Great Lakes neighbors must get behind U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois and those states that have taken the lead on adopting future-focused solutions.
A growing body of research tells us that plastic pollution impacts us all. But if we shift our approach to this global crisis from reactive to proactive, we can make a lasting impact. To do so, we must adopt future-focused solutions that prevent plastic pollution entirely—from production through the entire supply chain.
At least 22 million pounds of plastic enter the Great Lakes every year, and our plastic reliance only increased during the COVID-19 pandemic. This increase is costly on many fronts.
Food packaging alone, according to a new report, costs the food-service industry an estimated $24 billion annually. An additional $6 billion is then spent on waste management to get rid of this disposable plastic.
It is also costly to our health. As plastic items make their way into waterways, they break down into microplastics—tiny plastic bits that slip into our drinking water and the food chain undetected, causing unforeseen health issues for aquatic animals and humans alike. The manufacturing of plastic goods is also a major problem.
Preproduction plastic pellets are the foundation of plastic materials. There are no repercussions to manufacturers or transporters when those pellets leak into our waterways.
A study published in December revealed that 42 of 66 beaches across Great Lakes shorelines contain these pea-size pellets.
At Shedd Aquarium, we see plastic pellets—and many other types of plastic pollution—firsthand on Chicago's beaches as we work with local volunteers to clean up our shorelines.
But picking up litter on beaches and on the river is a reactive response to the issue. We must simultaneously pursue forward-thinking and cost-effective solutions to prevent plastic pollution in the first place.
As a founding member of the Aquarium Conservation Partnership, Shedd Aquarium and 24 other aquariums across the country have eliminated more than 1 million plastic beverage bottles and counting from our operations as well as reducing single-use plastic packaging wherever possible. We are proof positive that the business model works, and we aren't the only example.
Businesses and city governments across the U.S. have saved $5 billion from avoiding disposables and created 193,000 jobs within the new reuse economy, and restaurants in the Chicago community are actively pursuing plastic solutions through our Let's Shedd Plastic program.
We agree with the city of Chicago's Waste Strategy report that the most impactful pollution prevention strategies are those that look upstream and encourage source reduction.
Smart plastic prevention policies are already moving in cities and states across the country. Virginia's governor recently signed an executive order to discontinue state agencies from buying, selling or distributing single-use plastic items, while investing in the development of a statewide plastic pollution reduction plan.
States like Maine are advancing science-driven extended producer responsibility, or EPR, policies, which ensure plastic producers are responsible for pollution they create. In fact, our Great Lakes neighbors in Ontario recently updated their EPR program, which is funded by manufacturers for the proper end-of-life disposal of their products, saving the government an estimated $156 million annually.
We in Chicago and Illinois can and should follow these examples and start to advance similar public policies today.
Other opportunities to tackle plastic pollution are in the hands of Congress. In the coming weeks, the Senate will take up critical water infrastructure legislation.
The House of Representatives recently passed the INVEST in America Act, which includes a package of measures to help keep our waterways healthy.
Especially important is the inclusion of Durbin's Plastic Pellet Free Waters Act, which prohibits the discharge of plastic pellets and other preproduction plastic materials from facilities that make, use, package or transport those materials—a solution that Shedd Aquarium is working to advance.
We are calling on individuals, business leaders and policymakers to help us prevent microplastics, preproduction plastic pellets and all other forms of plastic pollution.
For action items and climate solutions delivered right to your inbox, consider signing up for Surge, a new digital conservation community created by Shedd Aquarium to mobilize the public to protect our shared planet.
It's the direction we must head in collectively today, and there is no time to waste.