'Can't recycle our way out': Ex-EPA official picks apart the plastic problem at forum

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PITTSFIELD — A former Environmental Protection Agency official has set her sights against the "plastics trifecta" by starting a national initiative to end plastics pollution in oceans, streams and landfills.

Every year, 3 million tons of nonbiodegradable plastic ends up in oceans, according to Judith Enck, who has spent most of her public service career working to protect the environment. Wave action can degrade a plastic bottle into tiny pieces called microplastics, but that pollution enters the food chain of birds, fish and sea mammals, and eventually, that of humans.

"We can't recycle our way out of this problem," Enck told an audience of about 100 at Barrington Stage Company in Pittsfield.

As an EPA regional administrator during the Obama administration, Enck oversaw New Jersey, New York, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

In January, Enck joined the Center for Advanced Political Action at Bennington College in Vermont. A senior fellow there, she is engaging Bennington students around public policy in order to build the anti-plastics movement she founded called Beyond Plastics.

On Saturday, Enck outlined that effort at a Barrington Stage Company forum called Environmental Challenges in the Berkshires. The forum dovetailed with the theater company's production of "Fall Springs," a musical-comedy about hydraulic fracturing for natural gas. The show runs through Aug. 31.

Beyond Plastics' focus is to encourage bans on what Enck calls the "plastic trifecta," in other words, the three biggest categories of single-use plastics: bags, white polystyrene packaging and fast-food containers, and straws.

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She projected a future in which the oceans hold more plastic than fish, by weight, and that's because only plastics with resin identification codes of 1, 2 or 5 are truly recyclable. There are seven resin identification codes.

Green plastic bags from stores are touted as "biodegradable," but they only decompose if disposed at limited and special recycling centers, Enck said. The green plastic bans don't degrade in a landfill, she said.

The plastics problem is not solvable with changes in consumer choice alone, said Enck. While helpful, it's not enough, she said.

"We need to enact laws to reduce plastic packaging, such as the plastic trifecta, which was recently adopted by the state of Vermont," she said.

Vermont's law, which takes effect in July 2020, is the nation's strictest when it comes to reducing single-use plastics. It bans single-use carryout bags, straws and polystyrene food containers.

Enck said personal responsibility is the key: People must figure out how to reduce their use of plastics in consumer packaging and goods.

Besides delivering the keynote at the forum, Enck joined a panel moderated by Williams College Environmental Studies Professor Laura J. Martin that included Sage Bohl, a recent Mount Greylock Regional High School graduate and member of its Youth Environmental Squad; Rosemary Wessel, of Cummington, the program director of No Fracked Gas in Mass.; and Mehernosh P. Khan, a Berkshire Medical Center family doctor practicing in Lenox.

This is an abridged version of an article originally posted at GreylockNews.com.


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