjunct professor of political science at VCU and has worked on Capitol Hill and for various federal agencies for many years.

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