The Problem With Plastics
by Jonathan Stone, executive director, and Topher Hamblett, director of advocacy
The cleanup of Narragansett Bay is a remarkable achievement that the people of Rhode Island and Massachusetts are rightfully proud of. Bay waters and beaches that were, just a generation ago, choked with raw sewage, industrial waste and other pollutants are cleaner and healthier than they’ve been in 50 years. The Providence River, for example, is today teeming with marine life, fishermen and recreational boaters, and thousands of residents and visitors who are enjoying the shoreline and views of a healthier, productive Bay.
Despite these gains, a new, pernicious and persistent threat has become increasingly evident: plastics. Save The Bay is keenly aware of the growing problem of plastics pollution, thanks to our long-standing and extensive beach cleanup program. Every year, Save The Bay and thousands of volunteers collect tons of debris from Rhode Island beaches. In 2017, 2,629 volunteers collected 16,484 pounds of trash during the International Coastal Cleanup, which we lead each September in partnership with the Ocean Conservancy. Most of this trash is plastics (see accompanying chart).
Longtime Save The Bay member Shawen Williams shared a story of how she came to appreciate just how bad the plastics problem has become. “My son Arthur actually pointed this out to me when he was only about four years old, when I took him and (daughter) Hope for a sea glass hunt on Prudence Island. Hope was older and had the patience to sift for the glass, but Arthur saw the brightly colored plastic bits and decided to pick that up instead. At the end of the day, his bag was far fuller and more colorful than his sister’s. The plastics situation is so out of control.”
Plastics come in many forms: bottles and bottle caps, shopping bags, cups, lids, food wrappers and take-out containers, fishing line, utensils, diapers, dog waste bags, cigarette butts, packaging, balloons, and six-pack containers. They are ubiquitous in our modern consumer society. Littering on streets, as well as at beaches, fishing spots and public parks is all too common. Litter and inadequate trash disposal result in plastic bottles and food packaging landing in the street, where they are washed by rain into streams, rivers, and Narragansett Bay. Poorly maintained storm drain catch basins compound the problem.
The problem with plastics is that, unlike paper and glass, they do not biodegrade, but persist in the natural environment indefinitely. Discarded plastics are everywhere, and unfortunately, becoming increasingly difficult to clean up. Exposure to sunlight, water and wind breaks plastic down into tiny “microplastics” that persist in the water column and are ingested by birds, fish, and—increasingly—humans. Plastic products also sink to the bottom of the sea. Rhode Island commercial fishermen regularly haul aboard large quantities of plastics in their nets.
Save The Bay has, for nearly 50 years, responded to emerging threats by developing new strategies to characterize the problem, mobilize citizens and promote thoughtful public policy. Plastics are no different. To combat the growing problem of plastics pollution, we are taking a three-pronged approach: response, research and prevention.
Through our long-standing beach cleanup program, Save The Bay mobilizes teams of volunteers to collect and catalog trash from the shorelines of Narragansett Bay and coastal Rhode Island. In 2017, more than half of the trash picked up by volunteers was made of or contained plastics. As well, our Baykeeper, Coastkeeper and Riverkeeper respond to reports of illegal dumping and other plastic pollution events, such as last winter’s system failure at the East Providence wastewater treatment plant, when tens of thousands of plastic disks were discharged into the Bay. Baykeeper Mike Jarbeau coordinated a volunteer effort to identify locations where these disks accumulated in order to target cleanup efforts.
Since 2014, in partnership with the Ocean Conservancy, we have gathered extensive data on the volume and types of plastics that reach Narragansett Bay and adjacent coastal waters, using this data to prioritize our advocacy efforts and formulate strategies.
To address microplastics, which are too small to be collected by volunteers during beach cleanups, we teamed up with Clean Water Action Rhode Island in 2017 to launch a microplastics monitoring program for Narragansett Bay. To improve our understanding of the sources, types and volumes of microplastics, we secured a grant to purchase a Manta trawl to monitor the presence of microplastics in surface waters (see story on page 13). We are also pursuing grant funding to conduct bottom trawls to characterize the amount and types of plastics that sink to the sea floor. Information from both initiatives will be essential to developing strategies for reducing microplastics and submerged plastics in the Bay.
The old adage, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” applies to plastics as much as it does to human health. Preventing plastics pollution is a daunting, long-term challenge that requires an array of strategies. Save The Bay has a multi-faceted effort underway, focusing on:
- Changing behavior through public education.
- Reducing or eliminating single-use plastics.
- Capturing and filtering polluted stormwater runoff.
In 2017, we published our Bay-Friendly Living guide, which provides individuals and families with dozens of important tips regarding how they can reduce their environmental impact, including behavior changes that diminish the risk of plastics ending up in the Bay (this guide is available upon request). Earlier this year, we launched the “Litter Free Pledge” campaign for the Narragansett Bay watershed to encourage individuals and municipalities in Rhode Island and nearby Massachusetts to make litter prevention a priority (see story on page 16). Save The Bay is implementing a comprehensive public education pilot program in Warwick, R.I. to reduce litter rates, encourage local stewardship, and engage partners in the business community, schools, city government, and neighborhood associations in the task of reducing litter and plastics pollution. We hope it will become a model for other communities.
Legislation is an important tool to affect positive change across the Narragansett Bay region, particularly by eliminating or reducing single-use plastics. We are partnering with Clean Water Action Rhode Island to champion legislation that would dramatically reduce single-use shopping bags in favor of reusable ones. At the local level, South County Coastkeeper Dave Prescott is partnering with several restaurants in southern Rhode Island to phase out the use of plastic straws and other items.
For more than a decade, Save The Bay has been championing statewide investments to reduce polluted stormwater runoff and encouraging cities and towns to underwrite the costs of improved stormwater management—both crucial to preventing plastics and other pollutants from reaching the Bay.
Solving the plastics pollution problem won’t come easily or quickly. But Save The Bay is determined to make an impact. It will take time—the most important battles usually do—but we are in the business of protecting and improving Narragansett Bay for the long haul.