Columnist Johanna Neumann: Kick plastic foam habit in Massachusetts

Published: 6/20/2018 10:19:45 PM

Last weekend, as our family drove southbound on I-91 for a Father’s Day trip to view and ride small steam trains, my 8-year-old pointed out his window and shouted “Fritos bag!”

From there, it became a game of “I spy” to name the plastic pollution littering the side of the road. At the train event, people purchased and drained plastic water bottles, only to promptly throw them away.

And as we stopped for lunch at Friendly’s on the way home, plastic straws and cup lids came standard with our meals. All this plastic stuff got thrown away within minutes of it being used.

According to National Geographic, the average American throws away about 185 pounds of plastic annually, of which roughly one quarter leaves the waste stream and makes its way into streams, rivers and ultimately the ocean. It’s estimated that 18 billion pounds of plastic waste flow into our oceans each year.

Now, in addition to commonplace roadside litter, massive plastic gyres twice the size of Texas swirl in our oceans. Minute plastic particles have shown up in the depths of the ocean, polar ice, and even in beer. Scientists have found plastic fragments in literally hundreds of species, including 86 percent of all sea turtle species, 44 percent of all seabird species, and 43 percent of all marine mammal species.

One of the most toxic forms of plastic is polystyrene foam — what most of us call Styrofoam. Americans throw out almost 70 million polystyrene foam cups every day. Like all plastics, polystyrene does not biodegrade, but instead breaks into smaller and smaller microplastics. These tiny plastic particles can wreak havoc on entire ecosystems.

Ingesting these fragments is often fatal for wildlife. When birds, whales and other wildlife ingest plastic waste, it can block their digestive tracts, causing the animals to starve. Toxic chemicals in plastic can also harm the animals’ health — and people can ingest these same chemicals as they make their way up the food chain.

And the problem isn’t limited to our oceans. Water tests in freshwater systems across the world, from the Great Lakes to Lake Geneva, have revealed high concentrations of plastic fragments and hazardous elements from plastic degradation.

Polystyrene also harbors its own toxic properties. If exposed to heat, polystyrene can leach chemicals that are known carcinogens to humans, and toxic to aquatic invertebrates.

The good news is we don’t need polystyrene. Polystyrene might seem too convenient and widespread to challenge, but successful bans on harmful plastic items throughout the world have shown us that getting rid of polystyrene is entirely within reach and hugely beneficial. Safer material replacements abound, including paper, bioplastics and glass.

When it comes down to it, nothing we use for just a few minutes should persist in our oceans for hundreds of years.

We know that bans on single-use plastics work. For example, the state of California, which banned plastic bags in 2016, has seen a dramatic reduction in plastic bag waste.

In Massachusetts, 79 cities and towns have approved local policies restricting the use of plastic bags, and 29 communities have adopted regulations on polystyrene with Amherst, Northampton and South Hadley among them.

Some companies are also getting with the program. By the end of this year, McDonald’s will phase out foam cups and containers worldwide, in favor of 100 percent recycled materials. It’s time to take this effort to the next level.

Sen. Michael J. Barrett, D-Lexington, and Rep. Frank I. Smizik, D-Brookline, have introduced H. 3252, statewide legislation banning polystyrene. Additionally, a bill to ban single-use plastic bags statewide is currently in the House Ways and Means Committee. If you support phasing out single-use plastics in Massachusetts, be sure to contact your elected officials and let them know.

If we succeed in expanding bans on unnecessary single-use plastics, we’ll see immediate improvements — cleaner parks, streets, beaches and waters, decreased exposure to toxic materials for humans and wildlife, and less overall waste choking our planet.

If that sounds like a pipe dream, know this: both the United Kingdom and India are set to ban all single-use plastics as early as next year. That includes foam cups and containers but also plastic grocery bags and even straws. If other places can step up, what’s our excuse?

It’s my sincere hope that in 20 years, when my sons drive their electric vehicles or ride regional high-speed rail, they will tell their kids the story of the “I spy” plastic pollution game. And much like our kids shake their heads when we mention rotary phones and dial-up modems, their kids will shake their heads, baffled that we tolerated a solvable problem like plastic pollution for as long as we did.

Johanna Neumann, of Amherst, is an organizer and activist and has spent the past 20 years working to protect our air, water and open space, defend consumers in the marketplace and advance a more sustainable economy and democratic society.

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