Most of us don’t give much thought to where our trash goes. We’d better start paying attention, though, especially to the ubiquitous plastic refuse we toss aside every day.
Scientists predict that by 2050 there will be more plastic, by weight, than fish in the world’s oceans. Already there is a patch of plastic waste in the Pacific Ocean that is the size of Europe, India and Mexico combined. The waste is a combination of plastic dumped directly into the ocean as well as plastic that ends up in the ocean after being carried there by rivers, streams and the wind.
This plastic, much of it microscopic, is killing fish, turtles, birds and mammals. Plastic contamination works its way up the food chain, which should concern those who catch and those who eat seafood. In 2014, researchers from the Blue Hill-based Marine and Environmental Research Institute found microplastic fragments in the tissues of fish and shellfish they examined. Oysters averaged 27 pieces of plastic each, mussels had 19 pieces, and the researchers found an average of 29 pieces each in mackerel filets.
This is especially concerning because no one knows the health consequences of eating plastic, according to Susan Shaw, the director of MERI. The institute is conducting studies to determine if plastic is absorbed into the tissue of sea life and whether it bioaccumulates as you move up the food chain.
There is reason for concern — and reason for all of us to focus on cutting plastic pollution.
Chemicals such as bisphenol-A and phthalates are added to plastics in the manufacturing process to make them to hard or flexible. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency considers these and many other plastic additives chemicals of concern because of their potential to harm human health.
There are many ways to reduce plastic pollution, including using less plastic and making sure to recycle it.
Plastics manufacturing accounts for 8 percent of worldwide petroleum consumption. The demand for oil brings its own problems, including environmental degradation and war.
Plastic packaging accounts for two-thirds of the world’s plastic waste. Food, toys and water often come encased in plastic. Research is underway to find affordable, biodegradable alternatives, but consumer demand can be as powerful in prompting change as government regulations. There is little reason, for example, to buy water, which is usually tap water from a municipal water source, in single-serve plastic bottles. Use refillable bottles and fill from the tap instead.
Less than 10 percent of plastic is recycled. Most plastic containers, such as fruit containers, milk jugs and shampoo bottles are easily recyclable. Plastic drink bottles often carry a 5-cent refund in Maine, so there is no excuse for putting them in the trash.
Many Maine communities, including Bangor, are addressing the proliferation of plastic bags, another major source of plastic pollution. City councilors are considering a fee on plastic bags or an outright ban. Last year, Portland began assessing a 5-cent fee on plastic bags for consumers. York and Kennebunk have banned plastic bags for retailers altogether.
Maine also has tackled microbeads, the tiny plastic spheres used in facial scrubs, toothpaste and other personal care products. Lawmakers last year passed a bill to ban the sale of products containing microbeads in Maine by 2019. Maine is one of nine states with similar bans. Many cosmetic manufacturers, such as L’Oreal and Johnson & Johnson, are voluntarily ending the use of microbeads in their products.
These are important efforts, but given the scope of the problem — 14 billion pounds of plastic end up in the ocean each year — much more needs to be done to stop plastics from overtaking our oceans.