EDITORIAL: Plastics protected while polluting

Oct. 29—Few materials are as ubiquitous as plastics, in their many forms, because the same traits that make them useful make them long-lasting and difficult to reprocess. They end up accumulating in the environment in many ways.

It's hardly surprising that the PennEnvironment Research & Policy Center found an array of plastic pollutants in all 50 waterways that it tested in Pennsylvania over the past year, including the Lackawanna and Lehigh rivers, Roaring Brook and Green Run. All four waterways contained plastics in three of the four categories for which researchers tested: microfibers from textiles; microplastics from harder plastic goods and feestocks; and microfilm from single-use bags and other packaging.

The researchers did not find microbeads from cosmetic products, which have emerged as a major pollutant worldwide.

Although the proliferation of waste plastic is nothing new, the report was alarming because the researchers specifically targeted 50 streams that the state Department of Environmental Protection had categorized as the cleanest and best-maintained waterways across the state.

Activists who have worked hard for decades to improve local waterways expressed dismay at the findings.

"It seems like it never ends," said Charlie Charlesworth, a member of the state Fish and Boat Commission and past president of the Pennsylvania Council of Trout Unlimited.

Advocates called for state policy changes to reduce plastic pollution, but it's a particularly heavy lift in Pennsylvania.

For years, the Legislature prevented local governments from banning plastic bags to protect a bag manufacturer in a key legislative district. Fortunately, it allowed that prohibition to lapse this year and several cities have banned plastic bags or are in the process of doing so. Major retailers, including Wegmans, have eliminated plastic bags in favor of paper or reusable bags.

But the state government not only tolerates plastic pollution, it fosters it by subsidizing plastic manufacturing as a gift to the natural gas industry. The Legislature has approved about $1.7 billion in tax credits for a Shell petrochemical refinery in Beaver County that produces plastic pellets from ethane.

A fundamental law of economics is that the more the government subsidizes something, the more it is produced. Pennsylvanians can expect ever more plastic pollution until the government puts a price on it rather than pays for its production.