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Issues of the Environment: The Ecology Center pushes for tougher plastics regulations in Michigan

Michael Garfield
Michael Garfield
The Ecology Center


  • Monday, April 22 is Earth Day 2024, and this year’s theme is Planet Vs. Plastics. Earthday.org is advocating for widespread awareness on the health risk of plastics, rapidly phasing out all single use plastics, a strong UN Treaty on Plastic Pollution, an end to fast fashion, and a 60% reduction in plastics globally to protect the environment and human health. 

  • The Ecology Center is advocating for five bills in the draft phase that will add teeth to plastic regulation in several important areas: 
    • Bill #1: Microbeads - would propose to ban the use and the discharge of microbeads into the waters of the state of Michigan.
    • Bill #2: Statewide Strategy - would require [the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy], to the extent that funds are available from bonds and other sources, to adapt and implement a Michigan statewide microplastics strategy,” said Representative Hood.
    • Bill #3: Nurdles - would ask EGLE to create a program to better control the discharge of nurdles (pre-production plastic pellets used to manufacture plastic items) in Michigan.
    • Bill #4: Washing Machines - This bill would require that after January 1, 2029, all new washing machines sold for residential use in Michigan contain a mesh filtration system that collect synthetic fiber shed during laundering.
    • Bill #5: Water Testing - would require EGLE to begin four consecutive years of testing and reporting on the amount of microplastics in public drinking water supplies — those results would have to be disclosed to the public. (Source: *directly quoted* https://www.interlochenpublicradio.org/ipr-news/2024-02-15/michigan-doesnt-have-a-plan-for-preventing-microplastic-pollution-could-that-change)

  • Ann Arbor’s free, family-friendly Earth Day Festival is Sunday, April 21st 1-4pm at Leslie Science and Nature Center.
  • In 1970, a massive “teach-in” in Ann Arbor was followed five weeks later by the first Earth Day with celebrations nationwide. 


David Fair: Earth Day 2024 is right around the corner, and this year's theme is "Planet versus Plastics." Advocates are calling for a global reduction of 60% in plastics manufacturing to protect the environment and human health. Is it possible? The Ann Arbor-based Ecology Center is an organization advocating the introduction and passage of five bills in Michigan that would at least add some teeth to plastic regulation in several important areas. Ecology Center director Mike Garfield is here to discuss what they are and why it's so important on a pre-Earth Day edition of Issues of the Environment. So glad to have you along again, Mike!

Mike Garfield: It's great to be here, David!

David Fair: Well, I mentioned the theme: "Planet versus Plastics," an issue you and your colleagues have been working on for decades. In those years, has the problem gotten better or worse? Or do we just know more about it?

Mike Garfield: We know more about it every day, every week, every month, every year. And the problem is exploding. At the same time as the world is starting to turn away from the use of oil and gas as transportation fuels, the oil and gas industry is looking to petrochemicals and plastics as a new market to provide new products for the world--new plastics for all sorts of purposes. And we've seen an explosion in the production of plastics over the last decade and, with it, a whole host of environmental and public health problems that we're now trying to address. We think about this issue in terms of, you know, on a day-to-day basis. We think of it in terms of the plastic bottles that drinking water might come in or....

David Fair: Milk jug. Right.

Mike Garfield: Stuff like that. But, really, plastics are now all around us in all sorts of applications and packaging, yes, but also in building products, in clothing, other textiles and all sorts of industrial uses. Right now, the world is drowning in a sea of plastics. And policymakers are just waking up to the need to regulate it more seriously than we have before.

David Fair: Well, I'm glad you brought that up,because nations from around the world have begun negotiations on what could potentially become a global treaty to address these plastic issues. A fourth meeting, in fact, is going to take place in Canada next week, from April 23rd through the 29th, to try and reach some global agreement on reducing plastics by 60%. It sounds to me like they're trying to do something similar to what they did with climate change in drafting a global agreement. Is it possible to come to that agreement? And is reduction of 60% possible?

Mike Garfield: That's a great analogy, David. I think we are at about the same place with the plastics issue that we were on climate change 30 years ago or so. At that point, the issue of greenhouse gas emissions and the impact they were having on the earth started to rise in the scientific community and among advocates and governments. And the countries agreed to come together and started negotiating a climate treaty. 30-some years have passed and we've made some progress. Not a lot of progress. Not as much as we need to make. But there is a framework in place that countries have been working on. I hope we can move more quickly with the plastics crisis. That's what's getting started and going to be worked on in Canada in late April in a fourth meeting of negotiators. We'll see how far it goes. I think it's possible to get an agreement to start working on a treaty. And we'll see how quickly and how fast it can get implemented.

David Fair: WEMU's pre-Earth Day Issues of the Environment conversation with Ecology Center director Mike Garfield continues. Plastics never fully break down and release PFAs, PCBs, phthalates and other toxic substances into the ground and the water. Plastics also generate about 20% of our country's industrial carbon emissions. That's not only an environmental concern, but a public health issue and an environmental justice issue, and it potentially strains the already out-of-control health care economy. Might more political progress be made by approaching it from that kind of cost analysis point of view, as opposed to the environmental perspective, which seems to still be polarizing?

Mike Garfield: Well, I think there's some. In fact, it is, in many cases, there are a number of different measures to address the production of plastic and the incentives that are built into US law and law and other countries that create economic incentives to produce plastic. It's inexpensive to produce. And so, when it's used, say, for packaging purposes, it may be cheaper than some of the non-plastic alternatives.

David Fair: Well, it is durable, flexible. It has strength. You know, there are advantages, and it's why people tend to manufacture plastics.

Mike Garfield: It's able to be used for so many different things. So, it fills a lot of different economic niches. But I think, at some point, we've got to say we've got to put some constraints on the environmental and public health impacts that it has. And we try to do that with all of our environmental and public health laws and need to put forth some parameters for it. I mean, you were alluding to this, but if you look at the production of plastic, it is a major source of pollution in communities around the United States and Canada, down in Louisiana and Texas, in Appalachia. Close to Washtenaw County, there's major chemical and plastics production in the Sarnia area, right across the border in Canada. We hear about incidents, of major explosions or chemical disasters that happened, say, in the rail accident that took place in Ohio last year. That train was transporting chemicals used in plastic production. So, throughout the life cycle of plastic production, we've got environmental and public health impacts, and we can't just simply look away from the harm that this wonderfully useful material can provide for us.

David Fair: You know, there's that old saying: "Think global. Act local." Eight years ago in Washtenaw County, the Board of Commissioners passed a measure that would have put a 10% fee on the single-use plastic bags we often get at grocery stores and retail outlets. It would have been the first in the state to do so. But former Governor Rick Snyder and the state Legislature at that time stepped in to pass legislation banning any local government from enacting fees on plastic bags and similar containers. So, with that in mind, how do we think globally and act locally?

Mike Garfield: Well, first of all, I think that there's only so much we can do at the local level. But what Washtenaw County was trying to do was a good start. One thing that we can do is to urge the state Legislature to repeal that ban on local ordinances.

David Fair: And there is some effort toward that direction.

Mike Garfield: Yes. Representative Brabec from Pittsfield Township and Senator Shink from Washtenaw County have introduced bills that would do that in the Michigan House and Senate. And it's important that those bills get enacted. And we've seen states around the country that have enacted regulations on single-use packaging to try to restrict it. We've seen other efforts around the country that have tried to regulate some of the harm. What we should be doing now is eliminating the worst plastic materials and additives that come in plastics. We don't want or need to remove all of them from our lives. It would be virtually impossible at this point. But some of the most toxic and problematic of them just need to need to be phased out as soon as possible. I'm talking about materials like PVC plastic, which is the plastic that the train in East Palestine, Ohio was carrying--the ingredients to make polystyrene, polycarbonate or other plastic materials that are very problematic and toxic--and need to be phased out as quickly as possible. There are a number of additives in plastics that, likewise, need to be restricted as quickly as we can.

David Fair: Once again, this is 89 one WEMU. We're talking with Mike Garfield from the Ann Arbor-based Ecology Center. And there are five bills in draft stage in Michigan that would approach plastics from a variety of angles, some of which you just touched on. But all five of these draft measures have the support of the Ecology Center. The Center is advocating all of them be finished, introduced and ultimately passed. Now, we could spend an hour on each. But in broad terms, how would this better add teeth to our ability to deal with the plastics crisis, if I may?

Mike Garfield: Well, one thing we've only talked about briefly here is the problem of microplastics--the tiny and even sometimes microscopic particles that emerge from plastic production as they get worn down through use in production and processing and handling. And we've found microplastics--scientists have found microplastics--in the Great Lakes, in the oceans, in drinking water, in our bloodstreams. And in the Great Lakes themselves, scientists have found that 90% of water samples have unsafe levels of intentionally added microplastics. They're added sometimes to products, like cosmetics and a few other applications. And those should be phased out as quickly as possible. But they don't only come in the cases where producers are putting them in deliberately. In some cases, they simply wear off of textiles or packaging of other plastics. And we need a comprehensive statewide strategy for dealing with them. What California has done is to develop a strategy like that and start to regulate microplastics as a drinking water contaminant. It'd be good for Michigan to do likewise. And that would lead to a series of actions that the state would need to take to start to reduce the use of them and the creation of them. I mean, ultimately, identifying the problem and finding ways to address it is going to lead us to better solutions and probably to reducing the overall use of plastics themselves.

David Fair: And getting a start in that direction, you've been working with state lawmakers and communicating with them, advocating for passage of such measures. Do you get the impression this is a series of bills that will ultimately be finalized and, at the very least, make it to the legislative floors for a vote?

Mike Garfield: Hard to say right now. I think these these issues are going to be with us for a number of years. We think this is probably a campaign that's going to have to go on for a while. It'd be great if we could turn off the tap on plastics tomorrow. I think it's going to take a little while for these to go through the process, and people need to learn more and more about the subject matter of these bills and the problem that we're all facing right now before we'll see more comprehensive action. So, I think we're going to be in this for the long haul.

David Fair: Earth Day will be marked across the globe next Monday, April 22nd. In Ann Arbor, the annual Earth Day Festival at Leslie Science and Nature Center will be held Sunday from 1 to 4 p.m.. That's April 21st. How are you going to mark Earth Day 2024, Mike?

Mike Garfield: Oh, I'm going to be working for a safe and healthy Earth like I do every week.

David Fair: I thank you so much for your time today and for the insights. Much appreciated!

Mike Garfield: Thank you. David. It's been great to be with you!

David Fair: That is Mike Garfield, director of the Ann Arbor-based Ecology Center, providing inside perspective on the challenges of plastics as we approach another Earth Day. The 54th Earth Day theme is "Planet versus Plastics." To learn more, pay a visit to our website at wemu.org when you get a minute. We have all the links and background information you need. Issues of the Environment is produced in partnership with the office of the Washtenaw County Resources Commissioner. And you hear it every Wednesday. I'm David Fair, and this is your community NPR station, 89 one WEMU FM, Ypsilanti.

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Contact David: dfair@emich.edu
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