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Maine should address plastic pollution sooner rather than later

By Rep. Mick Devin

October 15, 2018

Rep. Mick Devin

Plastics have been in the news lately here in Lincoln County as Damariscotta weighs whether it will become the 18th Maine town to ban plastic shopping bags.

As a marine biologist and a state representative who has worked to preserve and strengthen Maine's marine industries, I can tell you that any conversation about plastics, at both the local and state level, is a timely one.

When I was 17 and entered the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, that marked the beginning of four decades working on or next to the water. I became interested in studying marine life during my time at sea in the U.S. Navy. So after I left the service, I traveled to Florida to get my degree and start doing field research on shellfish and other marine invertebrates.

That's where it became clear to me how easy it is for humans to have a major effect on the many fragile food chains that exist underwater. When we alter the water temperature, increase the acid levels or add pollution in the form of plastics and other materials, all of that endangers the food supply, the environment and thousands of our jobs and the Maine families they support.

The plastics problem is serious. I've spent a lot of time diving on the bottom of the ocean, from the Gulf Coast to our own coast here in Maine, and there is litter everywhere. Many of you have seen images on TV of seabirds and other ocean creatures getting trapped in plastic rings or swallowing large pieces of plastic whole, but there's a lot more to this problem than sensational images.

The reason for that is that plastic bags don't break down in the way most people think. Instead, they flake off, tiny bit by tiny bit, and that process creates something called micro-debris. That process starts within months after the plastic is discarded, not after many years as scientists first thought.

Marine life eats that micro-debris, and that has two major consequences. First, the plastic can harm whatever eats it, and, second, that plastic makes its way all the way up the food chain until it gets to the very top: you, me and everyone we know who eats lobster, haddock and other seafood.

And micro-debris isn't just found in the Gulf of Maine. It's also found in our lakes and has made it into our drinking water supply.

In a recent investigation conducted by Orb Media, scores of tap water samples were analyzed from over a dozen countries. Eighty-three percent were found to contain micro-debris. The U.S. had the highest rate of plastic in drinking water at 94 percent of samples collected.

Plastic bags aren't the only problem. Polystyrene containers are particularly bad, too. They can't be recycled and release toxic chemicals when burned. The trouble is that many small businesses and people involved in our working waterfront depend on them and have had trouble finding viable alternatives.

I'm sensitive to how making major changes in our lifestyle can be painful for our small business community. Making changes is expensive and can require unexpected and large investments. That's why I hope that the policy changes we need to make will come hand-in-hand with accommodations and reasonable phase-outs to help with the transition.

Most people who work in our marine industries recognize the danger plastics pose to the industry and understand that it's getting worse. Both the Maine Lobsterman's Association and the Department of Marine Resources have supported legislation I sponsored to get the conversation started at the state level and try to make a positive change.

Some people have said they would like the plastics industry to lead the transition themselves, but I think most of us understand that this is an unrealistic proposition. We have only to look at our country's recent history on solving environmental problems to understand this reality.

Changes in the use of DDT, the pesticide that devastated bald eagle populations, and regulations on tobacco did not come from within their industries. In fact, these companies fought changes for decades even when they were aware their products were harmful to the environment and humans.

Change needs to come from us - the consumers and all of us in Maine who depend on a healthy marine environment to make a living for themselves and their families.

Transferring to reusable bags and containers that truly break down is the place we need to end up. Forty-four countries have already made the leap. Given the overwhelming evidence that plastic bags are not recyclable, are clogging our landfills and are harmful to the environment, Maine's dependence on plastics must eventually come to an end.

I will continue to work on this issue next year, and I hope we can find ways to work with Maine's businesses and fishermen to make sure we solve the plastics problem in the least disruptive way possible.

If you have questions about this or any other issue facing Lincoln County, please reach out to me at 975-3132 or at mick@mickdevin.org. It continues to be an honor to serve you in the Legislature.

Devin, a marine biologist and a member of the Legislature's Marine Resources Committee, is serving his third term in the Maine House. He represents Bremen, Bristol, Damariscotta, Newcastle, part of Nobleboro, part of South Bristol, Monhegan Plantation and the unorganized territory of Louds Island.