Waste Management

Dangers of Plastic Pollution Energize Citizens and Scientists as Lawmakers Devise Controls


A mound of recyclables on the tipping floor of the materials recycling facility at the Central Landfill in Johnston. The facility receives about 100,000 tons of recycled material a year. (Mary Lhowe/ecoRI News)

That plastic spoon that I used to eat my takeout salad today will remain on Earth for as long as the planet exists.

Except for the 1% of “bioplastics” made from corn or other plants, 99% of plastics are made from fossil fuels and a mixture of 10,000 petrochemical additives, also made from oil and gas. They do not biodegrade.

Some plastics will be buried in landfills or burned down into ash and smoke. Some will be chopped up or melted down to create other plastic commodities. Some will blow off garbage trucks, get tossed onto beaches and roadsides, or get flushed into storm drains. There, they will break down, chemically and physically, into smaller and smaller pieces.

Those pieces — tiny beads called microplastics — enter soil, plants, animals, fish, waterways. Microplastics have been found in human blood, placentas, and breast milk.

Further, many environmentalists note the fossil fuel and petrochemical industries are gearing up to produce more and more plastics as people turn to alternatives to gasoline, such as electric cars and renewable energy.

Carroll Muffett, president and CEO of the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL), said, “The fracking boom of the 2010s led to a big build-out of plastics infrastructure. Plastics and petrochemicals will be a major driver of oil demand growth into 2050. Exxon and others can tell investors that their business models remain profitable even as demand for oil (for cars and electricity) declines.”

From a convenience standpoint, the plastic hero is single-use plastics, made to be thrown out after one use. Advertising from the 1950s and ’60s trumpets a jubilant command to “toss it and open another one,” along with pictures of happy families flinging plastic foodware into the air.

But from an environmental standpoint, single-use plastics, from grocery bags to Styrofoam takeout containers to nip bottles, are the epitome of waste, from production through final disposal.

Part of the sorting process for recyclables at the Johnston landfill. (Mary Lhowe/ecoRI News)

Judith Enck, a former official with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and now president of the Bennington, Vt.-based nonprofit Beyond Plastics, said, “Apparently, we have lost the ability to cut our own fruit” — a commentary on the mountains of single-use packaging in grocery stores.

The worst of the worst single-use plastics are lightweight plastic bags, like grocery bags, that can’t be processed at many municipal recycling facilities, including the materials recycling facility (MRF) at the Central Landfill in Johnston. When these bags slip into the recycling stream at the MRF, they tangle in rollers and disrupt the sorting and baling of paper, metal, glass, and other plastics.

According to Global Ocean Plastic Waste, a 2022 study by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, the world produced 8.3 billion metric tons (BMT) of plastics from 1950 through 2017. By 2015, 6.3 BMT of plastics had become waste. (A metric ton is 2,205 pounds.)

Two dozen national experts talked about the environmental dangers of plastic production and pollution at two recent conferences in New England: in August at Beyond Plastics in Vermont and in October at Roger Williams University in Bristol.

Trashed waterways

The oceans are the Earth’s ultimate sink. All water is racing or ambling ocean-ward. Plastics have made their way into every waterbody in the world in forms from floating islands of debris to microplastics. Global Ocean Plastic Waste notes that 8 million metric tons (MMT) of plastic enter the oceans annually. Further, if current production and use continues, the amount of plastics entering the ocean every year could reach up to 53 MMT by 2030, or “roughly half of the total weight of fish caught in the ocean annually.”

An estimated 633 species of marine life are harmed by plastics, mainly through entanglement or ingestion.

“We are turning our oceans into a landfill,” Enck said.

Plastic waste has been found throughout the oceans’ water column, starting with plankton. Muffett, of CIEL, said the oceans absorb most of the carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere, and plankton is essential to the process of moving CO2 away from the surface and down into the deep ocean. However, microplastics are being ingested by plankton and disrupting their digestive systems. This impedes their ability to move carbon downward. “It reduces the carbon dioxide sequestration ability of the oceans,” Muffett said.

The problem of plastics in Narragansett Bay in particular was the topic of the October conference hosted by the Narragansett Bay Estuary Program at Roger Williams University. Staff from Save The Bay and Clean Water Action, along with scientists from RWU, the University of Rhode Island, and the EPA, discussed the knowns and unknowns of the problem.

Recyclables are sorted at the landfill in Johnston. (Mary Lhowe/ecoRI News)

The conference also included a description of recycling practices at the state’s Central Landfill and a description of the workings of the state’s stormwater systems. A former textiles professor from URI also described how plastics are used to make our clothing soft and flexible, and how plastic fibers from clothes also turn into microplastics and get into waterways directly from our washing machines.

Andrew Davies and Coleen Suckling are associate and assistant professors, respectively, at URI, and they are studying plastic particles in Narragansett Bay through the Ocean State Initiative for Marine Plastics (OSIMAP).

A 2020 Rhode Island Sea Grant project has allowed them to do surface trawling of the bay, with the goal of capturing and counting microplastics, defined as particles between 5 millimeters and 1 nanometer in size. One of the project’s main tools is a manta trawl net, which opens as wings that lie on the water’s surface. The net’s openings are 330 microns in size.

The work is “challenging,” said Davies, because all of the many different types of particles in the water, including plastic, create a “noisy matrix” that is hard to sort through. Also, different plastics have different densities and may behave differently in water.

At this early stage, their research has yielded few conclusions. One is that they are capturing about three particles per cubic meter of water.

Scientists don’t discuss whether a condition is “bad,” “better,” or “good,” but Davis noted Narragansett Bay “is not as polluted as some of the heavily industrialized areas of the U.S., such as San Francisco Bay.”

The two researchers said the presence of microplastics is heavier in the upper bay than in the southern part, leading to a possible inference that plastic particles are being washed out to the ocean by tides and other water currents.

Scientists also are studying the presence of microplastics on the floor of the bay, in sediments, which ultimately capture an estimated 70% of all microplastics that enter waterways, according to Kay Ho, research scientist for the EPA who is working on sediment research in Narragansett Bay.

Ho’s project has tested nine samples from throughout the bay floor and found 40-140 microplastic particles per 100 grams of wet sediment. One mysterious outlier was 4.6 million cellulose acetate fibers found in a sample near Newport, which scientists are guessing, at this point, might have come from some kind of boating fabric.

Ho said marine scientists find microplastic sediments “everywhere we look,” but the effects of this pollution are still mostly unknown. There are some suppositions, however, about the effects microplastics can have on marine life.

When they are ingested, microplastics can block an animal’s intestines and cause decreased growth when the animal can’t then get enough new nutrients. Microplastics in the body can cause oxidative stress, which is an imbalance between antioxidants and free radicals. This is one basis for allergic reactions.

Workers stand beside the moving belts and pull out things not meant to be recycled. (Mary Lhowe/ecoRI News)

Scientists, Ho said, suspect that microplastics may function as vectors — or transmission highways — of bacteria that is picked up in wastewater systems and moved into the environment. The smallest microplastics are believed to be able to pass through cellular membranes, through the blood-brain barriers, and into lymph systems.

Solutions: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

Experts on plastic pollution famously use the phrase “reduce, reuse, and recycle” as a formula for holding off the barrage of plastics moving through society. Taking the case of recycling first, Enck of Beyond Plastics said “recycling will not solve the plastics problem.”

Quoting the EPA, Enck said only 5% to 6% of plastics are recycled in the United States, down from about 9% in 2014. Why so low?

Plastics are fossil fuel-based polymers that may include up to 10,000 known additives to make them softer or harder or to make them hold their shape or to add color. Additives make plastic products difficult to break down for reuse. Many plastic packages, like food pouches, might be an amalgam of, say, plastics and foil, making them hard to separate and recycle.

“There is a lot we don’t know about the additives in plastics,” said Mike Schrade of the group Toxic-Free Future. “They are a witch’s brew of hazards.”

Many municipal recycling programs simply can’t accept some plastics, chief among them light plastic bags and Styrofoam.

Further, plastic recycling is confusing, even for people who give it their best effort. The famous chasing arrows symbol on plastic packaging doesn’t mean the material is recyclable.

Enck said the only plastics worth throwing into home recycling bins are No. 1 (PET, for polyethylene terephthalate, used in single-use bottled beverages) and No. 2 (HDPE, for high density polyethylene, also used in food and other packaging).

The frustrations of recycling plastics are familiar to one Rhode Island expert, Jared Rhodes, director of policy and programs for the Rhode Island Resource Recovery Corporation (RIRRC), which operates the Central Landfill and its MRF.

The start of the process is a huge room where municipal recycling is dumped by front-end loaders. This “tipping floor” will receive 100,000 tons of recycled material a year, said Rhodes. The stuff moves through screens, across spinning discs, over puffs of air, past human sorters, and under light scanners as it narrows down and down into streams of similar materials, including glass, paper, plastic, metals, and cardboard.

After the recyclables have been sorted, they are compressed into huge bales of 500 pounds to a ton each. (Mary Lhowe/ecoRI News)

The 50,000-square-foot facility contains a single giant machine that appears, at first, the size of a small town. It is a three-quarter-mile-long monster contraption of stairs, catwalks, conveyor belts, and climbing chutes with spinning discs and optical scanners. Nearly 150 motors producing 1,400 horsepower are required when the plant is running. At several different locations, workers stand beside the moving belts and pull out things not meant for recycling, like basketballs and frying pans. (At one work station, a large, Halloweenish monster foot with shaggy fur and long claws was set off to one side, a sort of mascot for workers and token of poor recycling practices.)

The facility sorts and separates cardboard, paper, metals, glass, and some plastics, and ultimately crushes the sorted materials into huge bales of 500 pounds to a ton apiece. Through a broker called Cellmark, the recycled materials are sold to businesses in other states, providing a source of revenue for RIRRC. In fiscal 2022, the MRF’s mixed recycling program revenues and expenses were $13,685,315 and $13,600,090, respectively.

When RIRRC passes the plastic waste over to Cellmark for resale, it is out of Rhode Island hands.

“Cellmark does inform Resource Recovery of who our buyers are and they instruct us where to ship the products to, but beyond that [RIRRC] has no way of knowing what the remaining life cycle of those materials may entail or what the associated impact of those life cycles on the environment may be,” Rhodes said.

The market and the prices for the recycled materials can be volatile, driven entirely by supply and demand, he said. For instance, in 2018, China adopted a policy it called the national sword or green sword. For decades, China had been the world’s biggest importer of solid waste. The country’s new policy, however, banned the importing of some solid waste and set strict limits on recycled materials. This move sent the price of recyclables spiraling downward for a while, Rhodes said, and created a logjam in the global recycling system.

Legislation but little enforcement

A few state laws have been promulgated in recent years to lighten the load of plastics into the environment. Since 2009, large retail stores have been required to offer bins for the public to dispose of plastic bags and other light plastic wraps. Spokespeople for Dave’s Marketplace and others said the plastic waste from these bins is put into the stores’ trash and taken away by their waste haulers. Ocean State Job Lot, which gets a lot of plastic film wrapped around large pallets of merchandise, adds the public-bin plastic to the rest of its plastics, compresses it all into large bales, and sells it to a recycler. The company has earned nearly $90,000 this year from selling its bundled plastic, according to spokesperson Harry Oakley.

Starting this year, restaurants are prohibited from providing single-use plastic straws unless a customer requests one. In the 2022 legislative session, the General Assembly passed a law banning single-use plastic bags at retail stores. The law goes into effect no later than Jan. 1, 2024.

The values of reduce, reuse, and recycle are deployed or implied in several bills that have been banging around in the General Assembly for years, and likely to return again. New in the 2022 session was an extended producer responsibility (EPR) bill for packaging, introduced by Rep. David Bennett, D-Warwick. EPR is a complicated process, especially when applied to packaging, but the idea is edging its way into laws in a handful of other states. It failed this year in Rhode Island.

The bill would have applied to packaging of all goods sold in the state — food, toys, electronics, clothing, appliances, housewares, and more. Producers would be responsible for managing their packaging through its entire life cycle. The EPR program would have created a database of all packaging introduced into Rhode Island by all producers of all goods, and producers would pay fees for disposal of the packaging. Producers would pay higher fees for nearly indestructible packaging, like plastics, and small or no fees for packaging that is recyclable or refillable and reusable. A nonprofit Producer Responsibility Organization would manage the system. Ultimately, EPR systems aim to incentivize producers to redesign their packaging to make it recyclable or reusable.

The Rhode Island Resource Recovery Corporation keeps track of where its recyclable material initially goes. The percentages above are for 2018. (RIRRC)

Bennett said he would reintroduce the EPR bill next year “and every year that I am in office. It’s going to take a while to pass this.”

He said the pushback against the bill was intense. “Big companies came in and said they would not sell in Rhode Island anymore” if EPR want through, he said. He also noted that General Assembly leadership was leery of the high cost necessary to get the program started, even though it is intended to pay for itself over time.

Bennett said he doesn’t plan to make any changes to the 2022 bill next year, but simply to push it through by persuasion.

“Bringing all these problems [of plastic disposal] back to the producers incentivizes them to solve the problem,” he said. “We have got to persuade the Legislature that this is cost-effective down the road.”

Bottle bills … again

Some form of a beverage container deposit and return law — better known as a bottle bill — also will return to the General Assembly in 2023, according to Rep. Carol Hagan McEntee, D-South Kingstown, who has introduced a bottle bill in three previous sessions. This type of law, now in affect in 10 states, offers 5 or 10 cents for the return of glass, metal, and plastic beverage containers. They are considered universally effective in reducing littering.

McEntee said, as always, “the biggest challenge of a bottle bill is coming to a consensus with all the industries involved.” These include beverage manufacturers and distributors and retail stores, sectors that have pushed back against bottle bills consistently because of what they call the extra costs and complications, such as storage and hygiene of returned bottles and cans.

McEntee said she is researching the mechanics of bottle bills in other states, and she may end up reintroducing the same bill as in the past, or a bill with variations.

“We need something that works, that is convenient, and that’s not expensive,” McEntee said. She added that some sort of bottle bill is imperative to combat littering and throw-away behaviors that ultimately put more plastics into the environment.

Another one of Bennett’s pet projects from the 2022 session was an effort to ban nips, the small plastic bottles that contain one shot of an alcoholic beverage. The blowback from liquor stores, liquor distributors, and makers of the bottles, caps, and labels was huge. Bennett said liquor store owners claimed that 40% of their sales were nips, and that banning their sale would just send shoppers across the state border.

At the same time, residents showed up at the Statehouse during hearings to complain bitterly about the thousands of empty nips bottles scattered along the state’s road and beaches. Nips present a special problem at the Central Landfill’s MRF because of their small size: they slip through grates in the sorting system and are not recaptured with other plastics for baling and resale.

Bennett said he proposed two years ago to place a 10-cent deposit-and-return system on nips bottles, but the same voices from the beverage industry also complained loudly. He agreed to allow two years for interested people in the liquor industry to work on a panoply of ideas to solve the littering problem. He said he planned to drop pursuit of nip legislation in 2023, but to return with it in 2024, giving the industry time to craft alternate solutions.


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Recent Comments

  1. Yikes! Yet again we can be congratulated for our short-sightedness and our greed. It appears that once an industry has been “created”, the power of profit over environment and common sense (even to the detriment of our own existence), is almost impossible to comprehend. Very disturbing article. Will we let our children down once again?

  2. This plastics piece is very comprehensive as to domestic sources, types, and shocking failures to capture and repurpose more than 8 percent of disposed plastic, but a second article must reveal what is done in Europe and other countries to exceed by far America’s miserable achievements

    Think primary and secondary education–America constantly, for decades, falling down the scale from its peers in fundamental language, literacy, comprehension, and math.

    The statement that only No 1 and 2 polyethylene are worth bringing home to recycle is irresponsible.

    Yes PET plastic-polyethylene terephthalate- is the most recycled today. The best flannel shirt I own is made from PET polyester, by the best textile producers in Vietnam, sold by Orvis, with crushed oyster shells made into buttons.

    It’s a matter of discipline, will, and caring for something other than our grossly materialistic selves here in the US

    An inspirational article should be written on all the wonderful deeds done by non-governmental organizations and even companies to break the shameful 50 year Do Nothing cycle that plagues Americans in both plastics and climate

    Start with the Volvo Ocean Race most famous because of the mostly female crew of Turn the Tide on Plastics!


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