June 27, 2019

Initiatives to Reduce Plastic Pollution

By Lisa DiCaprio

This is a modified version of an article that appeared in the Summer 2018 issue of the Sierra Atlantic, the publication of the Atlantic (NYS) Sierra Club Chapter. For the original version, see the Sierra Club website. Lisa DiCaprio is a Clinical Associate Professor of Social Sciences and the Associate Director of Curriculum in the Division of Applied Undergraduate Studies (DAUS). She is also the Conservation Chair of the Sierra Club NYC Group.  Professor DiCaprio teaches two courses on sustainability, Green Design and the Future of Organizations and NYC: The Future Metropolis.


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.

Plastic pollution is now a global crisis as plastics represent the most common form of debris in our oceans and the Great Lakes. The May 2018 National Geographic issue, Planet or Plastic?, highlights these “10 shocking facts about plastic,” such as:


  • “More than 5 trillion pieces of plastic are already floating in our oceans.
  • By 2050, virtually every seabird species on the planet will be eating plastic.
  • Estimates for how long plastic endures range from 450 years to forever.
  • World plastic production has increased exponentially from 2.3 million tons in 1950 to 162 million in 1993 to 448 million by 2015.”


Some 700 species of marine animals have been reported so far to have eaten or become entangled in plastic.


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. 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.


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, Miami Beach, and Washington D.C. have imposed a ban on single-use plastic straws, which represent the sixth most common type of litter. According to a June 2018 UN report, 50 countries have either imposed bans or pledged to reduce single-use plastics. For updates on initiatives to reduce plastic pollution, see the Planet or Plastic? article, "A Running list of action on plastic pollution."


Here are three ways to reduce plastic pollution:

Stop using single-use plastic straws and stirrers, bottles, and bags by switching to stainless steel bottles and reusable bags. If you take the Zero Waste Pledge, the NYC Department of Sanitation will send you a free reusable bag made of 90% recycled materials.


Inform your friends and family about plastic pollution and the alternatives to single-use plastics.


Advocate for NY City Council bills to reduce plastic pollution. If you live in NYC and your council member’s name does not appear on each of these bills, please call and/or write to request their co-sponsorship. Find the list of NYC council members and their e-mail addresses and office phone numbers here. For information on the bills, see:


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.


We must all act individually and collectively to reduce plastic pollution. The habitability 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 earth’s water is ocean. 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 May 2018 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.


Ocean Conservancy and Ocean Conservancy Trash Free Seas

Plastic Free Waters Partnership

Greenpeace Million Acts of Blue campaign

Surfrider Foundation

5 Gyres

The Last Plastic Straw


New Plastics Economy

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