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The Irreversible Effects of Plastic Pollutants

Megan Hoots

University of Florida

Today, the greatest threat to life on Earth is, without a doubt, plastic

pollution. Although “marine plastic pollution has been a growing concern for decades”

(Xanthos & Walker, 2017, p. 17), the scientific community is only just comprehending

the breadth of the irreversible harm plastics cause. Contemporary research on

increased global production and consumption of plastics is “revealing a mounting global

environmental crisis with no signs of abatement” (Dauvergne, 2018, p. 22) as plastics

enter our ocean and estuaries at an alarming rate. In fact, “it is estimated that plastic

debris accounts for 60-80% of marine litter” (Xanthos & Walker, 2017, p. 17), with an

estimated 8 million metric tons of plastic entering our oceans annually. A 2014 study

“estimated that 5.25 trillion plastic particles (weighing 269,00 tons) are floating in the

sea” (Xanthos & Walker, 2017, p. 17) with no working solution to remove the debris. A

majority of the world’s plastic debris are from end use consumer items or single-use

plastics (SUPs), which include “plastic bags, microbeads, cutlery, straws, and

polystyrene” (Schnurr et al, 2018, p. 157). The essay will focus on the impact of SUP,

with a concentration on single-use shopping bags, along with the legislative and non-

legislative actions that can help to curb their production and consumption.

History of Plastics

In the 1940’s manufacturers began producing plastic goods, “including

toothbrushes, records and Tupperware, and by the 1950’s and 1960’s [turning plastic]

into bags, clothing and toys” (Dauvergne, 2017, p. 24). The following decades saw a
steady increase in plastic use, “by 1970, plastic production had risen to 35 million metric

tons, up from 2 million metric tons in 1950” (Dauvergne, 2017, p. 24). The twenty first

century saw a peak plastic production, with more than 300 million metric tons of plastic

produced by the year 2010 (Dauvergne, 2017). At this rate, total global plastic

production is expected to exceed 500 million metric tons by the year 2025 (Dauvergne,

2017). In total, “manufacturers have now produced over 9 billion metric tons of plastic,

roughly equal to 90 billion people weighing 220 pounds each” (Dauvergne, 2017, p.

24). Approximately 40% of this plastic production is packaging, which includes a variety

of SUPs. Single-use plastic bags make up a majority of SUP litter accounting for

“roughly... 5-6 grocery bags of plastic for each foot of seashore” (Dauvergne, 2017, p.

23) globally. In the United States, plastic bags constituted 33% of the litter found along

the Anacostia River shoreline in Maryland (Wagner, 2017).

Single-Use Plastic Shopping Bags

Single-use plastic shopping bags are durable, waterproof, inexpensive to

produce, and “ubiquitous throughout the world” (Wagner, 2017, p.4). Made from fossil

fuels, these utilitarian bags serve one primary purpose; to move materials from point of

purchase to a destination (Wager, 2017). Over the last three decades, consumers have

been habitualized into expecting, free single-use plastic shopping bags” (Wagner, 2017,

p. 4) with every purchase. The United States alone consumed 103 billion single-use

plastic bags in 2014 (Wagner 2017). Unfortunately, SUP shopping bags have an

average life span of 12 minutes before being discarded and only 12% of SUP shopping

bags are properly recycled (Wager, 2017). Due to their aerodynamic/ballooning nature,
plastic bags are “likely to inflate and then be disappeared by the wind, even at low wind

speeds and will travel considerable distances” (Wagner, 2017, p. 5). The ease of their

mobility “is the primary cause of them becoming land litter and eventually marine debris”

(Wagner, 2017, p. 5) as they are carried into our waterways where they wreak havoc on

fragile ecosystems.

Harmful Effects of SUPs

Plastic bags pose a huge threat to marine life; entanglement can “cause

starvation, suffocation, laceration, infection, reduced reproductive success and mortality

(Xanthos & Walker, 2017, p. 18). In addition, the “ingestion of plastics by birds and

turtles have been… widely reported” (Xanthos & Walker, 2017, p. 18), often becoming

fatal to the species. Research indicates that single use plastic bags are the most

destructive form of plastics to marine life (Xanthos & Walker, 2017). The lifespan of

plastic is estimated to be thousands of years, “disintegrating especially slowly in the

cold, dark depths of the oceans” (Dauvergne, 2017, p. 23) and breaking apart into small

pieces called microplastics. Microplastics are an alarming form of marine pollution,

making up “as much as one-quarter of annual marine plastic pollution” (Dauvergne,

2017, p. 24) as primary plastics breakdown into every smaller particles. New studies are

finding evidence that microplastics are entering the “human food chain through the

ingestion of fish, shellfish and filter feeders causing potential human health impacts”

(Xanthos & Walker, 2017, p. 18). Microplastic have been found in not only seafood, but

in both tap and bottled water as well (Dauvergne, 2017). Cutting edge research

suggests that microplastic continues to degrade into microscopic nanoplastics which

can “slip through cell walls, with uncertain health and ecological consequences”

(Dauvergne, 2017, p. 24). The introduction of plastics into human tissue through

nanoplastics has created an impending global health crisis that must be curbed by a

combination of legislative and non-legislative measures.

Global Legislative Solutions

Governing the production and distribution of single-use plastic bags has been

difficult because of the influence and power of the global plastics industry which profit

on the habitual use of plastic bags (Dauvergne, 2017). Legislation to curb the use of

plastic bags are implemented through bans, partial bans or fees for a single-use plastic

bag (Xanthos & Walker, 2017). Denmark became the world's first country to tax plastic

bag production in 1993, “a policy that helps explain why Danes now consume on

average 4 single-use plastic bags a year (compared to say, Poland, with an average of

around 400 bags per year)” (Dauvergne, 2017, p. 26). Since 2002, “countries in Africa,

Asia, and the rest of Europe have steadily introduced bans… or levies on plastic bag

consumption” (Xanthos & Walker, 2017, p. 19). England was the last country in the UK

to adopt a levy on plastic bags and “following the introduction of the five pence levy in

England, plastic bag use at seven major supermarkets dropped 85% (Xanthos &

Walker, 2017, p. 22). Global initiatives include the CleanSeas campaign, announced in

February of 2017 which aims to eliminate major sources of marine debris by 2022, and

the European Union is requiring all plastic packing to be reusable or recycled by the

year 2030. Regardless of the irrefutable evidence that global legislative efforts have
helped to greatly reduce plastic bag consumption, and the worldwide measures to

reduce waste, America’s promise to govern single-use plastic bags have been limited.

Domestic Legislative Solutions

In the United States, “only four states have imposed bans or levies on plastic

bags, suggesting that North America’s policies for plastic bag interventions are lacking

compared to other countries” (Xanthos & Walker, 2017, p. 19). In 2016, the state of

California banned single-use plastic bags, becoming one of the most progressive states

in America and reducing the consumption of plastic bags by 15 billion. While federal and

state efforts to ban or levy plastic bags fail, many local governments have taken action.

There were “271 local governments in the USA with plastic bag ordinances covering

9.7% of the nation’s population” (Wagner, 2017, p. 4) as of September of 2017. While

some local governments “continue to increase their actions on plastic bags, 11 states

have enacted laws to prohibit local governments from regulating single-use plastic

bags” (Wagner, 2017, p. 4); Florida is one such state.

Legislation in Florida

The state of Florida preempts any local government from having the ability to

regulate SUPs, including plastic bags. In 2018, Florida Senate Bill 348 would allow

certain coastal communities to regulate or ban plastic bags, but the bill died in

committee before becoming law (Diaz, 2018). Recently, “the first plastic bag ban in the

state [of Florida] was… enacted in the City of Coral Gables” (Diaz, 2018, p. 102)

because of a loophole granted by the 1957 Home Rule Charter for Miami Dade County
which exempted the county from home rule restrictions. Until state legislators lift the

restrictions that prohibit municipalities from enacting their own laws, local legislation to

reduce single-use plastic consumption cannot be implemented, so communities must

rely on non-legislative action.

Non-Legislative Efforts

Legislative and non-legislative efforts must work in tandem to effectively change

society’s dependence and over use of single-use plastic bags. As long as local

governments are barred from legislating SUPs, stakeholders in the environmental

community must lead the fight for change. Beach cleanups must be ongoing to not only

remove litter off our shores but to highlight to the public the clear and present impact of

marine litter. Community outreach programs, mainly non-profit organizations, can

educate the public on the harmful effects of plastic pollutants and both microplastics and

nanoplastics and are a critical component of effecting behavioral changes. Our

dependence on SUPs must be made visible and accentuated to emphasize the need for

a meaningful and sustainable divorce from SUPs. I would like to propose a large scale,

community-wide art project to draw attention to this global crisis.

Green Prom Program for Indian River District Schools

Each year high school students across the United States participate in the age-

old tradition of prom. In an effort to address the SUP crisis, the local 501c3 non-profit

Plastic Free Florida can partner with the Indian River School District to implement a

Green Prom Program throughout the school district. Green Prom Program would
significantly reduce, if not totally eliminate, all SUP during the event with special

attention in avoiding any single-use utensils, cups, water bottles and other common

marine pollutants such as balloons. These efforts would instill in our youth the

importance of breaking our habitual reliance on SUPs. Cementing changed behaviors

are particularly imperative for this county because Indian River is a coastal community

located on the Indian River Lagoon which is very vulnerable to marine pollutants.

Protecting the lagoon and its fragile ecosystem, which is central to the quality of life on

the Treasure Coast, is of upmost priority for our residents.

Art and Activism

One powerful form of non-legislative action is artmaking; which can be “a matter

of political power- disruptive, irreverent, and transformative” (Dittmar & Entin, 2014, p. 2)

when wielded properly. Throughout history “art proved a powerful tool for social

persuasion- the vehicle through which alternative values are broadcast” (Dittmar &

Entin, 2014, p. 3) and conveyed. Artmaking can be leveraged to cultivate engagement

and social change around our dependency on SUPs. It is important for educators to

“expand our students’ understanding of the need for progressive social change and

encourage them to do something about” (Dittmar & Entin, 2014, p. 4) the ecological

crisis SUPs have created. I would like to propose a partnership between the Indian

River County School District and Plastic Free Florida to address SUP pollutants with a

community wide art project.

Community Based, Participatory SUP Art

Customarily, couples attending prom together, adorn themselves with a freshly

cut boutonniere on the lapel of a jacket, while a floral corsage is affixed to the waist or

bodice of a dress. With the permission of the Indian River School District, Plastic Free

Florida can provide art educators in local high schools with the tools they need to create

boutonnieres and corsages out of recycled single-use plastic bags. Plastic Free Florida

can source recycled bags in mass quantities and distribute them as needed to the

classrooms. The Plastic Free Florida community outreach chair will be made available

to instruct teachers and students how to construct floral arrangements from single-use

plastic bags, mimicking the traditional boutonnieres and corsages. Art classrooms will

be tasked with collectively producing enough boutonnieres and corsages for the entire

student body. On the night of prom, students will attend, en masse, wearing their

recycled boutonnieres and corsages. The collective participation will “bring people

together in thought and action that go[es] beyond the individual experience” (Dittmar &

Entin, 2014, p. 5) acknowledging the SUPs epidemic as a unified community while

signaling for change in the display of their SUP boutonnieres and corsages.


With microplastics entering the global food chain and nanoplastics passing

through cellular walls, marine plastic pollution is a worldwide emergency. There is no

uniform Federal legislation curbing plastic consumption and many local municipalities

are prevented from enacting their own solutions to reduce SUPs. Effective non-

legislative actions can be taken, such as volunteer outreach with non-profits groups to
educate the public on the harmful effects of SUPs. Art educators have the power to

raise awareness by partnering with non-profits and activists’ groups to raise awareness

in the classrooms with effective artmaking. With the support of local school districts art

educators can help be the vehicle for social and behavioral change through thoughtful

community-based curricula.
Figure 1. Single flower made from recycled single-use plastic bag
Figure 2. Bouquet of flowers made from single-use plastic bags

Dauvergne, P. (2017). Why is the global governance of plastic failing the oceans?

Global Environmental Change, 51, 22-31.

Diaz, H. (2018). Plastic: Breaking down the unbreakable. Florida Coastal Law Review,

85, 87-113.

Dittmar, L., Entin, J. (2014). Jamming the works: art, politics and activism. Radical

Teacher, 98, 1-6.

Schnurr, R., Albooiu, V., Chaudhary, M., Corbett, R., Quanz, M., Sankar, K.,… Walker,

T. (2018). Reducing marine pollution from single-use plastics (Sups): A review.

Marine Pollution Bulletin, 137, 157-171.

Xanthos, D., & Walker, T. (2017). International policies to reduce plastic marine

pollution from single-use plastics (plastic bags and microbeads): A review.

Marine Pollution Bulletin, 118, 17-26.

Wagner, T. (2017). Reducing single-use plastic shopping bags in the USA. Waste

Management, 70, 3-12.