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EDITORIAL: A glass of cold, clear — plastic? No thanks

Illinois needs to resume its leadership in keeping plastic particles out of Lake Michigan and our drinking water.

Plastic and other trash litters the shore near the Port of Cleveland at the mouth of the Cuyahoga River on Lake Erie.
Alliance for the Great Lakes photo

In 2014, Illinois was the first state to ban the virtually indestructible plastic “microbeads” in personal care products that made their way into our waterways and Lake Michigan.

After absorbing toxic chemicals, microbeads were eaten by small fish and wildlife, which mistook them for food, and eventually contaminated the entire aquatic food chain.

Since then, though, Illinois has fallen behind other states in screening out plastics, doing almost nothing about tiny filaments from other sources that accumulate in Lake Michigan before being pumped into our homes in our drinking water.

Like microbeads, microfiber filaments absorb pollutants and are eaten by small fish and wildlife. The fibers can exude UV stabilizers and colorants after they are swallowed, eventually making their way to humans who eat larger fish, which worries health experts.

Other states have taken significant steps to keep discarded plastics from tainting the environment. In June, for example, Maine, Vermont, Connecticut and Oregon banned single-use plastic bags, a big source of the microfibers.

It’s time Illinois caught up. When we turn on the tap, we want water, not plastic.

Most of the plastics manufactured over generations continue to hang around, in some form, because their synthetic components don’t decompose for decades or even hundreds of years. Instead, when plastics are left on beaches or floating in water, ultraviolet rays break them down into tiny pieces, sometimes less than a millimeter long, that can absorb dioxin, mercury and PCPs.

Microfibers from plastic trash also go airborne, and the wind carries them far, including into distant lakes and rivers. In 2016, researchers from the Rochester Institute of Technology found that 22 million pounds of plastic debris enter the Great Lakes every year from the United States and Canada.

Lake Michigan’s water is already full of plastic that has broken apart into microfibers. Fish — and ultimately humans — eat it. A study published earlier this year whose lead author is from the Illinois State Geological Survey reported the fibers also are turning up in groundwater, which supplies wells. The microfibers make their way through filters into beer, bottled and canned beverages and, of course, drinking water.

We are swimming in plastic pollution, and we need to do something about it. When plastics are everywhere, it’s hard to keep them out of our water, and once there, it’s almost impossible to get them out.

In Washington, Sen. Tom Udall, D-New Mexico, and Rep. Alan Lowenthal, D-California, announced recently they plan to introduce a sweeping bill in the fall to reduce plastic pollution. But the current Washington establishment is not friendly to environmental bills.

That’s why what happens in Springfield is important. Last spring, the Legislature passed a bill requiring the University of Illinois to review existing scientific research into plastic pollution as a step toward creating statewide standards. Now, lawmakers are considering several additional approaches to cutting down on the amount of plastic that escapes into the environment:

Single-use plastics. It’s odd that we make items that are intended for a single use out of a material that lasts for centuries. Jennifer Walling, executive director of the Illinois Environmental Council, says environmentalists and some lawmakers are looking for ways to decrease the use of thin plastic bags, plastic straws, plastic cutlery, polystyrene cups (often referred to as Styrofoam) and other single-use plastics.

But it requires a careful compromise. As state Rep. Michelle Mussman, D-Schaumburg, points out, plastic straws in restaurants are important to the disability community and biodegradable straws can be problematic for people with allergies.

Deposit fees. The United States recycles only about 9% of its plastic, and Canada is little better at 11%. But when deposit fees are placed on containers, the recycling rate goes way up.

Manufacturer packaging. Much of our plastic waste comes from packaging that is promptly thrown away. Companies could make a difference by finding environmentally friendly alternatives. PepsiCo, for example, recently announced it would package some of its Aquafina in aluminum cans, which are more readily recycled than plastic bottles. But manufacturers argue there would be little environmental gain if bulkier shipping materials were used that required more fossil fuel to ship.

Awareness campaigns. Andrea Densham, Shedd Aquarium senior director of conservation policy and advocacy, says more innovation is needed both “downstream” — finding ways to get plastic out of the water — and “upstream” — reducing our reliance on plastic.

In the meantime, public awareness campaigns can help. For example, scads of polyester fibers from clothes can drain into waterways whenever people do their laundry. Choosing more clothing made of natural fibers can make our water and food safer. Public awareness campaigns also can help reduce the amount of plastics at the source, encouraging individuals and corporations to find ways to use less throw-away plastic.

But, again, making a change won’t be easy. As an experiment, some staff members at the Alliance for the Great Lakes tried to go for a week without single-use plastics and found it was a tough challenge.

“It is incredibly hard to do,” said Joel Brammeier, the alliance’s president and CEO. “These things are omnipresent in our lives.”

Scientists don’t know much about how tiny plastic particles affect human health. But they worry that they might adversely affect the natural interactions inside the body, leach toxic chemicals or carry pathogens or parasites.

Most people don’t need to wait on the scientists to know they don’t want to eat or drink plastic. The time to start screening plastics out of the environment is now.

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