Environment Montana: It’s time for Missoula to move beyond plastic

Republic Services says the plastic litter will be cleaned up by the end of this week. (Laura Lundquist/Missoula Current)

During the storm last week, thousands of bags and other single-use plastics blew from Missoula’s landfill into the North Hills and the Interstate, blanketing fences and grasses in drifts of trash.

Although it’s tempting to point a finger at the landfill for the incident, it’s clear they did the best they could with a bad situation, and they worked quickly to avoid the problem and minimize the damage.

The truth is a little more complicated: We’re really all to blame.

Every year, Missoulians throw away tons of plastic “stuff” — cups, plates, bags, containers, forks, knives, spoons and more. All of this waste not only trashes our parks and public spaces, but it also washes into our rivers, where it harms wildlife. For a bird or fish, it’s easy to mistake a small piece of plastic for food — especially when there are millions of pieces of plastic floating in the waterway.

Scientists have found that ingesting even tiny particles of plastic can alter the behavior and metabolism of fish in our lakes — and people can ingest these chemicals as they make their way up the food chain.

Nothing we use for a few minutes should be allowed to pollute our rivers for hundreds of years — especially when we don’t really need it.

Fortunately, Missoula already has a plan to reduce waste. The city adopted a “Zero by Fifty” plan this August, which directs the city to look at “restrictions on single-use disposable like plastic bags, plastic straws and Styrofoam.”

Of course, there are plastics companies who don’t like this idea. Last year, their opposition helped block a bill banning plastic foam containers in California.

But across the country, polystyrene foam bans have passed in over 200 cities and other communities. And nearly 350 communities and states worldwide have ditched single-use plastic bags for good.

Some companies are also getting with the program. By the end of this year, McDonald’s will phase out foam cups and containers worldwide, in favor of 100 percent recycled materials.

As this week’s incident at the landfill makes clear, it’s time to take this effort to the next level in Missoula. But to be successful, we’re going to need all the support we can find.

Moving beyond single-use plastics is something we can do right here. And if we win, we’ll see a difference in cleaner parks and waterways, and we’ll know it’s making a difference to the wildlife in our rivers and lakes.

It’s time for Missoula to move beyond plastic and choose wildlife over waste.

Skye Borden is the state director of Environment Montana.