It’s been the summer of plastic. A half dozen ocean expeditions launched to study the impact of plastic on marine life, new research shows that plastic breaks down in the ocean into dangerous components and, of course, millions of tons of new plastic has poured into the ocean all around the world. The troubles with plastic in the ocean and the growing, continent-sized “Garbage Patch” forming out at sea have been described and shared on Twitter, Facebook, the New York Times, Oprah, the website of the American Chemistry Council and numerous scientific journals.
Still, from Indonesia to El Salvador to Mozambique many tons of plastic slide into the sea each day. We understand in ever greater detail how plastic breaks apart, drifts away, washes up, is eaten by sea turtles, birds and fish and eventually comes back to us in our food and water. It’s very clear that the problem will get much worse before it gets better. For example,BevNet.com, the beverage industry newsletter says, “...it's still the fact that you can put the stuff in a package and move around with it that makes bottled water such an important part of the firmament...even in the face of environmental headwinds...we're seeing everything from protein to skin care under the aegis of bottled water.”
So, what’s a concerned, ocean-loving citizen to do?
Some innovative people are looking at ways to scoop all the little plastic bits up in their nets and convert it to energy. Others in Hawaii are already turning stray plastic nets and rope into electricity. Plastic recycling also makes a small dent in the mess.
But when we practice the 4-R’s, reduce, reuse, recycle and remove, it’s the first and the last R’s we should focus on.
We have to seriously reduce the amount of plastic used each day, particularly the plastic we use for 5 minutes. Next time you use a plastic fork, consider that it will be around, looking good-as-new, well after your great, great, great, great, great grandchildren have come and gone from the planet. Set yourself up for a test run and see if you can go one day without using any disposable plastic. Get your coffee mug, water bottle, canvas shopping bag and a fork and spoon from the kitchen drawer and stash them in your bag. You’ll be surprised how easy it is to say “no plastic spoon, please” or “put my drink in this cup, please”. Squeezing a lemon into your own reusable water bottle will save you money and calories too.
Personal action is critical to making these changes happen. But not everyone will follow your lead. Legislation creating tax incentives, such as the twenty cent plastic bag tax shot down recently in Seattle, and bans on some of the most egregious materials like plastic bottles with BPA and plastic foam are part of the changes we need too.
Meanwhile, a century’s worth of plastic remains on our planet. Much of it ends up in the ocean. Lots of it washes up on our beaches day after day, year after year. There’s no better way to understand the scope and scale of plastic pollution than to walk the beach and pick it up--remove the plastic from the beach with your own hands. Thousands of organizations around the world organize coastal cleanup efforts year-round. The largest takes place on September 19th when nearly a half million people from more than 70 countries roll of their sleeves and hit the beach. In 2007 alone, this one-day volunteer event removed 6 million pounds of trash from the world’s beaches. Almost 90% of the most common items were made of plastic.
This year be sure you’re one of those volunteers. Get out there and remove some of the plastic from our coasts and oceans. And while you’re at it, reduce the plastic in your own life.
The future of the ocean can be one where beaches made of plastic bits are the norm, where sea turtles commonly dig through trash to nest and where our health is compromised by the chemicals that leech from these materials.
Alternatively, we can adopt a new set of creative ideas and sustainability principles that drive our consumption. We can choose to live like we love the ocean, because we do. We can act like our life depends on the ocean, because it does. What will you do with your single blue marble?