Letter to the editor: Who is responsible for cleaning up the microplastics in downtown Iowa City?

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By Sheila Ongie, Iowa City

Styrofoam microplastics settle in cracks in the street in downtown Iowa City. — courtesy of Sheila Ongie

Dear Iowa City officials,

As I write this, it is the first Monday in August 2019 and it is snowing in downtown Iowa City. Tiny pieces of Styrofoam are drifting lazily down onto my car in the Clock Tower Parking Ramp and the alley outside. They polka-dot the sidewalk and form tiny drifts up against curbs and walls, as they have done in this area of downtown for weeks now. You don’t even have to bend down to see clumps of foam in the grass and exposed dirt. Every crack in the alley is filled with Styrofoam bits. Especially the ones near the storm drain, down which the hundreds of thousands of microplastics will be washed away in tonight’s storm.

For weeks I have been picking up large chunks that have blown near the back door to my office, wondering what could be the source of so much polystyrene. (Did a truckload of beanbags turn over? And why was no one else cleaning it up?) Because they are tiny, and light, they blow around on the faintest breeze, and the pile is diluted and spread out. But this does not mean they are harmless. These plastics are now loose and contributing to a much larger global crisis. Globally, 83 percent of all drinking water is now found to contain plastic. Plastic is also in our food; the average American adult eats a credit card’s worth of plastic each week, and plastic is commonly found in breast milk.

The equivalent of a garbage truck of plastic enters the oceans every minute, and much of it starts the journey to the sea from storm drains, like the one at the end of the alley behind my office in downtown Iowa City. At this rate, if we do nothing to slow the rate of plastic pollution, by 2050, our oceans will contain more plastic than sea life. In the sea, plastic never breaks down, but it does break up into increasingly tiny and microscopic pieces that look a lot like plankton to a fish.

The plastic flurries that surrounded me today weren’t an accidental spill or beanbag mishap. They all wafted from a single point, where workers were shaving large pieces of foam placed as insulation on the Ecumenical Towers renovation. I watched as the workers, wearing face masks, grated the surface to smooth the edge where two pieces met and a current of tiny white microplastics took flight. This was the source of foam in the air, and the very likely source of the foam I’d been seeing for weeks, and which can be seen for blocks around, even still.

Who, in this real-life scenario, has responsibility for the pollution and its clean-up? What is Iowa City’s enforcement of pollution prevention, and how do construction permits seek to prevent the very avoidable mess like the one that is playing out downtown? What is the plan for cleaning up this area? While each piece of plastic is small, and will surely soon be out of sight, every piece will still exist for hundreds of generations after we’re gone. If Iowa City’s current laws or enforcement cannot prevent this, something needs to change. Iowa City, what is your response?

“The closer you look, the more plastic you see,” Ongie said. — courtesy of Sheila Ongie

This article was originally published in Little Village issue 269.

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