This week we recognize Earth Day, a time to both celebrate the natural beauty of our planet and recognize the impact that human activity is having on our habitat. The byproduct of this damaging man-made activity is of course pollution. According to the Environment Protection Agency, the average American throws away about 4.4 pounds of trash each day. Too much of this waste ends up on the sides of our roads and in our local rivers and streams. Last year, the Potomac River was named the world’s most endangered river in part due to the large amounts of trash tossed into the water.
Given the environmental challenges we confront, one can easily be discouraged. But I take heart in knowing that many Americans understand these challenges and are doing what they can at the individual and community level to make a difference. There is no city in the Commonwealth more aware of the actions we can take to reduce pollution than Falls Church, which boasts the highest rate of recycling in Virginia. While Falls Church recognizes the importance of cutting back on single use bags, plastic trash remains a consistent problem across the country. The U.S. International Trade Commission reported in 2009 that 102 billion plastic bags were used in the United States.
A portion of these plastic bags end up in our waterways where it washes up on shore or is washed out to sea and becomes marine debris. Marine debris, especially plastic debris, is now ubiquitous in the oceans and along our coasts. Scientists are becoming alarmed about massive “garbage patches” that are building up in nearly all of the world’s oceans. Ocean currents and winds are slowly bringing debris to the center of five major ocean gyres in the North and South Atlantic, North and South Pacific, and the Indian Ocean. The best-known patch consists of an estimated 100 million tons of plastic debris that has accumulated inside what is known as the North Pacific gyre. This mass of garbage is estimated to be anywhere from six to 13 times the size of Virginia.
Eliminating these garbage patches will take a major international initiative, but as residents of Falls Church know, we can make small changes today to help reduce the growth of this environmental disaster.
To help remedy this problem, I introduced the “Trash Reduction Act of 2013” to impose a five-cent fee on “single use” plastic and paper bags at grocery and retail stores. Revenue from the tax would support the Land and Water Conservation Fund, a program that provides matching grants to States and local governments for the acquisition and development of public outdoor recreation areas and facilities.
The legislation is modeled after the successful bag tax policy implemented in Washington, D.C. in 2009. The number of plastic bags dropped from the 2009 monthly average of 22.5 million to just three million per month by the end of 2010.
There is an added health benefit to reducing the presence of plastic bags that end up in our water. As plastic items break down, any toxic additives they contain, including flame retardants, antimicrobials, and plasticizers, are released into the environment. Many of these chemicals may disrupt the human endocrine system — the delicately balanced set of hormones and glands that affect virtually every organ and cell. In the Potomac River, nearly all small-mouth bass have both male and female sex organs, an impact scientists believe to be related to endocrine disrupting chemicals in the water, possibly from plastics.
As I work with my colleagues in Congress to address long-term solutions to reduce the concentration of greenhouse gas outputs, every American can take small steps like replacing plastic bags with reusable ones that yield large returns in reducing the amount of trash we create. In that sense, everyday can be Earth Day.