For decades, Rhode Islanders have been working diligently to restore Narragansett Bay. By the 1980s, much of the bay’s waters had become fouled from more than a century of pollution by manufacturing waste and raw sewage. Since then, a focus on undoing this harmful legacy has brought back the health of the bay. Shellfishing beds and beaches have reopened. Recreation and tourism thrives from Waterplace Park to Sakonnet Point. Coastal habitats have been rebuilt and wildlife flourishes.
But now the bay faces a new threat: plastic pollution. And we can’t recycle, reuse or incinerate our way out of this systemic problem. Instead, we need to stop plastic pollution at its source, and we need to do it through legislation.
Plastic production and consumption has increased sixfold since environmental advocates began to rehabilitate Narragansett Bay four decades ago and that number is forecasted to rise to nearly four times its present rate by 2050. Much of this increase comes from the rise of single-use plastic products. These are products like plastic bags, polystyrene foam cups and takeout containers, plastic beverage containers, straws and packaging. While these products have brought convenience to our lives, they have wreaked havoc on our environment.
For years, the solution for managing these products at the end of their very short lives has been to collect and recycle them. Globally, less than 10% of plastics produced are recycled. Here in Rhode Island, our recycling rate is somewhere near 30%. This figure includes paper products, too, so the collection rate for plastics is lower. What this tells us is that the majority of plastics end up either in the central landfill or in our neighborhoods and waterways as litter and plastic pollution.
Plastic is not biodegradable. It persists in the environment for many human lifetimes. Plastics end up in water when they blow into storm drains, which empty directly into Rhode Island’s streams and rivers, and eventually, Narragansett Bay. They break down through wave action and sunlight, turning into microplastics. Often, we think of marine plastic pollution as something that happens elsewhere — in Asian or African countries or in swirling trash gyres in the middle of the ocean. But it’s a problem here, too. In 2017, Clean Water Action sampled Narragansett Bay to see if microplastics were present in state waters. Researchers found microplastics in all 12 samples collected. Besides cigarette butts, single-use plastic products and microplastics account for the most prevalent pollutants collected during Save the Bay’s annual International Coastal Cleanup events.
This problem will only continue to worsen. As plastic production increases, our local and state waste collection infrastructure will not be able to keep up. Manufacturers are consistently coming out with new ways to package products to increase profits without any regard to what happens to the waste created after that product is sold. The increasing cost of cleanup, collection and disposal will continue to be borne by taxpayers. The more single-use plastic products and packaging are produced, the more plastic pollution that will end up in our waters and on our beaches. Scientists estimate that at our current rate, there will be more plastic by weight in our oceans than marine life by 2050.
Solutions for this problem exist, though. We can make individual choices to use reusable items like water bottles, coffee cups and shopping bags. We can push our favorite restaurant to stop using disposables for dining in. And we can push our elected officials to take decisive action by passing laws that stop plastic pollution altogether.
This year, the General Assembly will consider legislation to this end. As of this writing, 10 RI municipalities have passed ordinances prohibiting the distribution of single-use plastic checkout bags, which has spurred movement toward a plastic bag bill that encompasses the entire state. The state bill is yet to be introduced, but will include a 5-cent fee on paper bags to incentivize consumers to switch not from plastic to paper bags, but from disposable to reusable. The legislature will also consider an “ask first” law for plastic straws that will allow customers to get a straw only if they specifically request one.
These laws are a good start, but will not solve our plastic problem on their own. Nor can we reach our climate goals without addressing plastics (they’re made from fossil fuels). What Rhode Island really needs to do follow the lead of Great Britain and the European Union and eliminate all single-use plastics through effective policy measures. Doing so will be the only way to stem the rising tide of plastic pollution and save Narragansett Bay from the next great threat.