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Your takeout meal might be harming the Great Lakes

Takeout containers
Tracy Samilton
Michigan Radio
The container on the left is paper, it breaks down in the environment in about 6-8 weeks. The container on the right is styrofoam plastic. It breaks down in 100-500 years.

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, and half of those are single use."

So, what's wrong with that? Hoo boy. Where do we start?

First, Murphy says, "It's produced with fossil fuels."

And it's getting into the Great Lakes. Being thrown in on purpose because it's convenient - or accidentally 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. It just breaks into smaller pieces."

And those pieces can take 100 to 500 years to completely break down.

Sherry 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 her whole career. In the very first sample she took, she says, "You know what I saw? A small piece of styrofoam."

Mason says styrofoam breaks down into super 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 - 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.

And every time people eat a 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.

She explains, "You don't make an item that you use for minutes out of a material that lasts for centuries."

Luckily, there are substitutes and they work just as well. I visited Red Hawk, one of my favorite pubs in Ann Arbor.

Owner Roger Hewitt showed me the takeout containers they use: a biodegradable paper product.

It's coated on the inside with something - also biodegradable - that 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, and 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, when I found another piece of single use plastic in my hand."

Environment Michigan hopes to raise awareness of the problem first, with a door to door campaign - then try to get the state legislature 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 here too.

Tracy Samilton covers energy and transportation, including the auto industry and the business response to climate change for Michigan Public. She began her career at Michigan Public as an intern, where she was promptly “bitten by the radio bug,” and never recovered.
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