We are drowning in plastics, including one-time use plastics, used once then thrown into the trash. Take-out containers, beverage bottles, plastic utensils, grocery store bags, sandwich bags and wrap — “single-use” plastic is ubiquitous, and we’re throwing it away by the truckload, to lie in landfills for countless years, as it does not biodegrade. This single-use plastic litters our cities and roadways and finds its way into our waters – including Lake Erie.
Plastic waste and its extreme abundance worldwide, has been in the news recently. Last year, National Geographic magazine published a series entitled “Planet or Plastic?” bringing to the fore our human choice, staking a commitment either to our planet or to our addiction to convenient plastics. The article noted that since the making of plastic began around 1950, we’ve amassed about 6.9 billion tons of plastic trash. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, America generated 34.5 million tons of plastic in 2015 and we only recycle about 9 percent of it, 15 percent of it is burned to produce energy, while the rest of it ends up in landfills. Now, more and more, people are talking about reducing plastic use, banning plastic bags, and considering bans on “single-use plastics.”
Banning the bag
California banned plastic grocery bags in 2016 and New York State more recently passed a law banning those plastic bags. Cities and municipalities around the country, and in Ohio, are considering laws banning or imposing a tax on plastic bags.
The City of Bowling Green is currently considering a ban on plastic bags advocated by a local green activist. City Councilman John Zanfardino, a member of the committee that will vote on sending the proposed ordinance to the full council, supports the move. “The goal for me is to have more people use reusable bags,” he said, “anything that’s single use is a selfish use of the earth’s resources,” Zanfardino spoke to a class at BGSU and students have attended the city’s public hearings about banning plastic bags. “Millennials are more concerned and desirous of strong measures to address the environment,” he added. There is opposition to the idea, however, with some business owners threatening to move their operations if the ban is enacted.
Particles in the lakes
Meanwhile, Lake Erie and the Great Lakes suffer from considerable plastic pollution. A research group led by Dr. Sherri Mason of Penn State Behrend College has found large quantities of small pieces of plastic in Lake Erie – 46,000 plastic particles per square kilometer. Much of the plastic waste in Lake Erie are tiny particles, less than 5 millimeters in size. The small size is likely because plastics do break down when exposed to sunlight. The research group also looked at 25 species of fish, and each fish had between 5 to 20 particles of plastic in its body. “I implore people to think about their daily habits and find ways to reduce their use of plastics,” Dr. Mason said, “I’m not anti-plastic, I’m anti single-use plastic because that’s really where the issue is.”
Out of concern for our lakes and rivers, where we obtain much of our drinking and bathing water, in 2015 the U.S. Congress passed, and President Obama signed into law, the “Microbead-Free Waters Act” which banned body washes and other personal care products from containing plastic “microbeads”, products which sent large quantities of small plastic particles down the drain into our waterways.
“I am aware of the impact of single-use plastics. I encourage Toledoans to exchange single-use plastics for compostable or recyclable alternatives,” Mayor Wade Kapszukiewicz said in a statement, “It is also important for all Toledoans to recycle as much as possible and to recycle correctly. The City of Toledo is committed to the health of Lake Erie. The reduction of single-use plastics will only add to our commitment to keeping Lake Erie clean and clear of pollution.”
Given the plastic problem’s ubiquitous presence, Toledo City Paper asked some Toledoans to share their thoughts and their personal plastic habits.
Coordinator, Advocates for a Clean Lake Erie
Do you think Toledoans throw away and litter too much plastic? Yes, just like everybody else in the U.S.
Did you know there is a lot of plastic in all of the Great Lakes, including Lake Erie? Your thoughts about this? It’s a sad consequence of what happens when we treat nature like property instead of regarding our natural resources as having the same rights as human beings… We trash it.
What do you think about our habit of using a plastic bottle or straw for 5 to 10 minutes and then throwing it in the trash? It’s simply deplorable. The industry should never have been allowed to proliferate plastic “everything” to the point it has today. If we actually had a democracy, I doubt people would have allowed it.
Chief Mission Officer, Toledo Zoo
Do you think Toledoans throw away too much plastic? In general, society as a whole uses way to much plastic and never really considers where plastic ultimately has to end up. I don’t know if Toledo is any different than the larger region around it. We’ve got a product that is incredibly cheap and easy to make. It’s the way we consume plastic that’s entirely wrong.
Did you know there is plastic in all of the Great Lakes, including Lake Erie? Your thoughts about this? Yes. We don’t appreciate how small and insidious [plastic can become and] remain in the environment. We need to do whatever we can to reduce the amount of single-use plastic we consume. Grocery bags, beverage containers, if everyone would make an effort to reduce using those kinds of things it certainly is going to help.
Principal Master Architect involved with sustainability initiatives, SSOE Group
Did you know there is a lot of plastic in all of the Great Lakes, including Lake Erie? Your thoughts about this? It’s easy to believe. Back when I was much younger, we were not talking about plastic, we were talking about PCBs. That was just another form of assuming that the lake is just going to take care of it or it’s going to be somebody else’s problem. We keep learning that the things we ignore and throw away come back to us one way or another. So, I’m not surprised that there’s plastic in the great lakes. I do think that we should be very careful that it doesn’t [get worse]. It will get into the food stream, it will impact our ability to clean the water, and drink it, and use it for other purposes.
Some cities and states are considering banning plastic bags. Do you think the City of Toledo or the State of Ohio should do something to reduce single-use plastic trash, like ban plastic bags, or ban all single-use plastics? I think that that is worthy of serious consideration. But if you’re going to do that what is the offset? I think that simple banning isn’t going to be the solution. If you are going to ban single-use bags you have to offer people an [alternative]. It may mean we go back to paper bags, which biodegrade easily. And in other countries, they make you pay for the bags. I think that actually might be a prospective solution. I was in Germany, France and Spain and I did have to pay for bags. [The cost of the bags] varied between anywhere from 10 cents to a Euro [about $1 US dollar].
At-Large Member City Council and
Owner of Plate One and Plate 21 Cafes
Did you know there is a lot of plastic in all of the Great Lakes, including Lake Erie? Your thoughts about this? Yes, I did. You know I’ve had the opportunity to attend a lot of workshops and seminars on the health of Lake Erie. I’m also aware of the amount of plastic that is found in the oceans, the oceans’ inhabitants, as well as in our own human bodies. I think the first piece is to educate people, that is always the first line of defense, is having people who care deeply. We know that our residents care deeply about the health of Lake Erie. Something we can do is make sure that we are being good stewards of our own consumption.
How would you describe your plastic habits at home? We use very little plastic at home. We are recyclers. We’ve had a lot of concern locally about the fact that our recycling program costs the city a great deal of money because it is often contaminated by products that can’t be recycled… I just feel good about storing food in glass, we use a lot of mason jars, use a lot of Pyrex. Here in my cafes – Plate One and Plate 21 – we try to use as little plastic as possible.
Tina Skeldon Wozniak
Lucas County Commissioner and President
Did you know there is a lot of plastic in all of the Great Lakes, including Lake Erie? Your thoughts about it? Yes. The contamination of our lakes and streams is a serious issue. Plastic is ingested by fish, birds and other wildlife. Not only can plastic kill them, but it can cause harm to people who eat the fish taken from Lake Erie. Microplastics are the more specific issue of small plastic particles (like those found in some exfoliating face cleansers) ending up in our waterways.
Some cities and states are considering banning plastic bags. Do you think the City of Toledo or the State of Ohio should do something to reduce single-use plastic trash, like ban plastic bags, or ban all single-use plastics? A ban can be an effective way to reduce single-use plastic. Grocery stores, restaurants, coffee shops and bars are places that can really make a difference in reducing the use of plastic bags, utensils, cups, and other items. Some grocery stores do not offer plastic bags at all, and some local coffee shops offer discounts if you bring a reusable mug.
Co-Chair Lucas County Green Party
Do you think Toledoans throw away and litter too much plastic? I think that it’s more of a systemic problem. When you buy food and carry out it’s going to come with plastic packaging and silverware. Consumers should be more aware of the plastic they are using. Single-use plastic is overused but the responsibility is on large corporations and businesses that choose to use single-use plastic rather than reusable and compostable products.
Did you know there is a lot of plastic in all of the Great Lakes, including Lake Erie? Yes. I think it’s a terrible problem that needs to be stopped. We need to ban single-use plastics. [Consider creating] a policy where we tax businesses that choose to use single-use plastics, and a credit to businesses that use biodegradable or more reusable packaging or utensils.