by Alex Lichtblau
As many of your feeds may have shown you recently, the growing amount of plastic waste is becoming readily evident in many circles of our daily lives. From the infamous video of good samaritans pulling a plastic drinking straw from the nose of a sea turtle, to the recent report showing that by 2050 our oceans will contain more weight in plastic waste than fish (1), it’s becoming apparent, and frankly hard to ignore, that our obsession with disposable plastic products is a problem. Luckily, humans are resourceful, creative and I believe largely good at heart, and there are some simple ways we can all be part of a solution, and by making only small changes to our daily lives.
Here's the Problem...
Due to the short-term cost effectiveness of goods like grocery bags, drinking straws, water bottles and cheap product packaging, disposable plastic products are as pervasive in our world as just about any other man-made substance on Earth. The problem is that although in the present and immediate future these products provide cheap solutions, in the long-term they will prove to be indeterminately expensive. As a diver, ocean-lover, and seafood eater, I encounter the evidence of this everyday. It is increasingly rare to walk along a beach, or dive at my favorite sites without seeing plastic pollution, and despite it seeming a mere nuisance, the trash actually does have a real impact.
Studies show that in large mammal beachings, like the most recent stranding of hundreds of pilot whales near New Zealand, many of the animals are found to have insane amounts of plastic trash in their guts (2). Although the link between the strandings and the gut content of these animals has not been proven, it is a safe assumption that a link exists. Pelagic (open-ocean inhabiting) animals like whales, porpoises, sea turtles and others most likely ingest the floating plastic confusing it for one of their favorite meals... jellyfish and squid (think clear plastic grocery bags) and subsequently suffer from malnutrition. Our ecosystems depend on these keystone species to keep the oceans healthy. Though you may not think about it, we rely on the ocean to help maintain our planet’s overall health and our own well-being. The ocean ecosystem provides more of the oxygen we breathe than all of the terrestrial plants combined, and also absorbs more carbon dioxide than any other system on Earth (3). And with the amount of plastic waste entering our environment, we will be dealing with its effects worldwide very soon.
Evidence of the sheer amount of trash can been seen in the well-known Pacific Trash Vortex, a monstrous floating island of plastic waste found in the gyre of major ocean currents between California and Japan. This floating trash dump contains many miles of trash, ranging in size from enormous abandoned life rafts down to the more microscopic and ominous multitude of plastic debris like the microbeads found in hand sanitizers and facial scrubs. (On a side note, the use of these microbeads is currently under debate, and many places have already banned them.) The evidence exists not only in the conspicuous form of the floating island of plastic the size of Texas, but as well in the nearly unreachable depths of the Mariana Trench, the deepest spot in our oceans at more than 6 miles deep.
The point is, plastic is everywhere, and it shouldn't be. Whether through active littering, or by passive means like runoff from rivers and landfills, plastic continues to fill the environment. And what makes plastic so useful is also its most dangerous quality...it is incredibly durable and will not biodegrade.
Solutions in the Works
Recently, a push to raise awareness about the issue through mass media coverage has spurred the innovation of many solutions to start battling plastic pollution. A young man recently published his intention and ideas to start removing trash from the oceans in this inspiring video (4). Many cities across the US and other countries worldwide, most recently India, have begun to implement bans on plastic grocery bags, plastic water bottles and other disposable products (5). Some places with internal waterways, like Baltimore, MD, have implemented automated trash collectors (like a Roomba for canals), and a concept called SeaBin designed for marinas is a pollutant vacuum, and sucks up any trash and oil that floats its way. Adidas has even come out with a shoe made entirely from recycled plastic collected from the ocean (although I know I can’t afford a $220 pair of shoes made from trash). All of these grand and large-scale solutions are great, but how can you, the lone warrior, have an impact on the war against plastic?
5 Simple Ways to Join the Fight!
Buy a set of reusable containers (a tumbler for your water or beverages, a tupperwear food container for your take-away meals and maybe even one of these nifty reusable straws). Then, carry them with you, in your purse, backpack, car or tote bag. And finally, USE THEM! Saying no to plastic straws and styrofoam or plastic take-away containers at bars and restaurants and plastic water bottles on vacations and work functions will most definitely help to raise awareness around you, and may even earn you a discount at your favorite places!
Get yourself a lightweight, durable, cloth tote bag to use at grocery and convenience stores, while shopping, and for any other instance where the cashier or vendor hands you your purchase in a bag that will do nothing but go straight to your trash bin when you get home.
Take part in community projects to clean up trash from beaches, dive sites, parks, nature trails and even your own neighborhood, or do it all on your own! While removing the plastic waste from these places unfortunately does not have a significant impact on the amount of global pollution, it does however help to raise awareness, promote role-model behavior, and may even make a habitual litterer think twice about tossing their trash anywhere but the proper waste receptacle. One of my favorite organizations is Take 3, a non-profit which promotes the idea of removing 3 pieces of trash anytime you go to the ocean as a simple approach to spreading awareness about the topic. Use their hashtag #take3forthesea and visit their site to learn more!
For the things you simply cannot go without that are packaged in plastic containers, try to recycle them properly when you're through. You can also try reusing and repurposing certain items...get creative!
Talk with your family, friends and kids about adopting these easy-to-do practices, and why it’s important to you. Remember that the most powerful influence on the people around you is not mainstream media, Facebook or ad campaigns, but you yourself and your own passions and convictions. You can also call your local representatives to let them know how you feel about disposable plastic goods. Every voice counts!
(1) - http://www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_The_New_Plastics_Economy.pdf
(2) - http://www.tnp.no/norway/panorama/5450-norwegian-whale-found-off-the-west-coast-with-30-plastic-bags-in-its-stomach
(3) - http://earthsky.org/earth/how-much-do-oceans-add-to-worlds-oxygen
(4) - https://www.theoceancleanup.com/
(5) - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phase-out_of_lightweight_plastic_bags