(Photo by Flickr user Nick Koch Weiler, used under a Creative Commons license)
If you think Philly’s streets are littered with plastics, you should take a look at the creeks. And if you think that doesn’t affect you as a citizen, retired environmental engineer Kelly O’Day suggests you think again.
“Paper and cardboard decomposes, whereas plastic basically never goes away. It just gets smaller and smaller,” said O’Day, who’s been publicly documenting his efforts to reduce plastic waste in Philadelphia for the past four years.
When plastics get carried into the city’s water systems and shrinks over time, it’s consumed by fish, sea mammals and birds. Not only is it a long-term environmental problem, but ultimately, the concern is the impact plastic waste is having on the human food chain.
O’Day may be retired, but only in the literal sense of the word. The Mt. Airy resident surveys the city’s creeks and rivers, identifies outfalls collecting plastic debris and traces the litter to the source — oftentimes, he said, the culprit is city street drains.
He’s been plugging that data into an interactive map that pinpoints outfall problem areas he’s discovered thus far.
What the city is doing right now is not enough, O’Day said. Here are five steps he thinks the city and environmental organizations and agencies can take to systemically change and clean Philly’s waterways.
1. Control on plastics and styrofoam
Philadelphia legislators have consistently failed to pass bans or even increase taxes on plastic bags. Councilman Mark Squilla‘s plastic bag bill is the most recent attempt. It was killed last spring.
“The problem is, the message of the damage these bags cause has not been clearly articulated,” O’Day said. “Control the products coming into your city.”
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Philadelphia should look to Washington, D.C., a city with a plastic bag tax and a ban on styrofoam. The good news? Mayor Jim Kenney‘s transition team recommended the new administration create a cabinet focused on waste and litter control.
2. Data-driven cleanups
O’Day encourages grassroots cleanup initiatives, and participates in them often. But he just doesn’t think they’re as effective as they could be. His solution — better organizational metrics for tracking exactly how much waste is being removed from the waterways.
“We’ve got to organize our cleanup people so we can get an actual count,” he said.
3. City-wide trash collection
“If you walk around Center City, you’ll see it’s actually pretty clean, and Center City District does a really good job,” O’Day said. “But the outlying areas get essentially no litter cleanup at all.”
O’Day believes city-wide street sweeping and more trash bins will eliminate a lot of illegal dumping in the city — dumping that isn’t happening out of malice, but is a sign that the system in place is just not working.
“Someone who didn’t want to litter is now being pulled into the process,” he said.
4. Modified stormwater infrastructure
According to the local chapter of the American Water Resources Association, Philadelphia has 78,522 stormwater inlets (though O’Day believes that count should be closer to 86,000). Those inlets get clogged with debris, shedding plastic particles into the water system.
Philadelphia has two types of inlets: open mouth and flat. Fortunately, there are filter modifications that will accommodate both types, and O’Day suggests the city invest in screens that prevent pile up.
5. Clearer regulations
In 2012, the Delaware River was named the fifth most polluted river in the country, and regulations are not exempt from blame.
O’Day said the river poses a problem for the US Environmental Protection Agency: Since it runs between two states that are covered by two different EPA chapters, regulations can get a little hazy.
O’Day suggests clearer EPA regulations for the Delaware River and heightened enforcement of the Clean Water Act.-30-
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