What do oysters, beer, honey and soil all have in common?
You would not know, taste or see it, but the answer is tiny bits of plastic — the debris of a world addicted to polymers.
In 2023, plastics remain ubiquitous, popping up everywhere they should not be. Virginia’s historic waterways and coastlines are no exception. Now, they are even showing up in particles so small they cannot be seen by the naked eye.
Scientists and environmental groups are doing what they can to flag the issue, but have made little traction in Virginia, which has backed away from regulating plastics and has been perceived as a friend to industry in recent years.
Plastic production levels have seen an unabated ascent globally, doubling in the past 20 years. Economic forecasts predict total plastic production will double again by 2050, and that only a fraction of that plastic will be recycled.
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“We’re in trouble already, and look at what’s coming,” said Katie Register, executive director of Clean Virginia Waterways, an environmental organization based out of Longwood University.
Statewide data on pollution is hard to come by, but plastics are not. Last September, a group of 67 volunteers on Richmond’s Belle Isle picked up 1,050 pounds of trash in a one-mile walk around the island, according to a citizen science database called TIDES.
Since September, more than 50,000 pounds of plastics have been picked up by volunteers statewide.
When those plastics are not being cleaned up, they are slowly breaking down into what scientists call microplastics.
Microplastics are less than 5 millimeters in size. They shed from larger plastics like water bottles, tires, bags and even the nylon threading in rugs. The pieces are so small that they travel through the air like dust.
Last April, Gov. Glenn Youngkin repealed an executive order made by his predecessor, Ralph Northam. The directive, Executive Order 77, called for a ban on such single-use plastics as straws and water bottles at state universities and agencies.
Several universities welcomed the directive, but Youngkin did not. In repealing the measure, he said Northam’s order was “burdensome restriction on single-use plastic at state agencies, colleges and universities.”
Instead, Youngkin issued his own executive order, stating that private industry should focus more on recycling and reducing food waste, a position that environmentalists say they have heard from manufacturers for years.
“It’s all about the economics,” said Rob Hale, professor at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science. “It’s so cheap to make plastics from, basically, petrol fuel, that there’s not a lot of incentive to recycle it.”
Hale has been poring over the issue of plastics, particularly microplastics, for decades. In the 1990s, he found disturbing levels of plastic additives in fish populations in the James River. Last fall, his lab found that fish with plastics in their systems die at an alarming rate when exposed to diseases or pathogens.
Hale thinks it is still early to draw health conclusions, but it is hard not to worry as reports surface of human beings ingesting a credit card’s worth of plastic each week, or microplastic residue being found in human umbilical cords.
Today, we are not just eating plastic-laden fish — we are breathing in plastics from air in our homes or drinking them when dust floats into an open container. Hale said most of the plastics consumed by humans comes through an accidental ingestion of indoor dust.
“We’re up to our eyeballs in plastic,” he said. “It’s all kind of like, ‘Where’s Waldo?’ It’s here, it’s there, it’s everywhere. The bigger question is, what does it mean for human health?”
Studies suggest microplastics are potential neurotoxins, that they kill human cells and cause allergies.
But much is still unknown, and that is unlikely to change anytime soon in Virginia. This legislative session, a bill that called for a simple study of the level of microplastics in Virginia’s drinking water was nixed by lawmakers.
The bill was introduced by Del. Nadarius Clark, D-Portsmouth, who criticized Republicans for “standing in the way” of action on environmental issues.
That measure was alongside five other plastics-related bills this session. All but one was defeated in the legislature.
Zachary Huntingon, associate director of Clean Virginia Waterways, was at the Capitol this session lobbying for the bills. Huntington said there was little “political will” for reforms.
Luca Powell (804) 649-6103
@luca_a_powell on Twitter