Greg D’Augustine of Greene displays single-use, takeout containers and plastic forks and spoons he reuses. Drying on the left are plastic bags he washes and reuses. Sun Journal photo by Andree Kehn

GREENE — In Greg D’Augustine’s home, there’s no such thing as single-use plastic. 

“When we finish a loaf of bread, that bread bag gets rinsed and dried,” he said. “It can be used for so many different things.”

A plastic sandwich bag floats in the water. Fish that feed on jellyfish mistake such trash for food and ingest this with fatal consequences. National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration photo National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration photo

The same for plastic containers of food such as sour cream and humus. D’Augustine washes them, reuses them, then recycles.

When he goes to the grocery store, he brings reusable bags.

“It’s not that difficult,” he said.

He doesn’t object to the use of plastic, “but we’re awash in plastic. There’s too much of it being thrown away.” There are so many parts to plastic pollution, “it’s hard to know where to start,” D’Augustine said. Reusing is a good way to reduce, he said.

With stories of whales dying because they swallowed plastic bags or dolphins starving because a bottle-cap ring prevented it from eating, and plastic bags gumming up sewers, sorting machines at recycling facilities and contaminating recyclables, plastic waste is gaining attention.

A discarded plastic bag lies on a sewer drain in Lewiston last week. Sun Journal photo by Bonnie Washuk

The problem with plastic is that it never goes away, “it just breaks up into smaller pieces,” said Sarah Lakeman of the Natural Resources Council of Maine.

Around the world and in Maine, plastic pollution is everywhere — sidewalks, sewer drains, trees, waterways, forests, in animals and even in us. Growing research shows tiny plastic particles — micro plastics — are getting into the food chain and threatening human health, Lakeman said.

The volume of plastic waste is growing. Without change, by 2050 plastic will outweigh fish in the oceans, according to the Natural Resources Council.

When plastic enters the water it’s carried all over the world by streams, rivers and ocean currents. The United Nations Joint Group of Experts on the Scientific Aspects of Marine Pollution estimates that land-based plastic waste such as plastic bags, bottles, caps, containers and packaging account for up to 80% of the world’s marine pollution, and between 60% and 95% of ocean debris.

“In Blue Hill, they found an average of 177 pieces of micro plastic in mussels,” Lakeman said. Plastic you can’t see is in the ocean animals that we eat. “It breaks up and never goes away.”

Environmentalists are not waging “an all-out war on all plastic,” Lakeman said. The kind that’s doing the most damage is the single-use plastic, such as grocery bags. “The stuff that’s used once, then thrown away.”

Recycling is great, Lakeman said, but the council would like to reinforce reduce and reuse.

Grocery shopping needs to change, D’Augustine said. “There’s way too much plastic in packaging.”

In Europe, more produce is loose and shoppers bring their own bags, he said. “Americans grab plastic bags, get it home, and that bag goes in the trash. It’s a process that creates so much waste.”

He and others hope a proposed statewide ban on single-use plastic bags (LD 1532) will become law. That proposal exempts some plastic bags (including produce bags, pet waste bags, newspaper bags), and would require a 5-cent charge for paper grocery bags. If passed, the ban would begin in April 2020.

Another bill before state lawmakers, LD 1431, would direct the Maine Department of Environmental Protection to work with businesses to come up with standard to reduce packaging and help municipal recycling programs.

“It’s not fair to blame consumers when systems aren’t in place” to reduce trash, Lakeman said. “It’s not fair to blame consumers. Too much plastic and packaging is thrust upon us.”

Plastic is getting attention from commerce.

Eric Blom, a spokesman for Hannaford, which has 181 grocery stores throughout New England, said the chain is working to reduce plastic and packaging. Hannaford has signed on with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and The New Plastics Economy, which has a global goal of working with industries and other parties to reduce plastic pollution. 

“Five years from now, you’ll see a lot less plastic in our stores,” Blom said. “We are absolutely committed to substantial reductions,” both from food suppliers and packagers, and Hannaford’s own brands. 

By 2025, Hannaford plans to make sure all plastic packaging “within our control” is reusable, recyclable or compostable, Blom said. That kind of plastic hasn’t yet been developed but will be in the works, he said.

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