Initiatives to Reduce Plastic Pollution

Lisa DiCaprio
Conservation Chair, NYC Group

While consumers worship at the altar of convenience created by single-use plastics, seabirds, turtles, fish, and marine mammals, such as dolphins and whales, are dying from plastic debris in various macabre ways: strangulation, entanglement, suffocation from encasement in plastic, and starvation as plastic fills their stomachs, stealing the space required for food.

The Sierra Club NYC Group is advocating for three NY City Council bills to reduce plastic pollution. If you live in NYC and your council member’s name does not appear on any of these bills, please call and/or write to request their co-sponsorship. Find the list of NYC council members and their districts here.

Int. 0936-2018, introduced by Council Members Rafael Espinal, Helen Rosenthal, and Barry Grodenchik, bans food service establishments from providing non-biodegradable, plastic straws and beverage stirrers. (An exemption is allowed for individuals requiring a straw because of a medical condition.)

Int. 0846-2018, introduced by Council Member Ben Kallos, prohibits the sale or distribution of single-use water bottles on NYC property.

Int. 0839-2018, introduced by Council Member Rafael Espinal, prohibits the sale or distribution of single-use bottles for commercial purposes at NYC beaches and parks.

Plastic pollution is now a global crisis as plastics represent the most common form of debris in our oceans and the Great Lakes. The National Geographic issue, Planet or Plastic?, highlights these “10 shocking facts about plastic”:

  • More than 5 trillion pieces of plastic are already floating in our oceans.
  • Worldwide, 73 percent of beach litter is plastic: filters from cigarette butts, bottles, bottle caps, food wrappers, grocery bags, and polystyrene containers.
  • World plastic production has increased exponentially from 2.3 million tons in 1950 to 162 million in 1993 to 448 million by 2015.
  • By 2050, virtually every seabird species on the planet will be eating plastic.
  • As of 2015, more than 6.9 billion tons of plastic waste had been generated. Around 9 percent of that was recycled, 12 percent was incinerated, and 79 percent accumulated in landfills or environment.
  • Around the world, nearly a million plastic beverage bottles are sold every minute.
  • Estimates for how long plastic endures range from 450 years to forever.
  • The largest market for plastics today is packaging materials. That trash now accounts for nearly half of all plastic waste generated globally — most of it never gets recycled or incinerated.
  • Some 700 species of marine animals have been reported so far to have eaten or become entangled in plastic.
  • More than 40 percent of plastic is used just once, then tossed.
  • 500 million straws are used once and discarded every day in the US.

According to a January 2016 report by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, the percentage of oil production used for new plastics will increase from 5% to 20% within 35 years. The twentyfold increase in the production of plastics since 1964 is projected to double within 20 years and to quadruple by 2050. The report concludes: “In a business-as-usual scenario, the ocean is expected to contain one tonne of plastic for every three tonnes of fish by 2025, and by 2050, more plastics than fish (by weight).” To reduce the proliferation of single-use plastics, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation has launched the New Plastics Economy initiative to apply the principles of a circular economy to the design and use of plastics.

Contrary to the claims of the plastic industry, single-use straws, stirrers, and plastic bags are not recycled. These bags clog storm drains and cause flooding, become trapped in tree branches and, like straws and stirrers, end up either in landfills or in our waterways and oceans.

Microplastics are polluting our oceans and endangering marine life and human health. In the ocean, the sun and seawater break up plastics into microplastics (smaller than five millimeters), which are now found on remote islands and from the deepest ocean seafloor to floating ice in the Arctic that will release these microplastics when it melts. Microplastics act as sponges for chemical pollutants in the water, which concentrate on them. They are also eaten by small marine plankton and filter feeders, such as clams and oysters, and are passed up the food chain along with the adhering toxic chemicals.

Microscopic fibers, called microfibers, are one of the most common types of microplastics. Clothing made from synthetic fabrics, such as acrylic, nylon, rayon and polyester, as well as blends of synthetics with natural materials (wool, cotton, linen, and hemp), release millions of plastic fibers when they are washed. Waste treatment plants, even those with advanced technologies, are not designed to capture microfibers. According to a June 2016 study by researchers from the University of California at Santa Barbara, “up to 40% of them enter rivers, lakes, and oceans.” Pollution from plastic fibers is increasing as synthetics now comprise more than 60% of new fabrics and polyester is the fastest growing fabric manufactured by the global textile industry.

The North Pacific Gyre, commonly known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, is one of five gyres — swirling current systems collecting trash in the oceans — and has the densest accumulation of plastics. As related in a March 2018 New York Times article, it comprises an estimated 87,000 tons of debris and is “a swirling oceanic graveyard where everyday objects get deposited by the currents.” The article, “The ‘Great Pacific Garbage Patch’ Is Ballooning, 87,000 Tons of Plastic and Counting” by Livia Albeck-Ripka, refers to a study published in Scientific Reports which determined that the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, first observed in the late 1990s, now occupies an area about “four times the size of California and comprises an estimated 1.8 trillion pieces of rubbish.” By various measurements, including those based on aerial photographs, the scientists concluded that 99.7% of the debris is plastic. 

In June of this year, eXXpedition North Pacific, an all-women scientific expedition, sailed from Honolulu to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch to collect data for analyzing the impact on marine life and human health of plastic pollution, including the toxic chemicals that are released when plastics disintegrate. 

An increasing number of companies throughout the world are voluntarily implementing policies to reduce plastic packaging and eliminate the distribution of single-use plastic straws, stirrers, utensils, and food containers. In February of this year, inspired by David Attenborough’s Blue Planet 2 series on the BBC, Queen Elizabeth II banned plastic straws and bottles at all royal estates.

While important, these initiatives are insufficient, thus legislation to ban single-use plastics is gaining momentum within and outside of the US.

Several cities, such as San Francisco, Seattle, Malibu, Oakland, Berkeley, and Miami Beach, have imposed a ban on single-use plastic straws, which represent the sixth most common type of litter. Along with plastic stirrers, they comprise more than seven percent of plastic products. Seattle’s ban includes single-use plastic utensils and became effective on July 1. One week later, Starbucks, a Seattle-based company, pledged to phase out disposable plastic straws in all of its 24,000 establishments by 2020. Currently, Starbucks annually provides more than a billion straws to its global customers. In August, San Francisco passed the Plastic, Toxics, and Litter Reduction Ordinance that bans the sale and distribution of single-use plastic and bioplastic (plant-based plastic) straws, utensils, and stirrers. Typically, bans on plastic straws allow the distribution of straws to customers requiring them for medical reasons.

Metal, paper, wheat and corn stalks, sugar cane, and bamboo are alternative materials for straws, which in the US were originally made of straw; specifically, cut and dried rye stalks, then paper and, most recently, plastic since World War II. Biodegradable straws will decompose in nature, but not in oxygen-deprived landfills. Straws designated as compostable must be sent to an industrial compost facility, and fossil fuel-based plastics will only break up into microplastics.

For this article, I purchased a variety of straws. Plant-based PLA (polyactic acid) corn-plastic straws are indistinguishable from conventional plastic straws because they are not marked as a PLA product. This makes single-use plastic bans that allow compostable straws difficult to enforce. Moreover, they have the same impact in the environment as plastic straws. For example, a recent 5 Gyres Institute bioplastics case study determined that straws made from PLA did not substantially degrade in the ocean within a two-year period.

When mingled with their fossil fuel-based counterparts, corn-plastic products contaminate the recycling stream. By contrast, bans allowing for biodegradable straws are enforceable because straws made out of materials such as paper and bamboo (which is biodegradable and reusable), are visually distinct from plastic straws.

According to a June 2018 UN report, 50 countries have either imposed bans or pledged to reduce single-use plastics. 

On April 16, British Prime Minister Theresa May announced the formation of the Commonwealth Clean Oceans Alliance, comprising the 52 nations of the Commonwealth, to focus on eliminating single-use plastics to reduce marine pollution.

Soon afterward, on May 28, the European Commission, which proposes legislation for the European Union, announced a directive that, if approved by the EU’s 28 member states, will ban several single-use plastic items, such as straws, plates, and utensils for which sustainable alternatives are available. In announcing this directive, Frans Timmermans, the vice president of the European Commission, stated, “We are at risk of choking our oceans in plastic.” Previously, on January 16, the EU announced that all plastic packaging must be reusable or recyclable by 2030.

In New York State, the Sierra Club Atlantic Chapter has endorsed the bill, introduced in February 2018 by State Senators Liz Krueger and Brad Hoylman, that will ban single-use plastic bags and place a ten-cent fee on all other carryout bags. The Senate version is S7760 and the Assembly version, introduced by Assemblyman Steve Englebright, is A9953. To increase the number of sponsors, we can call and write our representatives in the NYS Senate and Assembly, and ask them to co-sponsor S7760/A9953. Find the list of NYS Senate legislators here and Assembly legislators here. Go here for more information on the bill.

This 2018 NYS state bill is a response to the bill passed by the NYS Legislature in 2017 to prevent the implementation of a NYC law that mandated a five-cent fee on paper and single-use plastic bags.

In NYC, we can also promote the 0 x 30 reusable bags made of 90% recycled material that the NYC Department of Sanitation is donating as a way to achieve NYC’s goal of Zero Waste to Landfills by 2030. If you take the Zero Waste Pledge, the Department of Sanitation will send you a free 0 x 30 reusable bag. I am currently working with environmental activists and Council Member Helen Rosenthal, who represents me in the City Council, to distribute these reusable bags in our City Council District 6. Please write and/or call your council member and ask him/her to request 0 x 30 reusable bags from the Department of Sanitation, which they may provide at their District Office and at public events, including street fairs.

We must all act individually and collectively to reduce plastic pollution. The livability of our planet depends on our oceans, the primary source of earth’s oxygen. As Sylvia Earle, the world-renowned oceanographer, states in her 2009 Ted Talk, My Wish: Protect Our Oceans, “Ninety-seven percent of our Earth is oceans. No blue, no green. If you think that the ocean isn’t important, imagine Earth without it. Mars comes to mind. No ocean, no life-support systems.”

Resources on Plastic Pollution and How We Can Protect Our Oceans

The National Geographic special issue on plastic pollution, Planet or Plastic? You may read the articles, which are accompanied by dramatic visuals, online or purchase the issue online. 

Sylvia Earle, a world-renowned oceanographer and president of the environmental organization Mission Blue, February 19, 2009, TED Talk, My Wish: Protect Our Oceans.

Albatross is a film on how plastic pollution is affecting the albatross population on Midway Island. Watch the preview or the entire film. 

Annie Leonard, The Story of Microfibers.

American Museum of Natural History, Earth Day 1970–2018: Sea Changes.

Blue Planet 2: BBC article and website

Sierra Club Marine Team

Give a Sip 

UN Environment Clean Seas Campaign 

UN Global Partnership on Marine Litter

Lonely Whale 

Ocean Conservancy and

Plastic Free Waters Partnership 


Greenpeace Million Acts of Blue campaign

Surfrider Foundation

5 Gyres 

The Last Plastic Straw

Plastic Free July

Judith S. Weis: Marine Pollution: What Everyone Needs to Know (Oxford University Press, 2014)

Tryggvi Adalbjornsson, “Take Our Quiz: The Trash Most Likely to Litter a Beach,” The New York Times, June 26, 2018

Graeme Wearden, “More plastic than fish in the sea by 2050,” says Ellen MacArthur, The Guardian, January 19, 2016

New Plastics Economy 

New Plastics Pact 

International Bird Rescue