Today is World Environment Day, first designated by the United Nations in 1974 to bring about awareness and to inspire people to take action to protect the environment. This year’s theme is plastic, so let’s talk a little about that.
Halfway between California and Hawaii, and floating just under the surface of the ocean is a soupy mix of trash and debris that has grown to more than twice the size of Texas. Known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, most of this mass of trash is made up of plastic water bottles and plastic shopping bags, and such things as toothbrushes, printer ink cartridges, syringes, and children’s toys. Most of this trash is generated onshore when discarded items find their way into sewers and storm drains and then are picked up by ocean currents that sweep it into the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre. This trash has been collecting there in a slowly swirling, ever-growing mass since the 1950s.
The garbage patch was discovered in 1997 by oceanographer Charles Moore. Since experts say that a lot of the debris is below the surface, what we can see is only part of the problem. Plastic has only been mass-produced since the 1940s so it is mind-blowing that our carelessness has created something like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch over the past 70 years or so.
The garbage patch is particularly dangerous to birds and marine life. An article on onegreenplanet.org describes how birds mistake pieces of plastic for fish eggs and feed them to their young. The plastic causes their organs to rupture, killing the baby birds. Fish and other marine life also mistake plastic for food and die after ingesting it.
Until recently, experts believed that cleaning up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch was just not an affordable option. But a 17 year-old from the Netherlands, Boyan Slat came up with a way to do it. Now four years and much fund-raising later, the clean-up is set to begin. It will involve U-shaped barriers suspended by floats which will cause the plastic to float to a point where it can be picked up. The plastic will then be moved onshore for recycling.
Some experts are saying that the clean-up project will fail, but here’s the thing…we have to try. And we have to do better when it comes to buying and disposing of plastic. Choose food products that come in glass bottles or jars rather than plastic whenever possible. Then re-use the empty glass jelly and salsa jars to store leftovers. Some glass containers such as Corning Ware, Pyrex, or Anchor Hocking have fitted lids and can go from the freezer to the oven or microwave. And you can usually pick them up for a fraction of the original cost at yard sales or in thrift stores.
Instead of buying single-use water bottles, invest in a stainless steel reusable water bottle. I’ve had one for years made by Subzero that was inexpensive and still doesn’t leak. Taking your own cloth bags to the grocery store and taking your own cup to the coffee shop to be refilled are just a couple of things we can do to cut down on plastic waste.
There will be times when you can’t avoid buying things that are packaged in plastic but before you buy, check to make sure the container can be recycled. The recycling symbol of 3 “chasing” arrows may or may not be stamped somewhere on the product along with a number, but most plastics can now be recycled. With some it is a more difficult process, so it is best to contact your local government offices to find out what can be recycled in your area.
In his book Made to Break: Technology and Obsolescence in America, Giles Slade discusses how industrial profit strategies have created a culture that encourages us to buy cheap products, toss them out, and then turn around and buy them again. And although manufacturers have made some changes in how plastic is produced, there are still many plastics that are health hazards. But that problem deserves a post of its own, so stay tuned…
Being more mindful about what we buy, how it is packaged, and what we do with the packaging when the thing is gone will cut down plastic waste considerably. And let’s not pre-judge the garbage patch clean-up project, doing something is always better than doing nothing at all. Good job Boyan Slat!