Microplastic Waste is becoming an Ecological Issue in Pennsylvania; it may be time for an EHS Professional to Lab Test

Microplastic Waste is becoming an Ecological Issue in Pennsylvania; it may be time for an EHS Professional to Lab Test

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If you are unfamiliar with the term ‘microplastics,’ you won’t be for long. While you might imagine plastic soda rings in the ocean as a major ecological problem, the tiny microplastic fragments we ingest may be just as big of a concern. Microplastics are 5mm or less in size, generally smaller than a grain of rice. It’s estimated that the average U.S. resident digests at least a credit card sized amount of plastic shavings each month.

Microplastics don’t arrive in the environment from just one source. Shavings can come from plastic littered on roads or in any waterway. Plastic waste disposed of in landfills releases microplastics into the environment through wind, rain, and landfill leachate. So while we automatically think about plastic grocery bags or 6-rings of soda, the plastic problem is much larger than that. Cosmetic items, roads, paint, textiles, agriculture feedstock, and synthetic materials in tires are also to blame for this tiny pollutant.

In March of 2021, the PennEnvironment Research & Policy Center found noticeable amounts of digestible microplastics in 53 of 53 major Pennsylvania waterways. (Click Here to see the report, Microplastics in Pennsylvania: A survey of waterways) This group is recommending legislations in the Zero Waste PA state package that will affect major Pennsylvania manufacturers, shipping, and packaging companies. It is assumed that any legislation will affect textile, manufacturing, construction, materials companies and more, and will include accountability for all plastic usage, not just convenience items like plastic bags and straws. The PennEnvironment Research & Policy Center is recommending multiple policy changes on businesses at the local, state, and federal level. It is recommending phasing out single use plastics, and eliminating Pennsylvania’s current pre-emption on local action to address plastic pollution. PennEnvironment would also like clothing retailers to stop sending overstock clothing to landfills, and is recommending state legislature to pass “Producer Responsibility Laws” which shifts post-consumer waste costs from local governments onto plastic producers themselves.

In March 2021, Pennsylvania Congress members Mary Gay Scanlon and Perry Warren asked for more data on plastic controls and more regulation of food containers and plastic convenience items. They are also moving to prevent Pennsylvania municipalities from banning plastic shopping bags. Pennsylvania, and many other states, may start to mirror California’s microplastics policies. In 2018, the California Legislature adopted a pair of bills that require the State to begin building microplastics management strategies for both drinking water and California’s coastal ocean and estuaries. And California Senate Bill 1422 requires the California State Water Resources Control Board to develop plans for measuring microplastic particles in drinking water by 2021. The new Senate Bill 1263 requires the California Ocean Protection Council to adopt and implement a statewide strategy for lessening the ecological risks of microplastics to coastal marine ecosystems. The Southern California Coastal Water Research Project (SCCWRP) is at the forefront of these efforts. SCCWRP prioritizes the microplastic characteristics (e.g., size, shape, polymer) that are of greatest biological concern, and identifies critical thresholds at which those biological effects become pronounced.

In the private sector, SC Johnson and Thermo Fischer Scientific are major U.S. companies which are including microplastic pollutant levels on their yearly Corporate Social Responsibility Report. These companies are also leading technical conferences with other ecological minded companies and vendors to address microplastics ecological concerns. Local Pennsylvania media and environmental watchdogs may start looking for microplastic lab testing on company CSR reports, and advocate for more stringent regulations. Look for laboratories to help with identifying and quantifying these contaminants so your company can get ahead of the curve. There are industrial hygienists in Pennsylvania, including RJ Lee Group Inc, which can help with bioactive material tracing to help know what your facilities issues or trouble areas are.