There’s a scene in the 1967 film The Graduate where a well-meaning friend of the family pulls Dustin Hoffman’s character aside at his graduation party, and gives him this advice:
“There’s a great future in plastics. Think about it. Will you think about it? That’s a deal.”
But back then, the downside of plastic wasn’t apparent, especially the downside of single-use takeout containers made from styrofoam.
Nathan Murphy is with Environment Michigan. He says our use of styrofoam is exploding.
“Half of all the plastics that we’ve ever produced were produced in the last 13 years,” Murphy says. “And half of those are single-use.”
So, what’s wrong with that?
“It’s produced with fossil fuels,” Murphy says.
In addition, he says, it’s getting into the Great Lakes. Containers are thrown in on purpose, because it’s convenient, or they end up there accidentally by being blown into the water from boats or the beach.
“Unlike a paper product which would biodegrade out in the environment over a period of time, this doesn’t,” Murphy says. “It just breaks into smaller pieces.”
Those pieces can take 100 to 500 years to completely break down.
LISTEN: “Your Takeout Meal Might be Harming the Great Lakes”
Sherri Mason is a professor of chemistry at the State University of New York at Fredonia.
She’s been studying the effect of plastics in the Great Lakes for her whole career. She says the problem became apparent in the very first sample she took.
“You know what I saw? A small piece of styrofoam,” she says.
Mason says styrofoam breaks down into tiny particles, and fish can mistake the particles for food.
Sound bad? It gets worse.
Mason says there are tons of harmful legacy chemicals in the Great Lakes. These are things we’ve banned because they’re so bad for human health, like polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs. These chemicals are hydrophobic, meaning they don’t like floating around in water.
“If there’s something that they can stick to, they will. And plastics provide a perfect surface for them,” says Mason.
Mason says everytime people eat fish from the Great Lakes, they get a little dose of these legacy chemicals in their meal.
So you can see why Mason thinks a ban on single-use styrofoam is a good idea.
“You don’t make an item that you use for minutes out of a material that lasts for centuries,” she says.
Luckily, there are substitutes, and they work just as well. For example, the containers used at Red Hawk, one of my favorite pubs in Ann Arbor. There, owner Roger Hewitt shows me the takeout containers: a biodegradable paper product.
It’s coated on the inside with something that’s also biodegradable, which keeps it from leaking. Hewitt says it’s more expensive than styrofoam, but he thinks the cost is worth it.
“Does it make your product either a little more expensive or our profits a little lower? Probably, but not dramatically so,” he says. “If you view yourself as a part of the whole community, it’s the responsible thing to do.”
Still, Nathan Murphy of Environment Michigan says it’s too much to expect everyone to voluntarily stop using styrofoam, even he failed during an office challenge.
“And I was ambitious, and said no single-use plastics for a month. And so every time I kinda got stuck, I found another piece of single use plastic in my hand,” he says.
Environment Michigan hopes to raise awareness of the problem with a door-to-door campaign. Then it hopes to get state legislatures to pass a ban.
It appears the plastics industry is laying low for now. I didn’t get any calls back seeking comment.
But the industry has actively fought efforts to reduce plastic use in other states, and Murphy says, it’s likely that would happen in Great Lakes states like Michigan, too.
This story comes from our partners at Michigan Radio’s Environment Report, a program exploring the relationship between the natural world and the everyday lives of people in Michigan.