Working together to eliminate plastic pollution from our environment

Maybe you’ve already taken one step, refusing plastic straws in restaurants or bringing a reusable water bottle wherever you go. Or maybe you’re waiting for the single-use plastic bag tax to take effect statewide on Aug. 1, a prelude to a ban at most retail outlets in 2020.

Either way, let those steps be just the beginning of getting as much throwaway plastic out of your life as possible. All it takes is a commitment to exchange one thoughtless purchase every day or every week for a thoughtful one. That could mean bringing your own refillable takeout cup to the coffee shop. Or you could be more mindful of packaging at the grocery store – choosing loose veggies in your own reusable bags instead of prepackaged ones, or single rolls of paper-wrapped toilet paper over multiple rolls in plastic, or juice in a glass bottle or waxed cardboard container instead of a plastic jug.

“The plastic bag ban is just the first step toward making individuals realize how much we use single-use plastics,” said MaryEllen Mateleska, director of education and conservation at the Mystic Aquarium. “But one bit at a time, we can all make a big difference.”

Two years ago, her organization was one of 22 aquariums nationwide that pledged to reduce plastic use throughout their operations, from the gift shop to the snack bar to special events. Then last month, it opened a “Plastic Free Seas” exhibit about the pervasive problem of plastic pollution in the ocean, from large items to tiny shards known as microplastics, all of which can harm wildlife.

Then on July 1, more than 80 staff and volunteers at the aquarium formed teams to compete in the Plastic Free Eco-Challenge, a month-long national contest of zoo and aquarium staffs to track and measure their efforts to curtail plastic use in their everyday lives. According to the challenge website, the idea behind it is built on the “common wisdom” that it takes three weeks to change a habit, and that collective action keeps people motivated — that, and remembering that 1 million seabirds and 100,000 marine mammals and sea turtles die each year from plastics in the environment.

“We’re trying to do our best to walk the walk,” Mateleska said.

The aquarium is just one example of the many formal organizations and grassroots groups that have helped create the significant momentum around the “refuse, reuse and reduce” plastics goal in Connecticut over the past year. As a result, individual communities from Norwalk to Stonington have enacted various versions of plastic product bans, laying the foundation for the successful passage of the bag tax and ban in the state legislature.

Another contributor to the growing awareness of the plastic problem was the “Don’t Trash Long Island Sound” – “Break the Single-Use Plastic Habit” campaigns the past two summers sponsored by the Long Island Sound Study, Connecticut Sea Grant and the aquarium. This year, the three partners are being joined by the Connecticut Fund for the Environment/Save the Sound, The Nature Conservancy and SoundWaters in a reprise of the successful campaigns.

Volunteer beach cleanups on Aug. 8 at Lighthouse Point Park in New Haven and at Cove Island and Boccuzzi Park in Stamford will launch the six-week campaign, leading into International Coastal Cleanup Day Sept. 21.

Like last year, the campaign will include giveaways of colorful “Protect Our Wildlife” stickers for reusable water bottles and travel mugs, and social media posts with the hashtags #DontTrashLISound and #LISound about people taking positive actions to reduce plastic pollution. A third hashtag, #SingleUsePlastic, is being added this year.

“Local community groups and municipalities really responded to our messages to break the single-use plastic habit and protect our wildlife by helping to make the Sound free of plastic waste,” said Robert Burg, communications coordinator for the Stamford-based Long Island Sound Study. “They helped to share these message through our social media posts, which is why we had a big 60 percent jump in our social media audience from a similar campaign in 2017.”

Facebook and Twitter impressions posted during the campaign increased from 82,000 in 2017 to 135,000 in 2018, he noted. He hopes for another big jump this year.

Restaurants that have switched from cheaper throwaway plastic cups and take-out containers to paper alternatives deserve to be celebrated. Mari Kodama, general manager of JTK Management – owner of Breakwater in Stonington, and the Steak Loft and Go Fish in Olde Mistick Village – said her company started last spring by giving plastic straws only when a customer requests one. Then it exchanged plastic stirrers for wooden ones, and plastic to-go boxes for cardboard.

“We love our surroundings on the waterfront in Stonington,” she said, referring to the location of Breakwater. “It’s really important to us to do what we could.”

For the most part, she said, customers have reacted favorably.

The example of JTK restaurants, along with other Stonington eateries that have cut plastic use, helped pave the way for the ad-hoc town committee behind the townwide ban on plastic straws and single-use bags starting Oct. 1, said Moira Deasy, chairwoman of the committee.

A member of the Board of Directors of the Greater Mystic Chamber of Commerce, Deasy said she agreed to lead the committee to represent businesses.

“In the beginning I was against it,” she said of the plastic ban. “But I learned so much from the committed and totally passionate members of the committee. They totally turned me around.”

Now, the group is working to get the community engaged through a contest to create a “Stonington Reuses” logo. While the plastics problem is far from solved, progress is being made. We can all be part of helping to keep it going.

Judy Benson is the communications coordinator at Connecticut Sea Grant, which supports healthy coastal ecosystems, aquaculture and fisheries, resilient communities, seafood safety, marine science education and research in Long Island Sound. One of 34 Sea Grant programs nationwide, it is a partnership of the University of Connecticut and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, at UConn’s Avery Point campus in Groton. For information, visit: She can be reached at:



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