By FRANK CARINI/ecoRI News staff
Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo’s recent signing of her “Tackling Plastics” executive order, like the “Clean Seas Pledge” signed earlier, will likely do little to lessen the plastic scourge that is helping to destroy the world’s marine waters.
Plastic production is increasing by some 9 percent annually, and this ever-growing heap of pollution and the collection of poisons that cling to it is accumulating in the sea. It's degrading both human and environmental health. Single-use plastic products such as Styrofoam cups, straws, water bottles, retail bags, and Mylar balloons are among the countless pieces scattered across the globe.
Tasks forces, pledges, incentives, feel-good announcements, voluntary efforts, posting more “Don’t Litter” signs, shoreline cleanups, press releases, extravagant quotes, and relying on recycling will hardly make a dent in reducing the estimated 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic debris in the ocean, from 269,000 tons afloat on the surface to some 4 billion plastic microfibers per square kilometer in the deep sea.
The world’s plastic problem is immense. The solutions can’t be timid.
“The stark reality of this ever-steepening upward climb is that more plastic was made in the first ten years of this century than all of the plastic created in history up to the year 2000,” marine scientist Callum Roberts wrote in his 2012 book The Ocean of Life: The Fate of Man and the Sea. “The world is awash with plastic — most of us are rarely out of contact with something made of the stuff. We are literally and figuratively swimming in it.”
Plastic bags, for instance, break up into smaller pieces, but their footprint never vanishes. If they do break down, it’s into polymers and toxic chemicals. Some 500 billion single-use plastic bags are used annually worldwide. Only a minuscule fraction are recycled or reused.
Twenty-five billion Styrofoam cups are thrown out annually in the United States alone. A single tube of facial scrub can contain more than 330,000 plastic microbeads. Nearly 3 million plastic bottles, every hour of every day, are used in the United States. Less than 30 percent are recycled.
More than 300 million plastic straws are used daily in the United States. They are one of the top beach polluters worldwide. Eight million tons of plastic are dumped into the world’s oceans annually.
About 100,000 marine creatures die annually from plastic entanglement. About a million sea birds are killed every year by plastic. At least two-thirds of the world’s fish stocks are suffering from plastic ingestion. A 2016 study warns that there will be more waste plastic, by weight, in the ocean than fish by 2050, unless humans clean up their act.
Raimondo’s July 16 executive order “takes aim at plastic pollution by establishing a task force to recommend best approaches to avoiding unnecessary use of disposables, preventing waste, and increasing recycling,” according to the press release that announced the signing.
The governor signed the executive order at the pavilion at Scarborough State Beach during her summer office hours at the popular Narragansett beach. Raimondo will appoint chairs and members later this summer, and the task force is expected to provide recommendations early next year.
“Through this Executive Order and the establishment of the Task Force to Tackle Plastics, we will collaborate with all stakeholders — environmental advocates, industry, large retailers and small businesses, communities, municipalities, the General Assembly and state agencies — and innovate for sustainable solutions, technologies, and alternatives to enable consumers and businesses to change their behavior,” the governor promised.
To get there, the unenforceable order with little punch will create a task force that will: encourage the financial and market factors needed to support reducing and recycling plastics; develop non-regulatory recognition and incentive programs, potential legislation and/or regulations, and other measures to eliminate the sources of plastic pollution; support and build on the new Zero Plastics Initiative; and educate Rhode Islanders on the importance of and means to reducing and recycling plastics.
“As a Rhode Islander whose family enjoys the sun and surf at Roger Wheeler State Beach on most summer weekends, Governor Raimondo knows and appreciates how critical it is that we confront the crisis of plastic pollution head-on,” Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management director Janet Coit is quoted in the press release. “DEM stands ready to guide the Task Force to Tackle Plastics to reduce land litter and marine debris, protect our coastlines and promote stewardship of our one and only planet.”
In May, Rhode Island became the first state to sign the United Nations-led Clean Seas Pledge. The pledge’s action items include: posting “don’t litter” educational materials around docks and marinas; providing readily available systems for plastics recycling; expanding shrink-wrap recycling; providing water filling stations at the marina as an alternative to single-use plastic bottles; discontinuing use of polystyrene cups and containers at marina restaurants; and hosting and supporting shoreline cleanups.
Cove Haven Marina in Barrington recently became the first marina in the state to complete the 10 pollution-prevention action steps needed to be certified by DEM as a Zero Plastics Marina Initiative partner. This voluntary program encourages marinas to commit to plastic prevention activities, such as designate a “zero plastics” steward, eliminate single-use plastic bags, post responsible signage, and install a trash skimmer.
DEM is also partnering with the Rhode Island Marine Trades Association, 11th Hour Racing, the Rhode Island Resource Recovery Corporation, and Rhode Island Sea Grant on a pilot recycling program for abandoned or old fiberglass boats.
Barrington, Block Island, Bristol, Jamestown, and Aquidneck Island's three municipalities have all passed bans on plastic retail bags. A Strawless by the Sea program launched last month in Newport has quickly caught on. Clean Ocean Access has two floating trash skimmers in Newport Harbor and one unit each at Fort Adams State Park in Newport and at New England Boatworks in Portsmouth.
All of these programs, initiatives, and goals are well-meaning actions, but without concrete efforts backing them up, they won't stem the tide of plastic pollution in any significant manner.
Rhode Island can’t recycle, study, or wish its plastic problem away. First and foremost, rampant consumption must be dramatically curtailed. Without that sacrifice — from individuals, families, businesses, corporations, and lawmakers — little to nothing will change.
The solution also requires bold action, such as bans on plastic shopping bags, Styrofoam containers, and many other single-use items that provide a brief moment of convenience but come with great cost.
Rhode Island has held numerous hearings during the past several years about instituting a statewide ban on plastic retail bags, but these annual attempts continue to fail. The American Chemistry Council, which, in 2005, launched a $35 million public-relations campaign to improve the industry's image by emphasizing the importance of chemical products, most notably plastics, to everyday life, always makes sure to note its objections.
There’s nothing on the governor’s website about supporting a statewide ban on plastic retail bags.