PennEnvironment Research & Policy Center
Plastic is everywhere and in everything. It’s used as packaging, it’s in food service products, and it’s in clothing. All told, Americans generate over 35 million tons of plastic waste every year, 90% of which is landfilled or incinerated. In fact, the U.S. throws out enough plastic every 16 hours to fill the Dallas Cowboys stadium, and that amount is increasing.
Often when talking about plastic pollution, the images that come to mind are turtles snared in bags or straws, massive trash gyres in the Pacific Ocean, or whales washed ashore with hundreds of pounds of plastic waste in their stomachs. So it may not be surprising that 60% of all seabird species have ingested plastic, with that number expected to rise to 99% by the year 2050.
Studies have also estimated that by 2050 there will be more plastic in our oceans than fish. Plastic pollution is also an issue that Pennsylvania faces. For example, in a single year, the Philadelphia Water Department removes 44 tons of trash from a 32 mile stretch of the Schuylkill and Delaware rivers, 56% of which was plastic waste. In Pennsylvania, plastic is the most common form of visible litter. In fact, the Department of Transportation spends over $13 million every year cleaning up just roadside litter. The problem is so widespread that nine of the largest cities in Pennsylvania spend over $68.5 million every year on litter and illegal dumping, with $46.7 million of that going toward litter abatement.
But litter alone doesn’t capture the full scope of plastic pollution. Research suggests that we could be not counting 99% of the plastic that makes its way into the ocean. That’s because plastic doesn’t degrade in the environment like an apple or a piece of paper, instead it breaks into smaller and smaller pieces of plastic called microplastics. Microplastic is plastic less than 5mm in length, or smaller than a grain of rice. They’ve now been found in the deepest depths of the ocean and on the highest mountains in the world.
A growing area of concern regarding our plastic waste is the environmental and public health threat posed by these microplastics. They are severe suffocation and starvation hazards to wildlife and have been found in our air, food, and bodies. Microplastics also attract pollutants that may already exist in the environment at trace levels, accumulating toxins like DDT & PCBs and delivering them to the wildlife that eat them, often bioaccumulating through the food chain.
And microplastics don’t arrive in the environment from just one source. Plastic littered on roads, in streams, or in the ocean can release tons of microplastics, but plastic waste disposed of in landfills can also release microplastics into the environment through wind, rain, and landfill leachate. The burning of plastic or other waste can also create airborne microplastic particles. Microbeads from cosmetic and personal care products can enter the environment at their manufacture or through sinks and drains. Nurdles, the raw plastic feedstock that are used to make new plastic items, are lost by the millions every year. Synthetic materials in car tires release microplastics onto roads that are swept into stormwater infrastructure.
Clothing and other textiles are also a major source of microplastics. Fibers are one of the most commonly found types of microplastic and they’re sourced from synthetic and hybrid materials like fleece. Normal wear and tear will release microplastics into the air, and cleaning these textiles in a washing machine releases millions of microfibers into wastewater infrastructure that treatment plants are unable to fully filter out.
To better understand the scope of the microplastic problem in Pennsylvania, the PennEnvironment Research & Policy Center sampled over 50 of Pennsylvania’s most iconic rivers, lakes, and streams. We found microplastics in 100% of our samples.
The project took samples from these waterways over the course of 2020 and tested them for four types of microplastic pollution:
1. Fibers: primarily from clothing and textiles;
2. Fragments: primarily from harder plastics or plastic feedstock;
3. Film: primarily from bags and flexible plastic packaging;
4. Beads: primarily from facial scrubs and other cosmetic products.
The results found were troubling:
• 100% of sites sampled had microfibers;
• 86.8% of sites sampled had microfragments;
• 94.3% of sites sampled had microfilm;
• Only 1.9% of sites had microbeads.
It’s clear that the scope of plastic pollution in Pennsylvania extends far beyond what was previously thought. Many of the waterways sampled had little to no visual litter at the point of access and have dedicated organizations and volunteers working diligently to regularly clean up litter and trash. Yet despite those efforts, Pennsylvania’s most beloved waterways continue to be contaminated with plastic pollution.
In order to address the environmental crisis being caused by plastics, federal, state, and local leaders should implement the following policies:
1. Congress and the Pennsylvania legislature should pass bills like the federal Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act, which includes strong bans on single-use plastic bags and polystyrene or similar legislation included in the Zero Waste PA state package.
2. The Pennsylvania General Assembly should repeal the preemption on municipal plastic ordinances and allow local governments to implement policies known to reduce plastic pollution.
3. The General Assembly and Congress should pass bottle deposit requirements and producer responsibility laws, as seen in the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act, to shift the burden of waste onto those who create the pollution.
4. Communities and legislators should oppose measures that double down on the fossil fuel-toplastic pipeline and that incentivize the creation of new plastic.
5. State and local governments should pass laws preventing overstock clothing from being sent to landfills so that clothing manufacturers and retailers stop producing more clothing than we could ever need.
6. Cities should develop green infrastructure and stormwater programs to help stem the tide of plastics and microplastics being washed into our waterways and greater environment.