Thursday, September 30, 2010

Eliminating My Own Great Garbage Patch

Published September 29, 2010 in the Tacoma Weekly.

As I brought the plastic bottle of iced tea to my lips, I paused before taking a sip and stared at the horrific image on my television screen. Mired in oil, a pelican was struggling to free itself of the deadly slick from the Deepwater Horizon spill. I almost did not have the stomach to polish off the big plastic bag of tortilla chips I was scarfing. Tossing the refuse of my snack into a plastic trash bag, I grabbed the plastic remote and turned off the heart-wrenching newscast.

But the images continued to haunt me. As much as I railed at British Petroleum for its recklessness and shook my fist at the government’s aversion to stronger environmental regulation, I knew deep down that I had played my own part in the disaster. Like most Americans, I enjoy a comfortable lifestyle driven by an unquenchable thirst for oil. Maybe I could not go stuff Tony Hayward into the well and save all those poor otters and sea turtles. But I could, at least, change my own consumption habits. Walking and using public transportation was a first step, but since I already lead an almost car-free lifestyle, I decided to take things a step further. As long as oil kept spewing into the Gulf, I resolved to abstain from using disposable plastic.

The environmental impact of plastic extends far beyond the petroleum used to make the material. In a landfill, plastic bags can take an estimated 500 years to break down. Fewer than 2 percent of plastic bags end up getting recycled. Instead, they litter our streets and pollute our oceans. Isolated beaches in Hawaii, despite their remoteness, have been thoroughly covered by plastic debris. According to studies, 100,000 marine animals, an unknown number of sea turtles, and 2 million birds die every year with bellies full of trash. Nowhere is the crisis more flagrant than in current-driven garbage patches where the plastic to sea life ratio is six to one. The largest of these patches is the Pacific Gyre, or Great Garbage Patch, which is roughly the size of Texas and contains 3.5 million tons of waste. Much of this garbage has broken down into tiny pieces that bond to toxic endocrine disruptors such as polychlorinated biphenyls and dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane. The pieces are consumed by small fish and jellyfish, carrying their toxicity up the food chain as the contaminated creatures are eaten by bigger fish. They, in turn, pass our poisons right back to us on the dinner table.

Despite its deadliness, plastic is omnipresent. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, more than 380 billion plastic bags, sacks and wraps are consumed each year in the United States. Immediately, it became clear that breaking the habit completely would be virtually impossible. I would have to stop brushing my teeth, do away with my asthma pills and inhalers, and somehow find a store that sold quill pens. Still, it is surprisingly easy to keep plastic to a bare minimum by remembering the “three Rs”: reduce, reuse, and recycle.

Reducing starts with the choices we make at the grocery store. Opt for the glass jar of peanut butter, the paper milk carton, the cardboard box of detergent, or the aluminum can. Recycling aluminum is cheaper than producing new aluminum, and it is completely and endlessly recyclable. For a tasty snack, try Sun Chips, which are now packaged in plant-based compostable bags that biodegrade in 14 weeks. One hundred percent biodegradable trash and pet waste bags are also available from companies like Bio Bags, which manufactures them from a corn-based material. Many co-ops and farmers markets sell bulk foods and detergents you can stash in a reusable container. Finally, ditch the unhealthy processed foods and head for the fresh fruits and veggies. Buy your bread from the fresh bakery section or bake your own (look for a cheap bread maker at your local thrift store).

Reusable options abound, from bringing a cloth or canvas bag on shopping trips to toting a stainless steel drink holder. Many grocery stores offer a small discount per reusable bag, and Starbucks similarly rewards customers who bring reusable coffee cups. Cloth bags and Tupperware containers are great for lunches and leftovers, and cloth napkins and kitchen towels eliminate the need for the plastic-wrapped paper kind.

If plastic containers are an absolute must, buying the largest size possible and keeping the container for future storage are two ways to reduce waste. For those old plastic bags you have been stashing under the sink, look for specially marked recycle bins at participating retailers.

Now that the gusher has been sealed, it is tempting to go back to my old ways, pushing aside the images of muck-covered wildlife. But I do not think I will ever return to my former pattern of careless consumption. Like a fish in the Pacific, I am ensnared in my own garbage patch, but – little by little – I am learning to break free.

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