Modern life is saturated in plastic. It can be found in our clothes, cosmetics and cars. Even our food has traces of plastic.
This is a worldwide issue. A 2015 article in the journal Science estimated that 192 countries bordering the ocean produce 275 million metric tons of plastic per year, of which 4.8 million to 12.7 million metric tons find their way to the ocean. This is equivalent to about five plastic grocery bags on average per every foot of coastline around the world. Pollution on this scale is a threat to the health of marine ecosystems globally and strains fishing communities the world over.
In Maine, there are dozens of communities that depend on local fisheries to maintain their way of life. This level of plastic litter has a devastating effect on ecosystems that support important fish species. By allowing plastics to enter the oceans at this unprecedented rate, we are adding additional strain to already vulnerable communities.
Fortunately, there are steps that can be taken at the local, state and federal level to slow the tsunami of trash flooding our oceans every day.
The Maine Legislature could enact outright bans on single-use plastic bags, LD 57, and polystyrene take-out containers, LD 103, but the prospects for those bills looks increasingly bleak as they have failed to gain traction in the Environment and Natural Resources Committee.
Ordinances at the local level are having more luck. In the past two years, seven Maine municipalities have placed either a fee or an outright ban on plastic bags. These ordinances are effective and work to pressure lawmakers to pass a statewide law that would replace the current patchwork of policies.
There are groups opposed to addressing this issue. The grocery, convenience store and restaurant associations claim it places an unfair financial burden on businesses, leaving their customers to bear the brunt of these costs. But this argument fails to take into account the full lifecycle cost of plastic.
For plastic bags, the cost to a grocery or convenient store is about 2 to 5 cents compared with 5 to 25 cents for a paper bag. This cost is passed on to the customer and, according to one study, it comes to about $37.50 per person per year. For a polystyrene clamshell take-out containers, the cost goes from 11 cents for polystyrene to 25 cents for a recyclable option and up to 72 cents for a compostable option. For the stores and restaurants, the impact ends there. For the rest of us, it is just getting started.
First, there is the cost to dispose of plastic bags and polystyrene, which are not typically recycled so they end up in landfills or incinerators at a cost to municipal taxpayers. Then, of course, there are the bags and containers that are littered and find their way into storm drains and rivers, clogging them and costing communities time and money to clean them.
The bags and containers that find their way to the ocean, which is common given their light weight, are even more costly once they break down into microplastics. These microplastics have been shown to disrupt filter feeding organisms — Atlantic herring, basking sharks, scallops, clams, mussels and quahogs — that comprise an important component of most marine ecosystems and our food chain. One such organism is oysters, an important aquaculture species. A study showed that when microplastics were introduced to oysters they entered the digestive tract. Since they are plastic and can’t be digested, they inhibit nutritional intake and the ability of the oysters to reproduce.
The longer we delay action the bigger the issue becomes because plastic does not biodegrade. Every piece that has ever found its way to the ocean is still there. By working to pass new local ordinances, we can place pressure on the Legislature to act before this becomes a crisis.
There is no question that the economic and environmental costs of this issue are unacceptable. If we act now, we have the opportunity to solve this problem and protect the livelihoods of future generations and the resources they depend upon.
Olin Jenner is an executive committee member and legislative intern for Sierra Club Maine. He lives in Rockport.