Bay Journal

Flurry of bills take aim at plastics that persist in local waters

The hope is that if enough jurisdictions take action, it will accelerate efforts in other areas.

  • By Whitney Pipkin on March 26, 2015
Plastic trash litters the shore of the Anacostia River. The District of Columbia as well as Montgomery and Prince George’s counties are all looking to reduce the use of polystyrene, used in Styrofoam products. If all these actions are approved, it would result in a regional reduction of the floating plastic that has long plagued the river, which runs through all three jurisdictions.  (Dave Harp) Among the water and leafy debris are microplastics, which remain in the water long after large plastic pieces degrade from their original form. (Stiv Wilson /the 5 Gyres Institute)

Beads, bags, balloons and polystyrene — each made of plastic and each the subject of recent legislation in Chesapeake Bay states — could become less common in local waters if the number of bills banning or attaching fees to them continues to grow and gain favor in the legislatures.

Even as ongoing surveys are determining the spread of plastics and scientific studies are identifying their ecological impact, state and local governments have considered a flurry of bills this legislative season to curtail a mounting plastics problem.

“I’m excited that the Chesapeake Bay Commission has really taken an interest in this from a tri-state perspective,” said Del. David Bulova of Virginia’s Fairfax County, who introduced a bill to ban the sale of certain products, such as exfoliating face washes, that use plastic microbeads in his state. It failed — as did all of the bills related to plastics pollution in the state — but Bulova expects to carry a similar bill next year.

“We want to step back and make sure we have a really good understanding of the science and policy, and we want to get all of the states on the same page and push forward,” he said.

Microbeads are the newest front of a push against the plastics that research shows present a problem not only as debris — that eventually breaks down into tiny pieces which continue to cause problems — but also as potential carriers of toxic chemicals.

The tiny beads that wash down bathroom sinks and make their way through wastewater treatment and septic systems have been banned in some Great Lakes locales. Advocates like Julie Lawson, director of Trash Free Maryland, are trying to get bans on the books in the Chesapeake Bay region as well.

“The idea is that if enough states pass these bans it forces the manufacturers to accelerate their reformulation” of the products, Lawson said.

She compared the effort to piecemeal bans of phosphorous in dishwasher detergents that eventually led to its removal from a suite of products.

A bill presented in Maryland would make it illegal for manufacturers to sell the hundreds of products that include microbeads to retailers in the state starting in 2018, giving makers of the product lines time to create replacements. The bill has steadily advanced in the legislature.

Lawson said related bills have “popped up” in 25 states, and lawmakers in the District of Columbia and Pennsylvania could see the issue come up soon as word spreads across the region. In Virginia, for example, Bulova said he hadn’t heard of microbeads until the subject came up at a meeting last summer of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, an advisory panel representing state legislators.

Microbeads are one type of pollutant in a broader category called microplastics. A growing body of research shows plastics are broken down into tiny bits that can persist for years in local waters and the ocean.

Lawson and other nonprofits conducted a four-day “trash trawl” (See “Every little bit counts: Microplastics plague Chesapeake waters,” January 2015) in the Chesapeake Bay in November to see, at least anecdotally, whether microplastics could be identified in local waters. They could, and Lawson now carries a jar of water, speckled with multicolored plastic bits that she collected during the trash trawl, to lobby for better pollution policies in Maryland and other jurisdictions.

Bans or fees on plastic products, such as plastic bags, have a longer legacy in the Chesapeake watershed and continue to be presented in new jurisdictions.

The District of Columbia was the first to institute a 5-cent fee on disposable bags. It took effect in 2010 and has helped reduce both the use and presence of plastic bags in local streams by about 60 percent. (When a photo of 22 plastic bags in a tree in New York City circulated on social media recently, for example, commenters noted that they don’t see that in DC anymore.)

Montgomery County and Chestertown, MD, also have fees and bans on plastic bags, respectively, and Baltimore city nearly passed a fee last year that is now being reconsidered as a ban. New bans that municipalities are mulling in California and Colorado include reducing the use of paper bags as well and go further to encourage reusable bags.

“We’ve seen from work done in other states that it’s a multiple-year project to eliminate the use of plastic bags and other single-use disposables,” said Katie Register, executive director of Clean Virginia Waterways.

A bill that would have imposed a 5-cent fee on plastic bags in Chesapeake Bay localities in Virginia failed this year, though it went further and gained more interest than it has before, Register said. Northern Virginia, Virginia Beach and Eastern Shore communities have expressed interest in imposing such fees or bans at a local level, but the state legislature would need to grant them the authority to do so first.

Virginia also considered legislation this year that would have banned the intentional release of plastic balloons, with certain exceptions. It would have replaced the state’s current prohibition against releasing 50 or more balloons within a one-hour period. Again, the bill failed, “but it did raise awareness,” Register said.

Another plastic that Bay jurisdictions are looking to reduce is polystyrene, used in Styrofoam products. Both the District of Columbia and Montgomery County will ban the plastic in early 2016. Prince George’s County is considering a similar ban, which would result in a regional reduction of the floating plastic that has long plagued the Anacostia River running through all three jurisdictions.

“Having the entire Anacostia watershed covered by these bans can have a significant impact on reducing foam litter in the river,” Lawson said.

It would also be more effective by making it consistent for local businesses, which would have to replace their foam containers. Consistency across the plastics-related bills filtering through city councils and state legislatures, she said, will help to have a more cumulative effect on pollution in the Bay.

“Of course, you can’t do something in one jurisdiction and have a huge impact,” Lawson said. “And when you’re dealing with regulating businesses, you want to make sure that you’re not making the bureaucracy too onerous.”

Leslie Middleton contributed to this article.

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About Whitney Pipkin
Whitney Pipkin, writes about food, agriculture and the environment. She lives in Alexandria, VA, and is a fellow of the Institute for Journalists of Natural resources and blogs at thinkabouteat.com.
Read more articles by Whitney Pipkin

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