Earth Day: Plastic pollution and ways to take better care of our planet

One of my favorite holidays is almost here – this Friday, April 22nd is Earth Day! This is a great time to get outside and appreciate the beauty of our home planetearth day, and to renew your resolutions to drive less, bike more, turn off the lights, use fewer single use items, eat less meat, recycle more, etc. Other fun activities for Earth Day include tie-dying old t-shirts, making earth-colored cookies, organizing a hike, etc. For those who can, Earth Day is a great excuse to finally invest in those solar panels you’ve been debating, reinsulate your house, or buy that Tesla!

While all efforts to have a smaller footprint and take better care of Earth are important, I want to focus on plastics and how our seemingly ubiquitous use of plastics is damaging our oceans. When I was studying abroad in the Caribbean and living on a little island with a population of about one thousand people, I would bike or run along trails carved out of the brush by donkeys to remote beaches. It was on these beaches I first truly began to understand the horror of plastic waste. These beaches had so much waste that had been carried in by the wind and waves… bottle caps, bottles, straws, plastic forks, medicine containers, toothbrushes, etc. The field station I was studying at would hold
beach cleanups and we filled trash bags with plastic waste regularly – clebeach-trashaning the beaches but not stopping the problem. A few months later, I was taking a walk on the beach with my dad in southern New Jersey. On family vacations, we had always picked up seashells together marveling at their unique beauty… but this time I started picking up plastic instead and as my father joined me in an impromptu beach cleanup, he too was shocked at how much plastic waste was mixed in with the sand.

Plastic is an immense and growing problem. We produced more plastic over the last ten years, than we did during the entire last century. Of the plastic we produce, over 50% is used only once and then thrown away. Every year, the amount of plastic thrown away is enough to go around Earth four times with the average American contributing approximately 185 lbs of plastic waste annually. Each year some 500 billion plastic bags are used; this means over 1 million bags are used every minute. When plastic waste is “thrown away” it does not disappear; instead it continually breaks apart into progressively smaller pieces – making it harder to remove from the oceans and easier for all types of marine life to consume (either intentionally because it resembles food, or unintentionally because it is so common in the water; click to learn more about mircoplastics). It takes an estimated 500-1000 years for plastic to degrade; this means that essentially every piece of plastic ever made still exists. Plastics are generally lightweight, easily carried by the wind, and float; as a result, much of our plastic waste makes it to the oceans. In the Los Angeles area, approximately 10 metric tons of plastic fragments are carried into the ocean every day. In the Pacific Ocean there is an island of garbage twice the size of Texas, where the number of plastic pieces outnumbers total marine life six to one (recent study predicts there will be more plastic in the worlds oceans than fish by 2050).

Plastic pollution is such a large problem that it can be hard to comprehend its magnitude through statistics. It may be easier to understand the scale of the plastic pollution by just looking around. How many plastic items are you are currently touching or close enough to see? How many places do you know or regularly go to that give you a plastic bag to carry your items, a plastic cup for a one-time drink, or plastic silverware for one meal or snack?

Plastic can be directly damaging to humans as some plastic chemicals (e.g., BPA) can be absorbed into the body (93% of Americans, 6 years old or older, test positive for BPA). Additionally, given the amount of plastic in the oceans, fish regularly consume plastics, and if we then consume the fish, we too are consuming plastics. Every year, one million sea birds and 100,000 marine mammals are killed by plastic in our oceans. A few summers ago, I was fortunate enough to go to Midway Atoll, 2000 miles from any continent. There I was shocked by the pieces of plastic intertwined with the beautiful white sand on this seemingly isolated paradise. My heart broke every time I walked past partially degraded remains of albatrosses with plastic waste exposed from within their stomachs. Optimistically, I had imagined the photos I had seen of dead birds like these were from rare events that photographers had to search hard to find birds starved by plastic… I was sorely mistaken. Screen Shot 2016-04-20 at 9.33.57 AMThese plastic-plagued bird carcasses are a common sight at Midway Atoll (see a video clip about Midway). The month after I was at Midway, a team of NOAA divers removed around 57 tons of plastic waste and derelict fishing nets from the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument. These cleanup efforts are impressive and commendable; every beach cleanup counts, but the problem of plastic pollution will not be solved by cleanups alone, we need to seriously reduce our use of plastics.

Plastic pollution is a daunting problem, and finding effective methods to remove micro plastics from the oceans without further harming marine life is incredibly challenging. The good news is there are things we can all do to really help make a difference. Reusing and recycling are good habits, but what matters the most is that we reduce our everyday plastic use. Carrying around a metal or glass water bottle will keep you from spending money on single use water bottles, will keep you from drinking water that may have plastic chemicals leached into it, and will help reduce plastic waste. Similarly, a to-go mug for use at coffee and smoothie shops will help reduce your plastic waste. We can all refuse plastic shopping bags: instead using cloth bags that fold up small enough to fit in your pocket – these are stronger and will last for many uses. Large cloth bags are great for big reduceshopping trips and can easily be washed when they are dirty. If you forget your bags, use the shopping cart to carry your un-bagged items to the car; this may be slightly more hassle, but isn’t it worth it to take care of our planet? We need to refuse single-use utensils, lids, and straws. It is easy to carry reusable utensils and straws with you. We can use reusable lunch bags, sandwich wraps, and snack wraps to avoid using small plastic bags. It is easy to avoid purchasing items in single-serving containers and instead to buy in bulk and then separate into snack size containers at home. You can even use beeswax wraps instead of plastic wrap. Additionally, we can all get out there and support legislation that bans plastic bags and other single use plastics (listen to a radio show on ways to go plastic free).

Plastic is a relatively new mainstay in society, we have and can easily live our day-to-day lives without single use plastics. So this Earth Day, I encourage you to get out there, celebrate, avoid single use plastics, and teach others about reducing their impact!

Many of the plastic facts included in this post came from:  http://ecowatch.com/2014/04/07/22-facts-plastic-pollution-10-things-can-do-about-it/ and http://www.conserve-energy-future.com/various-ocean-pollution-facts.php