ANNECY SCHIFFER / NJ ENVIRONMENT NEWS – Many people are aware of the impacts of plastic as a physical nuisance that clogs waterways, but few realize the extent to which plastic pollution is a global health crisis. Plastics don’t decompose. They break down into particles called microplastics that get carried to the farthest reaches of the Earth. They are even inside our bodies. One research review concluded that an average American consumes at least 74,000 microplastic particles per year.
Microplastics are used in many household products like toothpaste and face wash. Plastics are made of potentially harmful materials such as polystyrene, plasticizers, and acetaldehyde, and microplastics can absorb toxins (like PCBs and PAHs) in the environment. Ingestion of certain chemicals found in plastic have been linked to adverse health effects, including endocrine and reproductive issues.
Additionally, plastic production accounts for a significant portion of global oil demand (6% by one estimate), and the breakdown of plastics when exposed to the elements releases methane and ethylene, two potent greenhouse gases, further contributing to climate change. The issue of microplastics is especially relevant in a coastal state like New Jersey. Rutgers University researchers found concentrations of about 28,000 to more than 3 million plastic particles per square kilometer in the Raritan and Passaic Rivers, not including particles too small to be captured in a net.
After learning in high school about the full scope of negative impacts microplastics
impose on environmental and human health, I was shocked that the issue had gone unaddressed for so long. But now there is an attempt to pass legislation meant to address the plastic crisis on a statewide level in New Jersey. In the past year, more than a dozen New Jersey towns have passed fees or bans on plastic bags. Recently, the state Legislature considered a bill (SCS-2776) to ban plastic and paper bags, phase out polystyrene food containers, and make plastic straws available only by request. But the bill was pulled by the Assembly Environment and Solid Waste Committee largely because it required store owners to provide free reusable bags for the first two months of the ban.
It is crucial for New Jersey to take this first step towards banning one of the most common plastic items, however, the burden of adjustment cannot be placed unduly on business owners. We must either rely on the ability of the public to adjust by bringing their own bags or the government must subsidize the giveaway of reusable bags for the first two months.
We also need to go further with our plastic bans. Plastic utensils and bottles are among
the top ten items of plastic waste found around the world and are still widely used. Plastic water bottles have been found to have an average of 325 plastic particles per liter of water. New Jersey needs to tackle plastics used in the food industry to limit the waste produced by take-home containers and utensils. Especially now when there are biodegradable options for these items, there are no longer excuses to hold off on these changes. New Jersey must address this public health crisis while also supporting the success of its local stores and restaurants.
Annecy Schiffer is a resident of Summit, N.J. She is currently attending Bowdoin College in Maine.