Photo: 5 Gyres Institute
By Haley Jain Haggerstone
Maybe you’ve heard about the giant floating island of plastic in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Or the news that scientists recently determined that, by 2050, there will be more plastic than fish in the ocean. But these kinds of stories make the crisis seem really far away and impossible to solve.
Plastic pollution is an incredibly pervasive problem, but my work with The 5 Gyres Institute has revealed a different story — one much closer to home with solutions that we can all get behind.
Yes, it’s true that plastic smog is smothering our oceans. Cities and urban centers act like horizontal smokestacks by pumping plastic debris into waterways that ultimately lead to the oceans. And a tiny piece of microplastic in the ocean can be one million times more toxic than the water around it. Fish are eating those microplastics — and we’re eating the fish.
It’s also true that this is a challenge that needs to be solved now. This problem started with us, but it can also end with us.
In 2012, during a 5 Gyres expedition in the Great Lakes, we discovered microbeads. We realized that these tiny pieces of plastic — found in exfoliating personal care products like facial scrub, body wash and even toothpaste — were escaping water filtration systems, washing down the drain and flowing freely into our waters.
This discovery inspired our #beadfree Action Campaign, which culminated in 2015 when President Obama signed the Microbead-Free Waters Act into law, banning microbeads here in the United States.
We’re using the same tactics this year with our #foamfree Action Campaign to effect legislation banning polystyrene — better known as Styrofoam.
Here’s the problem…
Many people know that Styrofoam is bad. But most don’t know that Styrofoam is simply a brand name for polystyrene, which is a type of plastic that’s been expanded with air. Polystyrene products are everywhere, from coffee cup lids to cutlery.
Polystyrene and Styrofoam products are made from styrene, which was “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen” by the National Toxicology Program in 2011 and listed as a carcinogen under California’s Proposition 65 in 2016.
We know that styrene can migrate from Styrofoam containers into food and drinks when it comes in contact with fatty or acidic substances — such as your coffee or takeout dinner. As part of #foamfree, we’re looking at whether or not the same thing happens with polystyrene products.
This is a human health issue. But it’s also an environmental issue.
Styrofoam and polystyrene are extremely toxic to make and difficult to recycle. The EPA ranks Styrofoam manufacturing as the fifth worst global industry in terms of hazardous waste creation. Polystyrene and Styrofoam are even banned from many recycling programs because of contamination problems — less than 2 percent of polystyrene was recycled in 2013.
According to the EPA, Americans use 25 billion Styrofoam coffee cups each year — most with a polystyrene lid. These products are typically not recycled, so they often end up in landfills and waterways. In fact, 5 Gyres’ Plastics Better Alternatives Now (BAN) List found polystyrene to be one of the most common forms of plastic pollution in the environment.
Remember when I said there are solutions to this issue? That’s #foamfree.
With socially shareable graphics available in Spanish and English, you can pledge and share that you’re going #foamfree by avoiding Styrofoam and polystyrene products.
You can also take action by supporting or starting your own local polystyrene ban using an interactive map. The map identifies states that have passed preemptive legislation, so-called “ban on bans,” to forbid the passage of any local laws to restrict plastic containers — such as polystyrene and plastic bags. Since 2015, these laws have been implemented in eight states, including New York. This preemptive legislation infringes on our right to make decisions in our own communities.
Not ready to become a full-blown activist? Then make an easier commitment to go #topless4oceans and ask for your coffee without a lid (if you forget your reusable cup). Check out our #foamfree video, which features models and influencers “going topless” while dancing, practicing yoga or skateboarding. If they can manage those activities without spilling, you can handle walking — right?
To learn more and join 5 Gyres’ #foamfree Action Campaign, please visit https://www.5gyres.org/styrofoam. Because the solutions are here and the time to act is now. We can fix this plastic pollution problem — one piece at a time.
About 5 Gyres
Haley Jain Haggerstone is Development Director at the Los Angeles-based non-profit The 5 Gyres Institute. In 2010, the organization began a series of scientific firsts by researching plastic in all five subtropical gyres, as well as the Great Lakes and Antarctica. In 2014, 5 Gyres published the first global estimate of marine plastic pollution: 5.25 trillion particles weighing in at 270,000 tons of “plastic smog” worldwide. 5 Gyres’ research on plastic microbead pollution in the Great Lakes inspired a two-year collaborative campaign that culminated in a federal ban, signed by President Obama in 2015. In 2017, 5 Gyres will embark on its 18th expedition, to research micro and nanoplastic pollution in the Arctic. More information can be found at www.5gyres.org.