Sligo Creek and the Anacostia River Are Crying Out for Our Help

Everyone who spends time exploring a favorite creek, river or ocean knows a particular pain.

It’s the kind that comes when our eyes drift from the astonishing beauty of the land we love to the hideousness of the plastic pollution that pervades it. My special place, of course, is our own Anacostia River tributary, Sligo Creek, which starts right outside my front door and that ultimately flows into the Potomac River and the Chesapeake Bay. Every godforsaken piece of trash I see sits there like a landmine waiting to explode. Each detonation will kill wildlife that ingests it, clog our waterways, turn our oceans into floating dumpsters, and poison the water we drink and air we breathe.

The hideousness eats away at our souls, too. We look at littered landscapes and feel demoralized. There’s so much of it: how are we ever going to repel the onslaught?

Not knowing any better, I saw no real cure for the pandemic of plastic pollution. I did what we’re all taught to do. I recycled everything I could — each deposit in the blue bins outside my door giving me a tiny dose of psychic satisfaction. I replaced my bottled water with a reusable bottle. I sometimes even waded into the stormwater runoff nastiness of the University Boulevard retention ponds and pulled out plastic.

Did I feel like I was doing my civic duty? Yes. Solving anything? I wish.

I learned this month that I have been looking at the problem from the wrong side of the equation — dealing with plastic pollution at the end of its use. We’re all conditioned that way.

Hope, I see now, comes with turning our gaze toward the forces that produce plastic. We must transfer the moral and financial responsibility for plastic pollution to the companies that reap enormous profits by raiding our natural resources and giving docile consumers cheap products and packaging.

Our greatest hope comes with supporting the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act of 2020.

Sponsors Rep. Alan Lowenthal (D-CA-47) and Sen. Tom Udall (D-New Mexico) formally launched the landmark legislation on Feb. 11. Already backed by the DMV contingent of Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC-1), Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.-08), and Rep. Gerald Connolly (D-Va.-11), the bill seeks to accomplish herculean tasks. It would:

  • Require the major plastic producers, some of which are also the major oil and gas producers, to design, manage and pay for both waste and recycling programs
  • Reduce and ban some single-use plastics that are not recyclable
  • Establish minimum recycled content requirements for certain kinds of plastic products
  • Create a nationwide refund program for beverage containers
  • Inspire tremendous private-sector innovation to make more reusable products, and to  develop better composting and recycling infrastructure

I first read about this bill in an email I received a day after solemnly carrying home one plastic water bottle I plucked out of the retention pond, the universe sending me a message of empowerment. Even though I have not worked for a conservation organization or newspaper in years, I promptly headed down to the U.S. Capitol for a series of events including a press conference organized by legislators and a coalition of nonprofit organizations. I wanted to hear what they had to say and to witness the birth of a potentially historic bill.

Rep. Lowenthal told a gut-wrenching story of a National Geographic trip he took with his family to a place that became very special to him – Antarctica. 

“I had the good fortune on this trip to see – to be with – a number of scientists that captured the birds that had died there, and the fish that were there,” he recounted. “They opened them up right on the ship – and it was shocking. We were thousands and thousands of miles away from anybody, and these fish were covered with plastic.”

Though Lowenthal had come up short a few years ago in trying to pass a bill placing a fee on the use of plastic bags, he knew he needed to strive for a more comprehensive solution. The seed of the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act was planted then and there.

The legislation can’t by itself solve the entire problem of plastic pollution. “We the people” have to take individual action, too. We must change many of our shopping behaviors and demand that “Big Plastic” companies from Chevron to Coca-Cola change their ways.

The legislation does, on its surface, face daunting odds. This being Washington, naysayers could attempt to discourage bill advocates by pointing to the perceived power of pro-chemical trade groups that are mounting opposition — or by suggesting that some Republicans will stop it.

Such sinister efforts can be rebuffed.

America has since its inception been a country in which bands of people accomplished revolutions of change by encouraging fellow citizens to join righteous causes. Conserving our public lands and natural resources, meanwhile, has always enjoyed Republican support and leadership — from Teddy Roosevelt’s expansion of our national park system through overwhelming approval of the Wilderness Act of 1964, and on to land conservation bills today.

Recognizing that negativity can sometimes dampen my middle-aged idealism, I asked legislators and advocates why they were so optimistic about this bill. Sen. Udall told me that he expects the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act to gain public support and momentum by passing in the House and heading to the Senate with steam.

Steven Feit, a staff attorney for the Center for International Environmental Law, put it more succinctly.

“Everything seems impossible – until it’s done.”

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