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Today is Earth Day and people around the globe are celebrating by taking action to protect our planet. Here in the High Country, MountainTrue and the WNC Sierra Club are honoring Earth Day by launching our campaign to fight plastic pollution and pass a plastic waste reduction ordinance in Boone. Find out how you can take action at plasticfreewnc.com.

You’ve seen the plastic litter on the side of the road, plastic bags blowing in the wind or stuck in tree branches, and styrofoam cups floating down our rivers and streams. These single-use plastics clog up Western North Carolina’s rivers and streams and break down into microplastics that are harmful to the environment and to human health. We’ve done what we can to interrupt the waste stream with our Trash Trouts but it’s simply not enough. 

In our streams and waterways, microplastics are inadvertently ingested by fish and other aquatic organisms, causing microplastics to be transferred throughout the food web. Researchers have found that ingesting microplastics can cause false satiation and damage the digestive systems of aquatic life. Microplastics can also leach harmful chemicals like plasticizers and additives into the organs of fish. The chemicals have varying effects on fish, changing feeding rates, development, and survival. 

Humans face similar problems. The average person ingests approximately one credit card's worth of microplastics every week, and those microplastics have been found in the human placenta and in 80% of blood samples according to a recent study published in Environment International. These plastics and the additives used to make them are a serious public health concern. Styrene, an ingredient in styrofoam (a form of plastic), is classified as a likely human carcinogen. Phthalates, which are used to make plastic products more flexible, disrupt the endocrine system, harm the reproductive and nervous systems, and have been linked to higher rates of childhood asthma and other respiratory conditions. Both of these chemical classes readily leach out into the environment around them, be that a drinking water source, a landfill, or the human body. 

Where do microplastics come from and how can we tackle this problem? 

These microplastics enter the environment as plastic litter degrades, in runoff from landfills, and from discharge from wastewater treatment plants. Once in the environment, they can travel for thousands of miles suspended in water or carried by the wind. A study conducted by MountainTrue found microplastics present in 100% of water samples that we collected from the Watauga and New River watersheds.

The best way to fight microplastics is to reduce plastic pollution at the source. As eight states and hundreds of municipalities around the U.S. have already demonstrated, the best way to mitigate plastic pollution is to enact common-sense laws to limit the use of single-use plastics before they end up as litter and microplastic pollution in our rivers, lakes, and streams. 

Fortunately, the North Carolina Solid Waste Management Act gives towns the authority and a mandate to implement programs and other actions to ‘protect human health and the environment.’ Because the presence of microplastic pollution that is harmful to human health and the environment has been documented in our region, the Town of Boone not only has the power to act, they have a legal obligation to protect its residents and our headwater streams. Similarly, Asheville, Durham and other municipalities around the state are considering passing plastic reduction ordinances. 

MountainTrue has reviewed extensive legal analysis of North Carolina law and developed a model ordinance based on best practices from around the country that is effective and equitable. That ordinance:

  • Bans the use of plastic shopping bags, styrofoam cups, and plastic straws by fast-food restaurants, grocery stores, and retailers.

  • Requires that single-use utensils provided at restaurants and grocers be recycled or composted. 

  • Charges a 10¢ fee for recyclable paper bags (made from 40% post-consumer waste) that is collected by the business.

  • Exempts customers using EBT, SNAP, and WIC from paying the 10¢ fee for paper bags.

When a similar ordinance was passed in San Jose, California, the percentage of customers bringing their own reusable bags to the store rose from 4% to 62%, plastic bag pollution in storm drains was reduced by 89%, and downtime in municipal solid waste (MSW) operations related to disruptions from plastic bags was decreased by up to 50% within a year of implementation. 

We need you to take action

We need you to act today to help fight plastic pollution. Visit our campaign website at plasticfreewnc.com and use our action form to send an email to members of the Boone Town Council calling on them to pass this ordinance and protect our communities.  

Andy Hill

Watauga Riverkeeper

MountainTrue High Country Regional Director

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