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Realizing that Plastic is Drastic is the first step! Then, we can educate ourselves with Pollution Solutions to share with others. Learning about the problem and how we can make a difference is the goal. Providing solutions such as making personal choices to not use disposable, single-use bags, to-go containers and utensils (including plastic straws!) will exercise the power of our awareness. Each one of us has the power to make changes. Collectively this power is pollution prevention!
Landfill? Recycling Center? Where does it all go?
The oceans are downhill from everywhere and as people throw “disposable” plastic “away,” it often ends up in the ocean. Captain Charles Moore discovered the Pacific Gyre, also known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. He states, “Except for the small amount of plastic that has been incinerated – and it’s a very small amount – every bit of plastic ever made still exists.” (i) Over the last 50 years, more than 1 billion tons of plastic has been created.
The North Pacific gyre Captain Moore discovered is only one of five such major rings in the world, and there are many additional, smaller gyres as well. Gyres are vortexes covering 40% of the world's oceans. The force of the vortex sucks up all the plastic trash in the oceans (plastic bags, nets, motor-oil jugs, tires, traffic cones, etc.) and traps it. Adverse affects of this plastic accumulation is evident in everything in the ocean, from whales and tuna to bottom-of-the-food-chain plankton. (ii)
According to the Blue Ocean Society for Marine Conservation, more than a million birds die every year from eating or entanglement in plastic. This also causes the death of over 100,000 marine mammals and sea turtles. Plastic bags are made from both petroleum and natural gas, and emit the negative environmental impacts of harvesting fossil fuels. Katherine Mieszkowski points out that Americans throw away some 100 billion plastic bags every year! This environmental impact is equivalent to nearly 12 million barrels of oil being dumped. Only 1 percent of plastic bags dispersed are recycled worldwide — about 2 percent in the U.S. — and the rest can persist for centuries. Even when they are properly disposed of in a trash can, they can still blow away and become litter because of their aerodynamics. (iii) It is time to use something different! Can you think of some alternatives?
Every year we eat and drink from about 34 billion newly manufactured plastic containers and bottles. In total, our societies produce an estimated 60 billion tons of plastic material every year. (iv) As long as we demand it, they will make it!
A large source of plastic pollution comes from spillage of plastic resin pellets called nurdles. Nurdles are produced by the petrochemical industry for manufacturing consumer plastic products. Approximately one quadrillion of these pellets, or 60 billion pounds, are manufactured annually in the United States alone. Nurdles have been found on beaches no where near the factories, illustrating their impact even before they are turned into bags, bottles, and straws. (v)
A new, heart-breaking documentary to come out this year is called Midway: Message From the Gyre. It is about the Midway Atoll, a collection of three small islands in the North Pacific where tens of thousands of dead baby albatrosses’ bodies are filled with plastic junk. The islands are more than 2,000 miles from the nearest continent, making it one of the most remote places on earth. (vi)
Beth Terry, author of Plastic Free – How I Kicked the Plastic Habit and How You Can Too, tells her story from being motivated by seeing one of the pictures of a dead albatross chick from Midway Island. The carcass is filled with plastic items like cigarette lighters and bottle caps, because that is what its mother was feeding it, mistaking the small pieces for food. Beth decided to take personal responsibility and start measuring her plastic trash to understand her own plastic footprint. Her great journey to become plastic free is documented on her website (www.myplasticfreelife.com).
Beth states the average American generates between 88-120 pounds of plastic waste per year. This includes “disposable” water bottles, packaging, containers, plastic bags, and various other, often one-time-use goods (such as plastic straws!). (vii)
Speaking of plastic straws, Milo Cress started The Be Straw Free campaign at age 9 and his research has determined each day the United States uses 500 million “disposable “ straws--enough to fill over 46,400 large school buses per year! (viii) His mission is to get restaurants to adopt an “ask first” policy instead of automatically plunking straws in drinks (which are often discarded without use!).
It’s Not Just About the Fish
It is clear the environment and wildlife suffer from mankind's unhealthy over-consumption of plastic. What might be less obvious is how it affects our health. Every time you drink from plastic water bottles, plastic straws, or eat with plastic utensils, you ingest small amounts of toxins. Dr. Rolf Halden, assistant professor of at the John Hopkins University-Bloomberg School of Public Medicine, is most concerned about the serious health effects of toxins in plastic. Two common toxins are Bisphenol-A and Bisphenol-S (BPA, BPS) and are especially dangerous to children. Halden says, "These contaminants can exhibit hormone-like behavior by acting as endocrine disruptors in humans and animals." This can result in abnormal growth and development in children. BPA/BPS have also been linked to the obesity epidemic. (ix)
How YOU Can Make the Difference
Many people think recycling is the solution. Although necessary, it is not the “Pollution Solution,” especially since plastic is toxic! Some plastic containers are marked with the chasing arrows symbol, which leads people to believe the item is recyclable, some even believe the symbol indicates the container is composed of recycled material. Actually, the only information provided by the symbol is the number inside the arrows, which indicates the general class of resin used to make the container. (x)
Beth Terry states that “plastics can only be recycled, downcycled, or upcycled so many times before they finally end up in the landfill or environment… In 2010, we recycled only 7.6 percent of the plastic waste we generated.” She recommends the 4 Rs in this order: Refuse to buy single-use plastic whenever possible; reduce the amount of unavoidable plastic we do consume and choose only those plastics that can realistically be recycled where we live; reuse plastic products when appropriate (some are not healthy to reuse); and recycle whatever is left. (xi)
Ways to refuse plastics include some simple, effective source-reduction strategies: a) using refillable containers; b) buying in bulk; c) selecting products that use little or no packaging, d) use reusable utensils, dinnerware, and drinking straws!; e) choosing packaging materials that can be recycled
There are many alternatives to plastic bags. It is relatively easy to get in the habit of bringing your own alternative carry-out bags with you, made from all-natural fibers: jute, hemp, woven cotton, and canvas. You can use these for any shopping trips, not just the grocery stores!
In Beth Terry’s book, she mentions many reasons why our personal changes matter. The last one is that by letting others see our personal changes, we set an example of a different way to be. The Pollution Solution is to change our mindset and to embrace a cultural shift away from use-and-toss mentality. High-quality, toxin-free products are available for those who care to use them. Using these long-lasting, durable items replaces hundreds, if not thousands, of cheaper disposable plastic products. Remember, Plastic is Drastic!
“Participation – that’s what’s gonna save the human race.” Pete Seeger
(i) Maura Yates. Your Guide to Green. “Clean Up Your Act: Plastic Primer Part 1.” 2009. http://www.yourguidetogreen.com/learn/articles/plastic-primer-part-one
(v) Alan Weisman. “Polymers Are Forever.” May/June 2007. Orion Magazine.
(vi) Rose Aguilar. “The Great Garbage Patch of the Pacific.” 09 Mar 2013
(vii) Beth Terry. Plastic Free – How I Kicked the Plastic Habit and How You Can Too. 2011
(viii) Be Straw Free Campaign. http://www.ecocycle.org/bestrawfree
(x) PTF: Misconceptions. phttp://ecologycenter.org/plastics/ptf/report9