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Environmental organizations launch Long Island Sound anti-plastic campaign

Groton — A seven-week campaign headed by Long Island Sound environmental groups and the Mystic Aquarium will encourage people to stop using plastic bags, straws, lids and stirrers because of the accumulation of broken-down plastic particles in ocean water and seafood and the dangers stray plastic can pose to wildlife.

Jumping on the bandwagon of recent national and international efforts to convince consumers and companies to use fewer single-use plastic products like straws and grocery bags, the Long Island Sound Study and Connecticut Sea Grant campaign comes at a time of increasing concern about the effects of whole plastic products on wildlife and the breakdown of plastic into microscopic pieces that fish and other organisms ingest.

Plastic that doesn't make it into incinerators or recycling facilities — either because it's blown by the wind or littered — often makes its way into waterways and onto shorelines.

Scientists said in a 2015 study that between 5 million and 13 million metric tons of plastic could be getting into the oceans each year. That plastic can clog the stomachs of sea birds and turtles, entangle marine birds, mammals and fish and even serve as a raft carrying invasive species across the ocean, said Evan Ward, the head of UConn's Department of Marine Sciences.

"Certainly, for macroplastics, there's a lot of evidence to suggest that this stuff is affecting marine organisms quite a bit," Ward said.

As plastic breaks down in the oceans into smaller and smaller pieces less than 1 millimeter in size, it can start to damage the reproductive and immune systems of shellfish, he added.

"Even if we stopped all plastic production ... now there's still so much out there that there will be degrading plastic for the next 30, 40 and 50 years," he said. "They hold up, they're really good, but when they get into the environment, there are very few methods to truly degrade them. They just get smaller and smaller but they're always there."

The leaders of the Long Island Sound campaign, which is in its second year, hope local consumers will keep that in mind and use less plastic or find alternatives to plastic products to try to make a small dent in the sea of plastic entering the oceans.

Staff at Connecticut Sea Grant and the Long Island Sound Study, a collaborative group of Connecticut and New York nonprofit organizations and agencies, are asking people to post on social media about plastic pollution using the hashtag #DontTrashLISound, cut down on their plastic use and dispose of plastic they find outside.

The groups also are passing out stickers — made of plastic but not considered "single-use" products — featuring pictures of native Long Island Sound wildlife for people to put on reusable containers to advertise their efforts to consume less plastic.

"We're asking people to put a sticker when they go to the beach as a declaration that they're bringing reusable things," said Judy Preston, an outreach coordinator for Connecticut Sea Grant and the Long Island Sound Study.

At a kickoff event Wednesday at Bluff Point State Park in Groton, representatives from the two organizations gave gloves and garbage bags to nearly 40 children participating in the Mystic Aquarium's summer camp. The kids then fanned out along the shoreline to collect garbage that had washed up in the shallow waters off the park.

The campaign will last through Sept. 14, about when people around the world and along the Sound will participate in International Coastal Cleanup Day, an annual effort to clean up coasts and catalogue marine debris.

It also comes as several local towns, including Stonington and Waterford, have weighed bans of some single-use plastic products like bags and straws, and companies from Starbucks and McDonalds to Mystic's Oyster Club have started to bend to public pressure to distribute fewer of those products.

m.shanahan@theday.com 

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