Lake Look – What’s Up With SUP – Single-Use Plastics?

Nomad Coffee, a local Burlington cafe, is strawless and they have reusable straws for sale. Photo by Lauren Sopher, © Lake Champlain Committee.

On the beaches of Lake Champlain and in the branches of shoreline vegetation, plastic bags flap in the breeze. These conspicuous “flags” are one of the many forms of plastic water pollution. Images of a plastic straw jammed up the nostril of a sea turtle, plastic bottles suspended in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, and plastic-packed guts of fish and birds appear in our news feeds.

One of the features that makes plastic useful—its light weight—also causes problems. When plastic is not properly managed, it can enter Lake Champlain via rain, wind, streams, and storm drains. Plastic accumulates on shorelines, sinks to the lake bottom, or is consumed by aquatic organisms. The products of human enjoyment—food wrappers, beverage containers, and plastic straws—impact the health of other species.

One way that wildlife consume plastic is via microplastics. Microplastics come in three forms: 1) microbeads that are incorporated into personal care products, like face wash and toothpaste; 2) microfibers shed from synthetic clothing or fish nets; 3) large pieces of plastic that break down into tiny pieces of plastic after being tossed around and exposed to the sun. By definition, microplastics are five millimeters in length—about the width of a standard number two pencil eraser—or smaller. These pieces of plastic are comprised of synthetic polymers, human-made molecules derived from petroleum oil, which are not biodegradable. Non-biodegradable materials cannot be broken down by organisms like bacteria and fungi and persist in the environment for a long time. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) estimates that monofilament fishing line takes 600 years to break down. Common household synthetic polymers include fabrics made of nylon, polyvinyl chloride (PVC) pipes, and food containers composed of polypropylene (PP).

There are numerous studies documenting the physical and toxicological effects of plastic in the environment. Microplastics are of particular concern because they have the potential to be ingested by a much wider range of organisms than large plastic debris, making them and the chemicals they carry bioavailable throughout the food chain. Microbeads and other tiny plastic debris can look like fish eggs or other fare. Birds, larger fish, and other aquatic organisms eat them, mistaking them for food. When creatures fill up on plastic junk, they feel sated and lose their appetite. However, this diet of plastic detritus provides no nutritional value, instead it can trigger gut blockage, stunted growth, and starvation. Plastics also have nasty chemicals associated with them and adsorb toxins such as PAHs, PCBs, and DDT from the water.

Larger, older fish farther up the Lake Champlain food chain, like Atlantic salmon, lake trout, and walleye, typically contain more toxins. Fishing is a staple activity and food source for folks in and around Lake Champlain. Fish can be delicious and safe to eat, but it’s essential that anglers stay up-to-date on fish consumption advisories. New York, Vermont, and Québec provide their own consumption recommendations, all of which are more restrictive for women of child-bearing age and children.

To address the deluge of plastic waste and its impact on humans and the environment, federal and state agencies have taken some action in recent years. The Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015, a federal law, prohibits the manufacturing, packaging, and distribution of personal care products containing plastic microbeads. The measure, the result of multi-year lobbying from organizations including LCC, phased out the production-specific manufacturing and sale of rinse-off cosmetics containing plastic microbeads between 2017 and 2019.

At the state level, both New York and Vermont recently passed legislation banning single-use plastic items. New York’s law takes effect on March 1, 2020 and Vermont’s on July 1, 2020. New York’s Bag Waste Reduction Law bans all plastic carryout bags from distribution by anyone required to collect New York State sales tax. Under the new law, garment bags, trash bags, and any bags used to wrap or contain certain foods, such as fruits and sliced meats are exempt. Counties or cities will be permitted to charge a five cent fee for single-use paper bags. Three cents from the fee will go to the Environmental Protection Fund, while the other two cents will go to the locality to pay for distribution of reusable bags. Vermont’s Single-Use Products Law prohibits stores and food service entities from providing single-use carryout plastic bags, expanded polystyrene (also known as Styrofoam) food and drink containers, plastic straws, and plastic stirrers. Straws may be provided to customers on request. Folks requiring straws for medical conditions are exempt from the law. Vermont’s legislation is the first in the nation to address this set of plastic items.

Old habits can be hard to break. Worry not, there are numerous convenient alternatives to the banned items. Reusable bags (brought by customers and sold by stores) can replace single-use plastic carryout bags. Keep reusable bags in a place where they’re hard to forget: a car, backpack, or home entryway; post-it notes and electronic reminders help too! Reusable and durable cups, mugs, bowls, and plates can replace Styrofoam food and drink containers. If you’re going out to dinner, bring along a reusable to-go container for possible leftovers. Businesses can go strawless, provide biodegradable straws, or offer reusable stainless steel straws. In lieu of plastic stirrers, organizations can supply wooden stirrers or washable silverware spoons.

Wherever you are in the state of Vermont, any drop-off center or hauler accepts number one and two plastic, glass jars and bottles, cans and foil, and cardboard, mixed paper, and newspaper for recycling. Plastic bags, scrap metal, batteries, electronics, clothes, hazardous containers, or dirty jars and cans are prohibited. In New York, accepted recyclables vary by county. Every county provides helpful resources about proper recycling and waste disposal.

There are many ways to reduce plastic consumption beyond the state bans: 1) purchase staple foods and household cleaners, like grains, spices, and dish soap in bulk; 2) use compostable produce bags; 3) replace plastic wrap with beeswax wrap; 4) buy and sell clothes secondhand; 5) consider purchasing items with less plastic packaging. Get creative and choose the “low-hanging fruit” first!

Plastic is ubiquitous. It can feel daunting to cut back on plastic consumption. Individuals, communities, and state and federal agencies can make a huge impact on plastic reduction. The New York and Vermont single-use plastics bans are a step in the right direction and will have a positive impact on the health of Lake Champlain for generations.