Single Use Plastics

Erik Engstrom- Building and Construction Technology

Hunter Chapdelaine- Building and Construction Technology

Meaghan Asklar- Animal Science

Ellie Card- Sustainable Food and Farming

Single Use Plastics are causing damage to marine life as well as human lives.



From the outside looking in, it is quite easy to overlook the catastrophic damage that single-use plastics are causing to not only marine life, but human beings as well. Furthermore, we tend to forget that, as humans, we are reliant upon the oceans that surround us for survival, and it is the responsibility of human beings to protect these oceans to the best of their ability. That being said, it is important to educate ourselves and those around us in terms of the severity of this particular problem along with how to combat it. One particular study that attempted to do so involved the examination of a group of 256 women at Massachusetts General Hospital Fertility Center from 2004 to 2014 during their medically assisted reproduction process. During this study, the researchers measured the different levels of concentration of 11 phthalate metabolites in the women’s urine around the approximate time of conception. For those that are unaware, phthalates are a group of chemicals used in order to produce plastics that are more flexible and durable (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2017). The results showed that women who possessed the highest concentrations of phthalates were 60% more at risk of losing their pregnancy prior to 20 weeks than the women with the lowest concentrations (Messerlian et al., 2016). It is important to understand that these phthalates that are appearing in the bodies of humans and causing irreversible, long-life damage are the result of single-use plastics, particularly plastic bags, being irresponsibly released into the oceans where they will break down and be consumed by fish that are later consumed by humans. Therefore, it is vital that humans do everything in their power to combat the issue of pollution that we have created and ultimately caused irreversible and life-altering damage to marine ecosystems and humans.

As of 2015, the NOAA found that Americans had increased their seafood consumption to 15.5 pounds of fish and shellfish per person making it the biggest leap in seafood consumption in 20 years (Leschin-Hoar, 2016). With this increase in consumption, fish eaters should be aware of just what they are consuming. In August 2018, scientist Dune Ives found that fish lovers consume about 11,000 particles of plastic every single year (Walsh, 2018).

In 2018, scientists recovered the remains of a pilot whale off the coast of Thailand. When brought back to shore, they performed an autopsy where they concluded that the whale had ingested nearly 20 pounds of plastic bags and other man-made debris that was collected in its stomach. Surprisingly, this isn’t an uncommon find for many marine scientists. (CBS News, 2018). In most cases, floating plastic bags can be mistaken by larger organisms as a food source. Turtles, dolphins, whales, and sea birds are most notorious for mistaking a plastic bag in full form for prey. Sea turtles often mistake floating plastic bags for jellyfish, and as a result end up mistaking the plastic bags as food (Kinhal, 2018). Not only can floating plastic look remarkably similar to other creatures, but it can also develop specific scents that can confuse hungry marine life into thinking it is a food source (Parker, 2016)  When algae forms on the plastic, it begins to break down and releases a sulfur like scent that many creatures mistake as krill or other prey. (Parker, 2017) The consumption of these bags can cause immediate death due to choking or create internal damages that can slowly kill the animal. This plastic can also block the digestive tract causing food to become trapped and release gases that result in animals becoming buoyant. If sea creatures become buoyant, or bloated so that they float on the ocean surface, they are unable to dive for food which leads them to starve (Beans, 2013).

Secondary consumption can occur after the animal dies and begins to decompose. The plastic they have consumed will also begin to degrade into smaller pieces, called microplastics. Another way microplastics form is when animals that have ingested  plastic bags excrete fecal matter that may then be consumed by other sea life. Once engulfed in water, plastic bags can also sink to the ocean floor. Here low oxygen and lack of sunlight will slow degradation rates while ocean currents break the plastic into smaller pieces (Schlining et al., 2013). After the main component of plastic bags, polythene, is melted and shaped, it becomes a thin filmed plastic bag. The breakdown of these polymers poses as an extreme threat to smaller fish that are more prone to consume microplastics accidentally. Scientist Peter Ross has studied the effects of ocean pollution on sea life for over 30 years. From his research, he has found up to 9,200 particles of microplastic per cubic meter of seawater (Christensen, 2017). With this much readily available plastic, it’s hard for ocean life to not consume at least some numbers of it.

Once ingested, the chemicals contained in this specific plastic begin to breakdown and become toxic. “Several thousand distinct additives are used, including plasticizers, flame retardants, pigments, antimicrobial agents, heat stabilizers, UV stabilizers, fillers, and flame retardants such as polybrominated diphenyl ethers. Additives account for approximately 4% of the weight of microplastics” (Smith, Love, Rochman, and Neff. 2018.) Though these chemicals are deemed non toxic while in concentrated plastic form, they become hazardous once the polymer chains begin to breakdown. When broken down, bioaccumulation occurs, the process in which an organism will absorb a substance at a rate faster than the substance is expelled by catabolism and excretion (The American Heritage Science Dictionary). This can be easier described like a sponge. When a sponge is placed in a puddle, the sponge absorbs the water quickly until it reaches full capacity. Slowly, the sponge will leak out some water or begin to dry, but at a much slower rate than the water was soaked up just like the absorbance and secretion of chemicals. Plastic can also retain dangerous amounts of lead and mercury that are toxic to humans and other organisms. (Andrews, 2018a.)   Toxins like these can cause defects such as excess estrogen levels leading to male fish with female sex organs. To combat the global crisis of marine debris, coastline states, specifically Florida, should begin evaluating the idea of banning plastic bags in order to protect marine ecosystems.

Known as the “Fishing Capital of the World”, Florida leads the United States in its economic impacts from its marine recreational fisheries (Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission). Florida prides itself on having both saltwater recreational fishing as well as saltwater commercial fishing, which both bring in their own source of revenue yearly. Between the two during the 2016, 2017 season, over 1.75 million licenses were sold producing revenue of about 31.75 million dollars. Not only do these businesses bring in money for the state, they also provide 114,898 plus jobs and attract fisherman from around the world (FFWCC, 2018).

With a total of 8,436 statute miles of coastline (NOAA, 2018), there is plenty of opportunity for plastic to make it into Florida’s waterways. In 2017, 21,000 volunteers removed 173,552 pounds of trash from the state’s beaches and waterways during their annual International Coastal Cleanup (McManus, 2018). David Hastings, professor of marine science and chemistry at Eckerd College, studied the microplastics in Tampa Bay, and found an average of five pieces of microplastic per gallon of water. As of late May, studies have found that the massive amounts of plastic floating on the ocean’s surface threaten close to 700 different marine species (Good, 2018). Thin filmed, or single use, plastic bags are one of the culprits of this global issue. Each year, an estimated 500 billion to one trillion plastic bags are consumed all throughout the world (Gogte, 2009). Carelessness and poor recycling management are a few of the major causes that inevitably lead these products to enter the ocean and disrupt its ecosystems. However, the characteristics that make it so convenient also make it extremely difficult to recycle. Samantha Padgett, the federation’s general counsel of the Florida Retail Federation, argues that Florida residents “enjoy the convenience” of plastic bags. These bags are durable, reusable, and are no worse than paper bags based on environmental burden through the large amount of energy consumed in their production throughout their manufacture and disposal. Padgett argues that the problem with reusable bags is not choosing one material over another, rather making the recycling of the materials we use easier to reduce the burden accidental recycling causes now. Although plastic bags can be recycled at drop off locations at many stores, basic curbside pick-up companies don’t have the machinery or tools to recycle these bags themselves (Professor Plastics, 2017). When bags are accidentally put into basic recycling machinery, they get tangled in the equipment leading machines to either break or stop (Waste Management Inc).

In response to recycling difficulties, most states have worked to implement either bans, fees, waste regulation or other methods to decrease their output of single use plastic bags. States such as Arizona, Idaho, Iowa, Minnesota, Michigan, Missouri, Indiana, Mississippi, Wisconsin and Florida have failed to adapt to these environmental precautions though (National Conference of State Legislatures, 2018). Due to this, we believe that Florida should revoke their legislation of not allowing a ban on plastic bags. In 2008, Florida implemented a new law prohibiting cities from banning plastic bags (McManus, 2018). This  law states “the Legislature adopts the recommendations of the department, no local government, local governmental agency, or state government agency may enact any rule, regulation, or ordinance regarding use, disposition, sale, prohibition, restriction, or tax of such auxiliary containers, wrappings, or disposable plastic bags” (The Florida Senate, 2011). In 2014, the Florida village of Key Biscayne presented a resolution to the government asking Florida Legislature to amend Section 403.7033, and allow retail establishments to regulate their own plastic bags, or alternatively, to repeal the ban on local and state regulation (The Florida Senate, 2011). Although considered, Florida has yet to act on the request. In other cities such as St. Petersburg, about 35 businesses have pledged to go plastic bag free for the month of October while other individual activists such as Mark Maksimowicz have taken the issue into their own hands. Maksimowicz is known in Florida for inventing the Watergoat, better recognized as netted buoys placed in watersheds throughout Tampa Bay. Since installation, Maksimowicz found that these nets catch an average of 142 pounds of trash each per year (McManus, 2018). Most recently, Kroger, a large supermarket chain in Florida, announced that they will begin phasing out plastic grocery bags and be totally rid of them by 2025 (Whitley, 2018).

With proven success rates for rules and regulations across the United States regarding the usage of single-use, thin filmed plastic bags, Florida’s revoke of their ban can help the state in the long run. When it comes to banning plastic bags, the first American city to take action was San Francisco in 2007. Only 7 years later, the entire state followed banning all single-use plastic bags in grocery stores (Cummins, 2018). In 2012, the state reported a 76% reduction in plastic bags found in local waterways. The US is not the only ones banning plastic bags though. Many different countries around the world have also begun implementing bans including European countries such as Norway, France, Germany and Ireland. A study of the oceans surrounding these areas found a 30% drop in the number of plastic bags found on the seafloor (Chow, 2018). It’s hard to deny the difference banning plastic bags can make with all the data already collected supporting it. Not only have states in America been seeing the positive effects of banning plastic, but other countries worldwide are doing the same. At least 32 countries around the world have plastic bag bans in with nearly half of those being in Africa (R, 2018). Many still question though, does the ban work?

The main argument in Florida against the ban is the fear that it will cause those who work at plastic producing facilities to lose their jobs. Some major retail companies and other primary users of single use plastic bags have felt threatened enough to sue local governments working to create an ordinance, claiming that their businesses will be severely impacted (Walters, 2017). A major loss of employment in these companies however is not necessarily true. Most plastic bag manufacturers produce a wide selection of products other than single-use plastic bags, meaning there will still be enough duties for current employees to fulfill. Pro-ban supporter and Executive director of California Against Waste, Mark Murray states, “They make dry cleaning bags, and a variety of other plastic bags, and I believe those good employees will continue to make other products, but they won’t be making plastic grocery bags.” (Nakano, 2014).

When a plastic bag ban is being proposed, retailers are almost always present to oppose them. Most supermarkets, department stores, and even small stores that are independently owned, seem to use plastic bags regularly when their customers purchase a product from them. These plastic bags are generally cheaper than alternatives. Florida Retail Federations communications director James Miller, claims that single use plastic bags cost retailers very little money, and that switching to alternatives would be very costly to businesses. He says, “It definitely would hurt smaller retailers significantly” and “If you’re a mom and pop shop just trying to get by… It’s going to impact the bottom line.”(Kumar, 2018) To combat this issue, Sharon Wright, who is the city’s sustainability director has a plan. She states that “Any decision the council makes would need to include a transition period so the city can help businesses find alternatives.” and that another way to make this process more feasible would be to use bulk purchasing (Kumar, 2018).

It is obvious that single use plastics have been implemented into the oceans at an alarming rate. These plastics are extremely slow to break down, they affect marine life and are even taking its toll on humans, who are consuming the seafood. Phthalates, which are chemicals that are found in the production of  plastics have been showing up inside our bodies. To combat this issue we must decrease the use of these plastics and one big action that can be taken to decrease the plastic use would be to implement a plastic bag ban specifically in coast line states like Florida. The ban which would be implemented mainly in grocery stores, retail stores, and restaurants would go a very long way in decreasing plastic use. This ban will be fought without end by people who oppose it. Are plastic bags cheap and convenient… Yes, but people have to start asking themselves it is worth doing this much damage, especially with all of our alternatives available this ban needs to be put in place. With this ban implemented we would ultimately be protecting both marine life and ultimately human lives.



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