Tiny pieces of plastic make huge impact on environment

A diagram demonstrates how microplastics, a severe threat to the marine ecosystem, interact with microbial particles and other kinds of marine life. (Courtesy of commons.wikimedia.com)

On Wednesday, Nov. 4, the Political Science Department welcomed Saima Anjam to speak about his policy work on eliminating microplastics in the environment at a lunchtime Pizza and Politics discussion.

Anjam is the environmental health director for Environmental Advocates of New York, a government watchdog agency based in Albany that is dedicated to advancing the state’s environmental policies and practices.

Historically, the organization has been successful in passing some of New York’s most significant environmental legislation, including the state’s first bottle deposit and acid rain laws.

The group’s mission is to advocate for new environmental protection safeguards and to defeat measures that seek to repeal or delay the implementation of hard-won public health and environmental laws.

Anjam’s current advocacy work is on the elimination of microplastics, alternatively known as plastic microbeads.

Microplastics are plastic particles generally between one to five millimeters in length. These particles are derived from the breakdown of larger pieces of plastic used in the creation of personal care items, clothing and other manufactured goods.

Attention lately has focused on clarifying the dangers that these seemingly negligible and imperceptible pieces of plastic can do to the environment and the ecosystem at large.

Environmental advocates say it is exactly because microplastics are so imperceptible that people need to be aware of their dangers.

Microplastics can sink down a drain; escape sewer and wastewater filtration and treatment; and end up in landfills, oceans and waterways.

These pieces of plastic are first ingested by primary consumers, such as mussels and zooplankton, before making their way up the food chain.

Microplastics act almost as invisible sponges, absorbing toxins when they supercharge with motor oil, pesticides and organic pollutants, such as PCBs, further damaging the environment and complicating cleanup efforts.

Microplastics are not an indispensable ingredient in the manufacturing of products that humans depend on. In fact, microplastics used in personal care products and cosmetics for the purpose of enhancing skin exfoliation can be substituted with many other comparable natural alternatives, such a sea salt or walnut shells, which still serve the same purpose.

Microbeads did not become a serious environmental threat until the 1990s, but they have since been elevated into the public conscience.

In June 2014, Illinois became the first state to ban plastic microbeads with an industry-supported law.

Industry leaders, in anticipation of a law banning microbeads, made the first move to craft legislation that was amenable to their interests, such as including language to phase microbeads out over a less demanding, longer timeline.

Since 2014, Anjam explained that momentum to phase out micro beads has spread to many other states in the U.S. and many other countries around the world.

Anjam said that this is because people have come to realize that microplastics in their everyday products are a danger to the environment and don’t want to continue using them.

An ongoing effort to enact legislation in New York on a countywide level is gaining traction, after statewide legislation known as the Microbead-Free Waters Act failed to pass the New York state Senate earlier in the year.

Eleven counties and New York City, representing more than half of the state population, have either passed or will pass legislation banning the use and sale of microplastics.

Anjam urged people to carry the momentum forward by showing up to public meetings to pressure officials to support the elimination of unnecessary, non-biodegradable plastics in our daily products, drinking water supply and recreational waterways.



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