It’s everywhere. Literally, everywhere.
Scientists have discovered plastic particles in snow and ice cores in Antarctica and the Arctic. Oceans, lakes, and rivers are full of “nurdles,” small sand-sized plastic pellets. Approximately 250 million tons of nurdles are released into the oceans each year. Nurdles are found on “almost every coastline explored” in a recent study, including in 28 of 32 countries from Ecuador to South Africa. Even in the Mariana Trench, the deepest part of the ocean, scientists have found plastic pollution in the guts of almost all the tiny amphipods they examined.
In the greater Yellowstone ecosystem where I live, microplastics contaminate the Gallatin River, the spectacular setting for the famous fly fishing film, A River Runs Through It. Adventure Scientists, based here in Bozeman, Montana, tested Gallatin river water at 72 different sites. Fifty-seven percent of the water samples were tainted with plastic pollution.
In 2019, a Colorado scientist’s research on nitrogen pollution in rainwater took a surprise turn. Rather than mostly soil and mineral particles, the rainwater samples contained colorful plastic microfibers. Blue was the most common color of microscopic plastic found, but he also discovered green, silver, and purple.
Yes, it turns out that Prince was right. Purple Rain is real, because it’s raining multicolored plastic.
Plastic also pollutes our bodies as we breathe in and consume plastic particles and chemicals associated with plastic pollution. According to a study commissioned by the World Wildlife Fund, we eat about a credit card size worth of plastic each year. Meanwhile, global production of plastic is up as the fossil fuel industry deals with sagging markets.
That’s depressing. Where is the hope?
There is good news.
Here are three wins to celebrate in the fight against plastic pollution:
First, plastic bags are on their way out. 32 countries – mostly in Africa and the European Union — have banned plastic bags. Hawaii, California, and Oregon have banned plastic bags. Municipalities like Seattle have followed. Despite the influence of the plastics lobby and its successful campaign to ban plastic bag bans in 10 states, more communities are taking a stand against single use plastic.
Second, people are starting to get that plastic pollution is a big problem. In June 2018, National Geographic dedicated its entire magazine issue to plastic pollution. Its stunning cover created a national conversation about the impact of plastic pollution on the environment and public health. The magazine also brought attention to the five gyres of plastic trash floating in the oceans – one in the Indian Ocean, two in the Pacific, and two in the Atlantic. Notable musicians like Maroon 5, Jackson Browne, Jack Johnson, and Bonnie Raitt have worked with concert promoters to go single use plastic free on tour. Thanks to groups like the Plastic Pollution Coalition, Bonnaroo Music Festival is a leader in the “Refill Revolution” to encourage the use of reusable water bottles at events. Generation Z is promoting a culture that refuses single use plastic. The youth leadership organization Ocean Heroes, supported by the Captain Planet Foundation and Lonely Whale, for example, activates students to take on plastic pollution.
Third, there is policy action on Capitol Hill. On Wednesday, February 11, 2020, Senator Tom Udall (D-New Mexico) and Representative Alan Lowenthal (D-47th Calif) introduced the Break Free from Plastic Pollution bill, (H.R. 5845 and S. 3263), landmark legislation to address plastic pollution. At the time of publication of this post, there are six Senate co-sponsors and 29 co-sponsors in the House.
The Break Free from Plastic Pollution Act would require companies that manufacture plastic to take responsibility for their waste and to finance recycling and waste disposal programs. It would also establish a national “bottle” bill refund program. It would also create clear guidelines for minimum recycled content for uniform labeling so consumers know what can be recycled and where and how. In addition, it would ban certain single use plastics that are not recyclable. The bill would boost recycling and composting infrastructure in the states. Read the full legislation here.
Don’t get me wrong. This fight is huge and it will take a long time. But, if there’s one thing I’ve learned from more than 20 years in environmental advocacy, it’s that you have to celebrate the wins. As enormous as the problem of plastic pollution seems, we are making progress.
Prince was not only right, but also his words can still inspire. In his power ballad Purple Rain, he belts out these lyrics:
“Honey, I know, I know/ I know times are changing/ It’s time we all reach out/ For something new, that means you too.”
And it’s true today.
The times are changing.
With innovation, political action, and creativity, we can reach out for a new way of thinking about the products we use, how they are designed, and recycling that works. We can break free from single use plastic and from the purple plastic rain.
Heather White is a nationally-recognized sustainability leader and nonprofit executive, and expert on conservation law and policy. She serves on the board of the Plastic Pollution Coalition. She is also the President & CEO of Heather White Strategies, LLC and former President and CEO of Yellowstone Forever, past Executive Director of EWG and Senate staffer.