Skimming a Plastic Wave

Spring/Summer 2019

Rhode Island environmentalist Jamie Rhodes eats plastic. Granted, he’s only eating little specks, enclosed in oysters. But still, says Rhodes, “I am eating plastic. If you are going to eat shellfish, you are going to get microplastics into your body.”

Actually, we’re all eating plastic. Tiny bits of it are present in nearly all U.S. drinking water. It’s in sea salt. It’s in beer.

Plastics are also in the ocean, and they gradually break down. Eventually, they get small enough to be called microplastics—that is, fragments smaller than about 1/5 inch (or 5 millimeters). Microplastics float in waters from the Arctic to the Antarctic, including Narragansett Bay. As Save The Bay Advocacy Director Topher Hamblett puts it, “It’s eye-popping to see—to hold up a jar of bay water and identify small bits of plastic floating in it.”

What’s worrying many Rhode Islanders—from the governor on down—is how ocean plastics will affect ecosystems, the fishing industry, and human health.

Meanwhile, more plastics are pouring into the ocean here and around the world: 8.8 million tons each year, according to a 2015 study in Science. Lead author Jenna Jambeck, an environmental engineer, has described what 8.8 million tons would look like: five plastic-crammed plastic grocery bags on every foot of coastline on Earth.

Picking Up the Pieces

The remedy closest at hand is to get plastic off beaches, and Rhode Islanders have been showing up at cleanups for decades. It was a hot Saturday morning when college student Claire Rigaud peered between two boulders on a stretch of shore in Providence.

“Can you hand me that big stick?” she asked her friend. “It’s kind of like being a contortionist,” said Rigaud as she wedged her arm between the two rocks. The math major was one of a dozen volunteers from Providence College who took part in a September 15 cleanup near the headquarters of Save The Bay. Rigaud managed to retrieve a box cutter with a plastic handle marked “Laurel Farmers’ Auction, Laurel, DE.”

Andrew Lee came to the cleanup from Coventry, motivated by the floating garbage he’d seen while rowing on the bay. Brown University doctoral student Sarah Brown brought her 2-year-old, Elliot: “We’re trying to teach our kids to get involved in our community,” she said.

Volunteers like Rigaud, Lee, and Brown took part in nearly 140 Save The Bay beach cleanups by year’s end. In September and October, as part of the annual International Coastal Cleanup, the trash pickers kept counts of what they picked up. Save The Bay contributed those data to the Ocean Conservancy’s annual report on ocean trash worldwide.

By late morning, five cleanup participants from Boston had found so many plastic shards that they had to squeeze in an extra line of hash marks beside “plastic pieces” on the collection form. “It’s not even possible to work on a tiny place and clear it because there are so many tiny pieces of plastic,” said Aine Cole of Brighton, Massachusetts. “It’s discouraging.” She’d come with friends from Avery Dennison, a packaging and labeling company that told employees about the cleanup as part of its sustainability program.

At noon, they began to head out with two black sacks of garbage. But progress was slow because every few feet along the rocky shore, someone would find more detritus. A woman called out: “Straw, piece of glass, piece of plastic.” Avery Dennison engineer Yael Rosenblum made one mark for glass and two for plastic. “Lighter, bottle cap … plastic thermometer!” yelled a man. More hash marks.

(Above) Beachcomber Collection. Photograph by Jim Golden

Providence resident John Gomes found himself between two cleanup crews as he cast his fishing line. Gomes said that he always brings home garbage in his cooler after fishing. “We just have to outlaw the plastic that we use constantly,” he said.

Clean Ocean Access co-founder Dave McLaughlin agrees. “We cannot be making single-use packaging out of material that’s meant to last a lifetime—the lifetime of the planet,” he said.

His Middletown nonprofit promotes ocean access and improved water quality, and it sponsors cleanups even in cold weather. The group also operates four trash skimmers in Newport Harbor. People flock to see these floating garbage collectors, which are powered by small engines. Most of the garbage corralled is too oily to recycle.

McLaughlin makes a prediction: “When the aliens show up, they’re going to say, ‘Oh, they made plastic.’”


The Economics of Trash

Jamie Rhodes compares cleaning beaches to mopping a bathroom floor while water gushes from an overflowing bathtub. He concedes that cleanups call people’s attention to the influx of plastic and provide information on what’s being thrown away. But Rhodes says the priority should be turning off the tap.

Rhodes is a lawyer and program director at upstream, a small advocacy group with a Rhode Island office. Its aim is to drastically reduce single-use packaging and products, especially plastics. Rhodes argues that corporations, not consumers, have fueled the worldwide explosion of low-value, single-use packages.

The reason? They’ve found a new way to profit from ethane gas, a waste product of natural gas production that was previously flared off. Gas and oil companies now sell ethane to plastics makers like Dow and Unilever, who turn it first into plastic resins and then into thin, pliable material. That lightweight plastic is used for products such as snack bags, transparent clamshells, and shampoo sachets.

“The producers have no interest in shutting off the tap,” says Rhodes. “They have directed a lot of our attention to the flood in the bathroom,” suggesting that we recycle more. On the face of it, this seems reasonable: Nationwide, only 9 percent of all plastic gets recycled, and 1 percent of plastic bags. But plastics numbered 3-7 are actually difficult or impossible to recycle. Plastics manufacturers also promote burning plastic. However, burning produces not only energy but also greenhouse gases and toxins.

“I tell people, every day, ‘This is not your fault,’’’ says Rhodes. “The problem has been created by industry, by marketing to us a single-use, disposable culture. The solution needs to include industry.”


Microplastics Under the Microscope

University of Connecticut (UConn) biologist Evan Ward specializes in how bivalves eat, and he recently looked for plastics in local mussels. Ward sampled mussels harvested at UConn’s Groton campus, where he heads the marine sciences program. His team did find particles in 70 percent of the 37 mussels sampled, but most of them contained only a few plastic bits. Ward is now studying oysters he collected near Norwalk, Connecticut; he doesn’t have results yet, but other U.S. researchers have found a maximum of four particles in oysters they examined. “Even if it’s a couple of particles, it’s a letdown,” Ward acknowledged. Still, he said, “The bottom line is, I don’t think there’s a problem with eating bivalves in the United States in 2018. Twenty years from now, who knows?” In polluted areas in China, some oysters contain 100 particles.

Ward is also investigating how oysters and other filter feeders sort plastic particles, ingesting some while rejecting others. He believes that nanoplastics might prove more worrisome for human beings than microplastics. At 0.1 micrometer or smaller, nanoplastics can travel into the organs of living things. “Some of these particles are the size of the DNA in the cells of your body,” Ward said.

At the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s marine ecology lab in Narragansett, oceanographer Kay T. Ho and Ph.D. student Michaela Cashman are measuring the quantity of microplastic in sediments. Sediments supply valuable information about quantity because even floating plastic eventually sinks. This happens as algae and bacteria grow on plastic fragments, adding weight.

“We are at the beginning of understanding microplastics,” says Ho. The next task, said Ho’s colleague, physical scientist Robert Burgess, will be to study the effects of plastic on the health of living things.

That kind of research is fundamental, says University of Rhode Island assistant professor of political science Elizabeth Mendenhall. No one is even sure what proportion of ocean plastics come from ships, from discarded fishing gear, from natural disasters, and from rivers, writes Mendenhall in the October issue of Marine Policy. We know little about how fast different plastics break down, which types leach toxins and which absorb them, and how much plastic enters food chains.

Mendenhall is one of four social scientists observing United Nations negotiations for a new treaty on marine biodiversity beyond national jurisdictions. She said that although the men and women working toward the treaty are painfully aware of the influx of plastics into the world’s oceans, “it is not on the agenda at all.” U.N. officials have told Mendenhall that because plastic invades the oceans from land controlled by nations, each government must take responsibility for its contribution. Mendenhall disagrees. She likens plastics pollution to climate change. “It’s truly a collective global problem,” she says. However, “because we are all to blame, no individual country will take the blame.”


Slowing the Flow

Last July, Governor Gina Raimondo issued an executive order called “Tackling Plastics.” Her order cited the impact of plastic on ocean ecosystems and on the fishing industry, its contribution to litter, and the disruption to recycling caused by plastic bags and films. Raimondo called for a task force to address these issues. “I meet with environmentalists frequently, and the topic of single-use plastics kept coming up,” Raimondo wrote in an email.

The task force comprises two dozen members from government, environmental groups, academia, and business, including retailers and marina operators.

According to Raimondo, “One of the benefits of Rhode Island’s size is that you’re able to get representatives from across the state in one room.”

The problem can seem daunting, task force member Dennis Nixon told the Jamestown Press, “We read a lot about the mid-ocean gyres that contain massive amounts of plastic debris, and it can make the situation sound hopeless,” said Nixon, a marine lawyer who directs Rhode Island Sea Grant. “Clearly more needs to be done in the nations that produce most of the plastics entering the world’s oceans. But that doesn’t mean we should be complacent here in Rhode Island.”

The task force’s report, issued in February, proposed a statewide ban on plastic grocery bags. (A handful of coastal communities have already banned them.) It also called for a fee for paper bags, which have triple the carbon footprint of plastic bags.

The case of Washington, D.C., suggests that people respond to a bag fee by bringing their own reusable bags. A 5-cent charge for single-use shopping bags in D.C. has, since 2010, cut consumption of throw-away bags by 50 to 70 percent. Moreover, far fewer plastic bags end up in the Anacostia River.

Reducing plastic bag use in Rhode Island would bolster recycling efforts because plastic bags, which can be returned to grocery stores for recycling but not placed in residential recycling bins, can render an entire recycling load useless. Such “recycling diversions” not only squander recyclable material but also cost taxpayers money. For instance, Providence pays an estimated $1 million annually in fees and fines to Rhode Island Resource Recovery, the quasi-public company that oversees recycling.

State Representative Carol Hagan McEntee believes that businesses with many locations in the state would welcome a statewide policy on shopping bags. Now, for example, the Stop & Shop in North Kingstown can’t offer plastic bags because the town has banned them, while its sister store in Cranston may. “We have a very good chance of getting some version of a [bag] bill passed in this next legislative session,” McEntee said. “We have to protect our environment every which way we can.”

The report also calls for voluntary reduction of single-use plastics such as beverage containers and straws. Johnathan Berard, who co-chairs the group, also directs the Rhode Island office of Clean Water Action. He describes plastic packaging as a systemic problem: “Producers just put this crap out into the economy, and the social and economic costs fall to governments, and thus to taxpayers,” he said. “The problem lies much father up the chain, with Dart Container [maker of foam cups and containers] and Nestlé and Coca Cola. They come up with this stuff.”

One legal remedy that has been proposed (and failed) in Rhode Island would make producers of plastic packaging responsible for its disposal or reuse. Thirty-three states have such “extended producer responsibility” (EPR) laws for products other than packaging. In Rhode Island, manufacturers must handle disposal of electronics, thermostats, and auto switches. But EPR for plastics, says Berard, “is super complex.

It involves a lot of moving parts. You’re talking about everything from beverage containers and Styrofoam clamshells to blister packs for razors and flexible packaging from Amazon.”

Meanwhile, the flood is worsening. “Somehow we lived without single-use plastics until the 1980s,” notes Berard, but three decades later, human beings buy a million plastic water bottles a minute. That estimate comes from the World Economic Forum, which predicts that by 2050, business as usual will result in more plastic than fish (by weight) in the world’s oceans.

Ocean plastics are having their moment in the public eye. Recent documentaries include A Plastic Ocean, The Smog of the Sea, and an episode of the BBC’s Blue Planet II. Last June, National Geographic’s cover story reported on plastics in the ocean.

Are we at a turning point? Oyster eater Jamie Rhodes hopes so. “Imagine the human race 1,500 years from now, doing samples of the ocean floor and getting this layer of plastic all around the world. I hope when they look back, they’ll say, ‘Man, I’m glad our ancestors stopped doing that.’”

by Cathy Shufro
Top photo by Dana Smith

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