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Wednesday, 23 March 2016 23:12

Comments on Plastic Bag Ban


R.E.: Introductory Resolution 1207 – A Local Law Prohibiting the Distribution of Plastic Carryout Bags Used in Retail Sales

- Submitted to Suffolk County Legislature, March 2016

On behalf of the several hundred members of the Seatuck Environmental Association (“Seatuck”), we are writing to express our support for I.R. 1207, which prohibits the distribution of plastic carryout bags used in retails sales. Seatuck is a not-for-profit 501(c)(3) organization, founded in 1989, which is dedicated to conserving Long Island wildlife and the environment. In pursuing our mission Seatuck advocates for conservation policy, conducts citizen-science research projects and offer a wide-ranging environmental education program, including the operation of the Suffolk County Environmental Center and other public nature centers.

Our support of I.R. 1207 grows out of an awareness of the pernicious impact that plastics have on the natural world, and a recognition of the fundamental need to alter the throwaway mindset that pervades our collective lifestyles. Plastic bags are, of course, only part of the problem. But they symbolize a society that, in too many ways, is simply unsustainable over the long-term and which does not reflect an understanding of the fragility of the earth’s natural systems on which we rely. The proliferation of plastic bags in the environment are, frankly, a part of the problem that we should be able to solve. And in the process, we hope, educate and move the public towards a more sustainable future.

The adverse effects of intact plastic bags to wildlife are well documented. Most notably, the impacts to numerous species of marine turtles, mammals, fish and birds that ingest and get entangled with plastic bags, images of which have moved many people to action. These impacts are clearly identified in the proposal’s legislative intent and there is no need for us to reiterate them here. Instead, we would like to amplify one less-discussed and under-appreciated impact to wildlife: the effect from the countless small (even microscopic) plastic pieces that are generated as plastic bags break apart in the open environment.

Polyethylene, from which plastic bags are made, does not biodegrade in the natural environment. Generally speaking, bacteria and other microbes don’t “eat” plastic or break it down into its component parts. While recent studies have provided a glimmer of hope for microbes that may be able to partially biodegrade plastic, for now it only been found in the lab or under specific circumstance not found in our natural environment. Much more research is necessary before any such options will be realistically available. In the meantime, we’re left with photodegradation, the process by which the sun breaks down polyethylene.

In this process, ultraviolet light from the sun causes the long polymer strands in polyethylene to become brittle and crack, eventually breaking the plastic bag down into countless small plastic pieces. But photodegradation doesn’t eliminate plastic from the environment; it just breaks it down into endlessly smaller pieces. The increasingly small pieces of plastic have a negative impact on wildlife throughout the entire degradation process. 

For example, a variety of studies have demonstrated that seabirds feed upon pieces of plastic in the mistaken belief that they’re fish, invertebrate eggs or large zooplankton floating on the water’s surface. This finding has been bolstered by numerous necropsies that have discovered large amounts of plastic in the stomach, gizzard, and intestinal gut of seabirds.

One such seabird example relevant to Long Island is the Wilson’s Storm-Petrel (Oceanites oceanicus), a common pelagic species often seen on local whale watching and fishing trips. This species feeds visually by pattering and dabbling on the ocean’s surface and picking off small food items. It often mistakes small plastic particles for food. One study of seabirds in the western North Atlantic found that “Ingestion of plastics is a primary threat to Wilson's Storm-Petrels, with a high proportion of adults and pre-fledged chicks reported to have plastic in their stomachs “(Moser & Lee 1992). A more recent study concluded that the impacts to Wilson’s Storm-Petrels are not unique; it predicted that the ingestion of plastics by seabirds will continue to increase, and that by 2050 nearly all seabird species will be similarly impacted (Moser, Van Sebille & Hardesty 2015).

As plastic bags continue to degrade, the pieces get smaller and smaller, eventually becoming microscopic. The process culminates in what scientists call “secondary microplastics.” The term is intended to distinguish these byproducts of degradation from “primary microplastics,” which are manufactured intentionally for use in cosmetics, clothing and industrial processes. Primary microplastics are most commonly produced in a form called “microbeads”.

Primary and secondary microplastics both persist in the natural environment and have similar impacts on marine, aquatic and terrestrial wildlife. Both can be ingested by wildlife, resulting in negative affects on physiology and health. Both often contain chemicals added during manufacture or absorbed from the surrounding environment that can be transferred to wildlife after ingestion. At the smallest size, both are capable of crossing cell membranes and causing tissue damage. In fact, the impacts of manufactured (primary) and degraded (secondary) microscopic plastics are so similar that when studying impacts and investigating solutions scientists simply group them together, referring to them generally as “microplastics.” (see, e.g., “Sources, fates and effects of microplastics in the marine environment - a global assessment”, Joint Group of Experts on the Scientific Aspects of Marine Environmental Protection (GESAMP), 2015).

Importantly, in late 2015, the Suffolk County Legislature moved to reduce the environmental impacts of primary microplastics by banning products containing plastic microbeads. Given their identical impacts, logic supports parallel efforts by the Suffolk County Legislature to reduce the proliferation of secondary microplastics. As plastic bags are a significant source of microplastics in the local environment, the rationale that led this legislative body to take the worthwhile step of banning microbeads is every bit as germane to the proposal to ban plastic bags.

We wish the dangers of plastic bags in the natural environment were widely recognized. If they were perhaps Americans would more willingly embrace reusable bags. Or perhaps they would more effectively recycle plastic bags. Unfortunately, only a fraction of shoppers use reusable bags and, even by optimistic measures, only 15% of plastic bags are recycled. Against the backdrop of these regrettable realities, we support I.R. 1207 and encourage the Suffolk County Legislature to pursue any means available to educate, inspire and motivate the citizenry toward a more sustainable future.

- John Turner and Enrico Nardone

Last modified on Tuesday, 29 March 2016 15:36
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