Our environment is literally choking on plastic bags.
Whole swaths of our oceans, in some places up to 580 square miles – 13 times the size of the Commonwealth of Virginia — have become floating landfills. Ingested marine debris, particularly plastic bags, are killing thousands of birds, turtles, marine mammals, fish, and squid each day.
Locally, trash is a serious problem in the Potomac and Anacostia River watersheds and their tributaries. Every year for the past 21 years, the Alice Ferguson Foundation has sponsored the Potomac River Cleanup. During this year’s event in early April, among the 145 tons of trash collected were over 125,000 recyclable beverage containers and over 20,000 plastic bags.
The majority of the trash in our watersheds originates as garbage improperly or intentionally disposed of along roadsides and in public and private open spaces. Trash travels from our streets into storm drains and waterways until it reaches the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers. Much of the trash that reaches major watersheds does not stay in the watersheds – it is washed out to sea and becomes marine debris.
Equally disturbing, as these plastics break down, toxic chemicals are being released into the environment causing serious side-effects. Some environmentalists believe the advent of inter-sex fish (those that have both male and female reproductive organs) in the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers may be related. While research is limited, it doesn’t take a leap of faith to conclude that humans may be directly affected if this trend continues.
Scientists are alarmed about the massive “garbage patches” that are building up in nearly all of the world’s oceans. Ocean currents and winds are slowly bringing debris — estimated to be 10 percent of the world’s plastic production — to the center of five major ocean gyres in the North and South Atlantic, North and South Pacific, and the Indian Oceans.
The best-known patch consists of an estimated 100 million ton of plastic debris that has accumulated inside a circular vortex of currents known as the North Pacific gyre. It is estimated to be anywhere from 270 square miles to almost 580 square miles – up to thirteen times the size of the Commonwealth of Virginia — depending on how it is measured.
To add to the environmental degradation, as plastic items break down, any toxic additives they contain — including flame retardants, antimicrobials, and plasticizers — may be released into the environment. Many of these chemicals may disrupt the endocrine system — the delicately balanced set of hormones and glands that affect virtually every organ and cell.
In an effort to combat the proliferation of plastic bags, I introduced legislation this Earth Day that would place a 5 cent fee on all “single use” bags from grocery stores and other retail outlets. The bill would allocate the funding generated to environmental conservation, paying down the national debt, and covering the costs for local businesses to implement the program.
People once viewed our rivers and oceans as limitless resources, believing that garbage in our watersheds and along our coasts did little harm. Those rose colored glasses are now gone. Plastic bags pose a serious threat to the environment, animal life and possibly even human health. The time has come to implement a national program that encourages the use of reusable bags instead of plastic.